The RV Bandit who stole a million dollars, one wallet at a time

Yahoo Sports
The infield at Daytona International Speedway is full of RVs for the taking. (Getty Images)
The infield at Daytona International Speedway is full of RVs for the taking. (Getty Images)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Don’t steal.

But if you’re going to steal, don’t return to the same locations to commit your crimes. And if you’re going to return to the same locations, don’t keep souvenirs of your thefts. And if you’re going to keep souvenirs, for heaven’s sake don’t let yourself get caught on camera.

Because if you steal long enough, and you return to the same locations, and you keep souvenirs, and you get caught on camera … well, son, you’re pretty much screwed.

Ladies and gentlemen, we present the story of the RV Bandit. It’s a tale that spans decades, involving dozens of crime scenes at countless racetracks, hundreds of victims, one Hollywood star and one thorough ass-kicking. It’s a tale of a million-dollar heist, one wallet at a time. And naturally, it’s centered in Florida.

Five days before this year’s Daytona 500, the United States Secret Service presented the city of Daytona Beach with a check for $188,000. It marked one of the final chapters in a story that began more than a quarter-century ago in an infield in Daytona International Speedway. Or perhaps Atlanta Motor Speedway. Or maybe any of a dozen or so other racetracks across the country.

What’s known is this: Sometime in the late 1980s, a traveling salesman by the name of Steven Garry Sanders wandered into an empty RV or team hauler parked at a racetrack and pocketed a wallet. Then he did it again. And again. And again. Same routine, different track, month after month, year after year.

“Pick a raceway, he was there,” said Robert Fultz, a special agent with the U.S. Secret Service, “and he probably committed a burglary.”

Sanders is a tall, heavyset white guy, which means he was like hay in the haystack of a racetrack. Throngs of anonymous heavyset white guys roam the grounds of every track, some working security, some cleaning up, some helping the race teams, some hanging out and taking in the spectacle. And some taking much more than that.

Sanders’ routine was brilliant in its simplicity: First, visit a track during preliminaries or lower-level events, where security was lighter. Second, act like you belong; act like anywhere you are, that’s where you ought to be. Third, watch the crowd, and when race teams start moving toward the starting line for the beginning of the race, swoop in behind them and sneak into their RVs. Fourth, take advantage of systemic weaknesses for maximum profit.

RVs “are always unlocked, because you’ve got 25 or 30 guys going in and out all the time,” said Det. Scott Frantz of the Daytona Beach Police Department. “Firesuits don’t have pockets, so guys would leave their wallets, their Rolexes right there in the motorhome. [Sanders] would never grab anything like a laptop, nothing that he couldn’t fit into his pocket.”

Frantz began investigating Sanders as a patrolman on the Daytona Beach police department in the mid-1990s, working robbery detail at Daytona International Speedway. Sanders had been on the department’s radar for years; accurate police sketches already sat in the P.D.’s filing cabinets.

Track security everywhere from Daytona to Atlanta had suspicions – when you’ve got literally dozens of people every weekend reporting thefts, you know something’s up. But police could never catch Sanders, who threaded in and out of RVs and team haulers like a ghost, race after race, year after year.

Frantz began developing a profile of Sanders, hoping to figure out how exactly he was staying so far ahead of law enforcement. Up until 2000, Sanders used stolen credit cards to purchase merchandise like appliances and laptops. By 2000, the gift card economy was in full swing, and Sanders altered his approach, flipping plastic to plastic. And when it became clear he was crossing state lines, Frantz brought Fultz and the Secret Service on board.

“He would buy gift cards at a Wal-Mart near Daytona, then launder them at a Wal-Mart in Jacksonville,” Fultz said. “He would exchange them for smaller and smaller values. And the trail would always end somewhere in Georgia.”

Steven G. Sanders (Alachua County Sheriff’s Department)
Steven G. Sanders (Alachua County Sheriff’s Department)

Frantz and Fultz also had a sense of what Sanders looked like, thanks to security cameras that caught his transactions. Cameras in Daytona Beach caught Sanders at stores including Publix, Dillard’s and Wal-Mart using stolen cards to purchase gift cards, bottled water and necessities like an 18-pack of beer. At one point, Sanders also somehow managed to spend $55 at a McDonald’s in Deltona, which is a feat in itself.

