Two detectives walk into a café in Helena. They remove their sunglasses. They dislodge the chaw from their cheeks. "We don't flash our badges till we get the food," Lawrence tells me. The other day, a Montana cop got a little surprise in his drive-through.
Listening to Detectives Chad Lawrence and Randy Ranalli talk about their recent criminal apprehension is like listening to the cops in Fargo. There's a certain amazement, a perverse sense of honor, that an arch-fiend wandered into their corner of the world.
Ranalli: "It was like, 'Oh my Lord, we caught this guy red-handed.'"
Lawrence: "It was one of the most bizarre things I've seen!"
It was October 28, 2011. A hotel clerk called in the tip. A guest named Sherwin Shayegan, the clerk said, seemed oddly familiar. Sherwin asked for the hotel's courtesy van to drive him to a boys' soccer tournament. "Honestly, it's a Friday," Lawrence says. "We're like, 'What the hell, let's get out of the office and watch a little soccer.'"
Before leaving, they Googled Sherwin's name. It was like — Ranalli's word — "Boom!" The detectives found stories that made Morganna, the Kissing Bandit, look like an amateur. Sherwin had gone to cities and towns just like Helena. He sought out high school athletes. Then Sherwin did a super-creepy thing to them.
As the detectives drove to the soccer fields, Ranalli called a cop in Washington and heard another story about Sherwin. The previous year, he'd called an 18-year-old football player and lured him to the town library. Did Sherwin do his super-creepy thing? Yes, the cop said, he did.
Helena's Siebel Fields are right off Custer Avenue. The detectives parked next to the dome shaped like a soccer ball. Then they split up to find their man.
Ranalli spotted Sherwin first. Sherwin had dark, curly hair and olive skin. He was hefty. "I think my man was like 260!" Lawrence says. Underneath his blue sweatsuit, Sherwin was wearing a T-shirt onto which he'd scrawled the words "CMR Varsity Boys Soccer." C.M. Russell, a high school in Great Falls, Montana, was one of the teams playing in the game.
When the final whistle blew, the detectives watched as Sherwin hurried onto the field and approached a C.M. Russell player. He said a few words to the player and gave him a fist bump. Then Sherwin did his super-creepy thing: As the player walked away, Sherwin heaved his girth onto the player's back. He wanted a piggyback ride.
Lawrence: "You'll never forget watching him get off that kid's back and the look on his face. He could have been masturbating. Honestly, that's the look on his face. Am I wrong?"
Lawrence: "Like euphoria. Ahhhhh."
It was a little bit of euphoria for the detectives, too. It's not every day you get a strange tip, locate the suspect within minutes, and then watch him commit the crime. Ranalli speed-walked onto the field. Lawrence came from the opposite side.
"Sherwin!" Ranalli yelled.
The man spun around. His smile disappeared.
Ranalli yelled, "You're the Piggyback Bandit!"
One black, rainy morning, I trudge up the steps to Inglemoor High School in suburban Seattle. I've barely shaken myself dry in the main office when the principal holds out the 2001 yearbook and says, "Sherwin Shayegan."
The Piggyback Bandit doesn't make many appearances in his senior yearbook — until you flip to the photos of the sports teams. There, with the Vikings varsity soccer team, you can see Sherwin, almost invisible in the back left row. He was the manager. Sherwin was manager of the JV soccer team, too. You can see Sherwin in the track and field photo. He was the manager of the football team.
Though his exploits have been chronicled everywhere from Deadspin to the Daily Mail, the Piggyback Bandit has retained an aura of mystery. Sherwin Shayegan was born on March 31, 1981. His parents, Mohammad and Rana, are of Iranian descent. Sherwin's mother says her son has Asperger's syndrome, which is on the autism spectrum. This is important to understanding the Bandit — Sherwin has an astounding recall for athletes' names and, as you'll see, an ability to navigate the American heartland that would impress the editors of Lonely Planet.
Sherwin stood out at Inglemoor High — with a name like Sherwin, his classmate Michele Schott says, how could he not? But what Sherwin really loved was managing the football team. "It helped him get into the social norm," Schott explains. It made a kid with Asperger's feel he belonged. On Fridays, Vikings players would wear suits to school, and Sherwin would wear one right along with them.
"He was never one to get in the way," says A.J. Gazes, a former Vikings lineman who now works at a health club near Inglemoor. Sherwin embedded so perfectly with the team that Gazes finds it hard to remember what he did, exactly. He gave the Vikings water during their 2000 conference title run. He was in the locker room while they dressed. "Always high fives," Gazes says. "That was his trademark."
Gazes can't remember Sherwin asking for piggyback rides. But Randy Ranalli says, "When he was the manager of the football team was when he started receiving piggybacks. He told us that's when it all started."
While he was at Inglemoor, Sherwin worked part-time at a local clothing store. I ask his former boss, who requested to not be named because he worried it could reflect poorly on his business, if Sherwin had boundless energy. "No," the boss says, "but he was definitely somebody that every minute we had to identify where he was to make sure he was on path." Once, the boss left Sherwin alone in the stockroom, and returned to find dozens of pairs of shoes had been taken out of their boxes and re-laced. "If no one told him to stop vacuuming, he would vacuum for eight hours," the boss says.
"Put it this way," Sherwin's boss continues. "You know Of Mice and Men? He's your Lennie. He doesn't want to hurt the mouse, but he doesn't know any better."
Sherwin graduated from Inglemoor High in 2001. The football coach at nearby Ballard High School did him a favor and made him graduate manager to the Beavers. "I can't put my finger on it," says Paul Huenefeldt, a family friend, "whether it's autism or there's something lacking in terms of his emotional development. But he's stuck in a time warp in terms of being an adolescent and wanting to be accepted and be a part of something."
Sherwin's transformation from a team manager into the Piggyback Bandit began a few years later. That's when the pillars of Sherwin's life — the things that kept him lodged in the social norm — began to crumble. Sherwin's parents divorced; his big brother Shahrooz, a military doctor, moved away. Sherwin was too disabled to get through college (he lasted less than a year at a local community college) and too high-functioning to live in a group home. With a few hundred bucks a month he got in partial disability — and probably some money kicked in from his mom — Sherwin hit the road.
Sports fans in Washington started to see Sherwin everywhere. Mike Colbrese, a state athletics official, met Sherwin when he sidled up to Colbrese at a high school basketball tournament and asked to be a water boy. "He doesn't protract any conversation," says Colbrese. Sherwin would ask a question and then melt back into the crowd. Soon, Sherwin was nabbing piggyback rides from teams like a Spokane squad that won two state titles and included John Stockton's nephew.
Kenneth Krick, the owner of Hi Tech Screen Graphics in Tacoma, spotted Sherwin at soccer tournaments, basketball tournaments, even swim meets. "No girlfriend," Krick remembers. "No wife. Not even a buddy. Just a total loner. I was telling my wife, 'This just ain't right.' He just didn't seem right."
Over the next few years, Sherwin was "trespassed" — a term used by law enforcement to mean "officially banned," with which he would soon become familiar — from drugstores and chain restaurants for a variety of small-time offenses. A typical police report from the period describes Sherwin outside a Mount Vernon, Washington, Safeway with a purloined bottle of Axe body spray. But Sherwin's piggybacking rarely got him arrested. While leaping on someone's back could constitute assault, Sherwin's victims often found him too harmless, or the whole situation too embarrassing, to call the cops. More often, Sherwin would be chased out of town, and then he'd go looking for piggyback rides somewhere else.
On September 14, 2009, Sherwin was in Bonney Lake, Washington, a town of 17,000. Using the name "Dale," he called a high school football player and asked to interview him. When they met at the town library, Sherwin handed the player six pages of printed questions like: "What is your dream car and why?"
After the player dutifully wrote down his answers, Sherwin handed him another questionnaire. It read: "Now I got some funny questions for you but don't laugh." The "funny" questions included:
Have you ever farted during a football game or practice?
Have you ever pissed your pants during a football game or practice?
"At that point," the player wrote in a witness statement, "I realized there was something mentally wrong with the guy." As the player was leaving the library, Sherwin jumped on his back for a piggyback ride.
Sherwin was charged with fourth-degree assault.1 "He didn't know what he was doing," explains Craig Plummer, a friend and school security officer who helped Sherwin surrender to the police. "He was just making up dumb questions. He didn't know what to ask." As the police noted in their report, "He stated he just wants to be friends with the athletes." Sherwin was trespassed from state tournaments in Washington and his photo was posted at ticket booths.
Sherwin went south. He was spotted at games around Oregon — in Pendleton, Corvallis, Eugene — looking for piggyback rides. On April 7, 2010, the Oregon School Activities Association announced it was trespassing Sherwin, too. Banned in two states!
The Piggyback Bandit might have remained a Northwest oddity. But like the Barefoot Bandit, he did something remarkable. Sherwin left his home in the Seattle suburbs, bought a fistful of bus tickets, and went east. He piggybacked his way across Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, even Illinois. "We're 30 miles from downtown Chicago," says one coach who was recently visited by the Bandit. The journey Sherwin embarked on in February, an epic, 3,000-mile round trip, is one I'm determined to retrace. By talking to the Bandit's victims, I want to discover just how Sherwin pulled it off.
And why. I tell Sherwin's old boss at the clothing store that Sherwin seemed like he was trying to re-create his time at Inglemoor High. He was trying to find a way to rejoin the social norm. Sherwin Shayegan wanted to become the team manager to America.
"You're getting the picture," the boss says. "It's almost a cry for help."