By 2012, Frantz and Fultz had made Sanders their mission, even if they didn’t know his name. They staked out the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, held that year on Jan. 28-29. They knew Sanders would be working the crowd, and so they were there, eyes open, watching and waiting.

And then the burglary calls began coming.

“We were right there!” Frantz said. “It was happening as we were there at the track!”

Frantz and Fultz began interviewing victims. During one interview, one victim’s bank called with an incredible tip: someone was using the stolen credit card, right then, at the Wal-Mart in Ormond Beach, just seven miles up the road from the track.

Could this be it? Would the detective and the special agent finally nail the man who’d vexed them for years? They reached out to Wal-Mart’s loss prevention team and tried to get them to hold Sanders, but by the time they arrived, he was gone. They reviewed security tape and discovered an even more infuriating truth.

“While we were walking in one door, he was walking out another,” Frantz said. “He wasn’t hours or minutes ahead of us. He was feet away from us.”

“Bad-guy luck,” Fultz said.

You can imagine the fury and cursing that followed. To be so close, to be in the same store as their quarry …

The next major race in the area was the NHRA Gatornationals, held at Gainesville Raceway on March 8, about a hundred miles northwest of Daytona. Frantz and Fultz figured they’d start getting word of burglaries there soon enough. What they didn’t count on was a 90-second video that would prove critical.

As cars rocketed down the raceway, Sanders once again crept into drivers’ motorhomes. This time around, he stole six credit cards and $202 in cash from one. He pilfered a wallet with $700 in cash from another. He snagged $1,500 in cash from a third.

Then he entered a brown-and-beige-toned American Eagle RV, and that’s where everything turned hard south for Sanders. Wearing a navy blue ballcap and golf shirt, he poked around the front of the RV, then edged his way to the door, carrying a rag in his hand. He then took one more look around inside the RV, put on his sunglasses and walked down the stairs out of the RV, wiping down the door handle as he went.

We know all this because a gentleman named Christopher DePascale was right next door, using his phone to film Sanders’ every move.

But Sanders wasn’t done, and neither was DePascale. Sanders left the first motor home, owned by DePascale’s friend Matt Cooke, walked around the front of DePascale’s Monaco Knight motor home as DePascale filmed from inside. Then, as DePascale sat within, Sanders crept into DePascale’s RV.

“Yes?” DePascale said as Sanders came into view.

Without missing a beat, Sanders lifted a phone. “Found a cell phone,” he said, not explaining why he’d just happened to casually walk right into an RV not his own.

“Ain’t mine,” DePascale said, and Sanders laughed.

“Found it right out here,” Sanders said, and left the phone with DePascale.

“That was his move,” Fultz said. “He always had a prop he would carry with him, a tool or a phone, something he could use to make it look like he was just trying to return a lost item.”

This time, the move failed. As soon as Sanders left, Depascale located Cooke, and the two chased down Sanders. Cooke, at least 40 pounds smaller than Sanders, nonetheless wrapped him up like a scrappy cornerback looking to take down a bruising fullback. DePascale screamed for onlookers to call the police, and then came in for the takedown.

A crowd of several dozen quickly gathered around the three men. “What are you doing?” one shouted, seeing what appeared to be two young men going to work, hard, on an older gentleman.

DePascale reached into Sanders’ pocket and withdrew wallets and credit cards. “He’s been stealing from all of you!” DePascale shouted. That turned the crowd to his favor in a hurry.

“The fans found him and put a little street justice on him,” said Art Forcey, public information officer for Alachua County, Fla. “They got a hold of him and pretty well put a beat-down on him before contacting us.”

An NHRA official who was also an off-duty cop arrived and subdued Sanders until police could arrive. But the fans had administered racetrack justice with enough force that Sanders needed to go to Gainesville’s Shands Hospital; his booking shot shows his bruised face and the neck brace he needed to wear after his victims got through with him.

“That’s the price you pay when you’re going around committing crimes,” Daytona Beach Police Chief Mike Chitwood said at the time.

At the hospital, a police officer spoke to Sanders, who initially gave his name as “Mr. Parker.” The net closing in, Sanders began to twitch.

“Every question he was asked about his personal information, he would hesitate to give, and then, if he gave any information, he would let his voice trail off,” Officer Clare M. Noble wrote in Sanders’ arrest report. “He gave two false names and a false address which cost this writer approximately three hours of investigation time.”

But eventually, Sanders surrendered to the inevitable. Alachua County police seized his vehicle – seeing as how it was used in the commission of a crime – and evidence within led Alachua to bring in the Daytona Beach Police Department, the Hall County (Ga.) Sheriff’s Office, the Highlands County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office and Charlotte, N.C. police. Each jurisdiction had an active investigation involving Sanders, and each jurisdiction pounced.

Fultz and Frantz interviewed Sanders in Gainesville, and found him less than cooperative. (Sanders didn’t believe Frantz was really a Secret Service agent, which earned Frantz plenty of grief from wise guys back at the office.) But when they listened to Sanders’ calls to his family in Macon, they discerned that he appeared to be using coded terminology, directing family members to conceal evidence. Fultz and Frantz followed the trail back to Sanders’ home, and what they found there stunned them.

“There were truckloads, and I do mean truckloads, of stolen merchandise,” Frantz said. “You know how when you buy a computer it’s out of date right after you buy it? There was a closet full of computers, still unopened in boxes, the receipts right there.” They seized Rolexes, cash, merchandise, and an estimated $130,000 – six figures – in gift cards.

And then they found the journal.

Since 1996, Sanders had kept a meticulous journal documenting his crimes. Each page included a listing of each event he’d visited – 24 Hours of Daytona, Gatornationals, and so on – as well as two columns labeled “C” and “M.” “C” stood for cash, “M” for merchandise like watches, money clips and so on, as well as the merchandise he’d purchase with stolen cards, like cameras, ties and computers. He also wrote the date and location of the theft on the credit cards he’d stolen.

“He was like any kind of serial criminal, tracking his crimes like that,” Frantz said. “And he kept trophies.” Sanders’ collection included – of all things – a credential once held by Patrick Dempsey, “McDreamy” of “Grey’s Anatomy” fame. Dempsey, an accomplished racer, drove in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona over several years.

The journal allowed the detectives to get an estimated total of how much Sanders stole over the course of his “career”: more than $1 million.

In all, Sanders either documented or was suspected of committing crimes literally nationwide, with tracks in California, Nevada, Wisconsin, Virginia, New York, Alabama, and Georgia all suffering thefts similar to Sanders’ style. (In a savvy bit of police sleuthing, Frantz and Fultz matched up expense reports Sanders filed at his traveling-salesman day job – lunch on the road at a Subway, say – to tracks which reported thefts, establishing his proximity at the time of the crime.)

The very nature of Sanders’ crimes – small-scale theft, repeated ad infinitum for decades – could have led unwary prosecutors to underestimate the extent and severity of the operation. The crimes stretched for miles, but only a few inches deep. So Frantz and Fultz attended hearing after hearing – up to 40 in all – determined not to let Sanders slip the net once again.

“[Sanders’ defense] tried to portray this as the equivalent of a criminal tugging on car doors and grabbing change,” said Tammy Jaques, the Volusia County state’s attorney who prosecuted a successful case against Sanders. “This was much more sophisticated than that. This was invading the privacy of an area that was essentially home for these racers: They ate there, they slept there. You have a greater expectation of privacy in your dwelling than in your vehicle.”

Manatee County (Fla.), home of several of Sanders’ thefts, got the first conviction, sentencing him to five years. Last year, Jaques won a 10-year conviction, plus five years of probation – to be served once Sanders finishes his five-year Manatee sentence later this year. Sanders is currently 56 years old, and there are still several jurisdictions which could seek their own restitution.

The moral of the story? Crime can pay … but justice always comes to collect. Sometimes, with force.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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