Sherwin returned to Helena on February 1. He was due to appear in court after his arrest by Detectives Lawrence and Ranalli back in October. But Sherwin was really using the city as an embarkation point for his new piggybacking trip. Lawrence and Ranalli had discovered a number of fascinating things about Sherwin. They say he traveled without ID and without a cell phone.2 He carried only cash — though perhaps not much, because before his arrest in Helena, other cops discovered Sherwin panhandling near a Burger King.
The detectives also found that Sherwin's choice of sporting events — mostly basketball, soccer, lacrosse, and hockey games — was anything but random. Upon opening the door to his hotel room, Ranalli says, they discovered piles of dossiers he'd prepared on athletes. Sherwin had ransacked the Internet to find biographical tidbits about high school soccer players from Washington and Montana. He'd catalogued the favorite foods of Brandon Brown, the point guard for the Montana Western basketball team. "That's public information!" Sherwin told the detectives. "I can have that!"
Everywhere he went, the Piggyback Bandit had a knack for targeting the best player on the field. In Helena, I go to the office of the local paper, the Independent Record, to see how he did it. I open the sports page from October 27 — the day Sherwin would have gotten into town — and find an article about the soccer player Sherwin targeted. The top sports story in the next day's Record — published the day Sherwin was arrested — reported that the same player had gotten a red card. According to Lawrence and Ranalli, Sherwin had that fact at the ready when he met the player on the field. He'd studied his target so he'd have something to talk about.
At a hotel not far from the field, I meet Elise Whittle, the hotel worker who tipped off the Helena police when she thought Sherwin seemed familiar. Two years ago, Whittle was working at a hotel in Clackamas, Oregon. Sherwin walked in asking for a ride to a boys' basketball tournament. "I'm not supposed to go to them," he volunteered. Whittle called the cops. In February, Whittle was floored when Sherwin walked into her life again, at a hotel 500 miles away from Clackamas. She called the police a second time. "I feel like a freaking hero," she says wryly.
Lawrence and Ranalli wanted to bust Sherwin for a sex crime. "I accused him of liking little boys and everything," Lawrence says. Sherwin angrily denied it. After asking some uncomfortable questions of his piggybacking victims — did you, uh, feel anything? — the detectives decided they didn't have evidence and gave up. "We have nothing other than a gut feeling that it's sexually motivated," Lawrence says.
Before he returned to Helena for his day in court, Sherwin quizzed Luke Berger, the deputy city attorney, about how much time he might spend in jail. Berger, a friendly, outdoorsy-looking man with a thick beard, was puzzled. Then he figured out what Sherwin was up to. "He was trying to plan his schedule," Berger says.
One morning, Berger shows me into a cramped courtroom in the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse. This is where Sherwin stood on February 1, pleading guilty to the assault charge. But despite the plea, the judge waived jail time and told Sherwin to "go back to Seattle and behave himself." Sherwin looked confused by the sentence, Berger says. Then he looked elated.
Ahead of schedule, Sherwin headed east, to North Dakota.
Sherwin's first stop in Bismarck was at a hockey game. Jim Haussler, a school administrator, spotted him at the All Seasons Arena on the afternoon of February 4. After the game, Sherwin got a piggyback ride from one of the players. He convinced a fan to give him a lift to a basketball game across town. When I ask Haussler why someone would give a ride to a stranger who was central casting's ideal of a suspicious character, Haussler says, "We're North Dakotans."
A few thousand fans had packed into Century High School's gym that night to see the Patriots, the defending state champs, take on the St. Mary's Saints. Sherwin snapped into action. Just like at Inglemoor, he became the St. Mary's team manager. He produced cups and trays and served water to the players. At halftime, he straightened the St. Mary's warm-ups on the bench.
Sherwin was focusing his attention on the road team. This is another part of the Bandit's modus operandi. "He slides through the cracks that way," explains Jim Cella, the sports information director for Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, who encountered Sherwin later on the trip. At a place like Century High, vigilant parents tend to eyeball everyone who walks into the gym. By sticking with the road team, Sherwin defuses their suspicions. The road team, on the other hand, assumes he's with the home side. St. Mary's coach Joe Mueller figured Sherwin was sent by Pride, Inc., a local organization that helps the mentally disabled.
Darin Mattern, the head basketball coach at Century High, drives me to the gym one morning so we can re-create Sherwin's Bismarck caper. Mattern has black, spiky hair and likes to end sentences in a questioning "huh?" About the Bandit: "Loves sports, huh?" On February 4, Mattern was coaching so hard he didn't even see Sherwin. "I don't really pay a whole lot of attention to my surroundings," he says, glancing at my notepad. "Best way to put it."
The Bandit's road team strategy was working perfectly that night. He had free run of the St. Mary's players. "At halftime," Joe Mueller says, "he apparently was in our locker room handing out water."
Mattern and I walk into a narrow hallway outside the Century High gym. "Home of the Patriots" is stenciled on the wall in red letters. In all of the Bandit's travels, only one known photograph has captured him in the act. "That was exactly right here," Mattern says, positioning himself under the security camera.
The photograph shows Sherwin wearing a full basketball jersey. Disguise is another part of his MO, a physical expression of Sherwin's desire to belong. But Sherwin — who in other aspects of his piggybacking capers can seem brilliant — will never be mistaken for Fletch. The jersey he wore said "Cats" instead of Patriots. It was red and white instead of red, white, and blue. Moreover, Coach Mattern notes, if you look at the photo, Sherwin's costume change was disastrously mistimed. Sherwin changed after the game, when the Patriots had already changed back into their shirts and ties.
After home games, the players and their families typically gather in the school cafeteria for a social. That's when Sherwin struck — this time, without an introduction. "One of the players was walking," Mattern says, "and supposedly the individual jumped on his back to get a piggyback ride."
How'd the player react? I ask him. "I don't think he knew what to do," Mattern says. "He felt quite awkward."
The player wasn't hurt and — as is usually the case with Sherwin — no charges were filed. Coach Mattern isn't particularly angry about the incident, though he does worry about the physics of the Bandit. "You've got a large amount of weight on your back when you're not expecting it — there's always a chance of injury there," he says. He regards Sherwin as a strange interloper, like an out-of-town comedian who bombs at a club. "Just blows it off and moves on, huh?" Mattern says.
Yes, I reply. After Bismarck, Sherwin went to Fargo.
"Actually, it happened right here," says Dan Shultis. "Room 102. It was November 3."
I'm three hours down Interstate 94. I'm listening to another bemused basketball coach talk about his encounter with the Bandit. Shultis, who coaches at Fargo North High, witnessed Sherwin's perhaps greatest caper. In Fargo, he didn't crash a basketball game. He crashed a basketball orientation — a get-to-know-you session for Spartans players.
"I had 55 kids in the room, possibly 60," Shultis says. "This gentleman walks in the door and stands in the back." Sherwin was a decade older than most of the players.
"As soon as I finish," Shultis continues, "he ran up to me. He had a wad of cash in his hand. It was rolled up and on the outside was a $20 bill. I said, 'Whoa, what's your name?!' He told me he was a North graduate and wanted to donate to the program."
The cash donation is another Bandit trick. When Sherwin lured the player to the Bonney Lake library in 2010, police say, he offered him four envelopes full of cash that totaled $90.81. "I thought it felt fishy," Shultis says of Sherwin's donation. "I walked him outside the room and proceeded to ask him questions. I said, 'Let's go have a visit with our athletic director, Mr. Cody.'" Neither Troy Cody nor Shultis really believed Sherwin's tale about being a philanthropic North grad. But they decided if he wanted to give the basketball team money, they wouldn't stop him.
Sherwin, meanwhile, had prepared another diversion. "He explained to me that he was a Special Olympian," Shultis says. "There was some basketball game he was going to play in. He really wanted to wear North High gear." Sherwin often used Asperger's syndrome to explain his actions, most recently to Lawrence and Ranalli in Helena. But in Fargo, Sherwin adopted it as an integral part of his cover story. Shultis, still not believing the tale, obligingly gave Sherwin a North High jersey and shorts.
At that point, Shultis went back to Room 102 to continue the orientation. Sherwin, who had already invested $80 in basketball donations and an untold amount of time on his cover story, decided to strike. "He waited outside our room," Shultis says. "Then he jumped on back of one of my freshman players. He proceeded to yell, 'Wheeeee!'" Then Sherwin vanished.
That was November 3. Fast-forward to February 8, on the Bandit's grand road trip. Sherwin was spotted that night across the Minnesota state line, at a college basketball game between the Concordia Cobbers and the St. Olaf Oles. When Sherwin tried to become the Oles' team manager, he was shooed away by Jim Cella, Concordia's sports information director.3 A while later, Sherwin walked to Applebee's. He asked a diner to borrow a phone. The diner was Dan Shultis, the Fargo North coach.
"Remember me?" Shultis asked him.
Sherwin looked shocked. "I know you?"
That chance reunion must have triggered a pang of remorse in Sherwin, because the next morning, some three months after he crashed the orientation, he was back at Fargo North High School. "Sherwin shows up in our principal's office," Shultis says, "sitting in a chair with a typed-up apology letter."
Sherwin has been known to apologize for his actions. He'd expressed regret to Jo Austin, a Montana school official, after the detectives caught him in Helena. "I think he does have a moral compass," Sherwin's friend Paul Huenefeldt says. But it isn't until I read Sherwin's Fargo North letter that I begin to see in which direction that compass points. The letter, which I haven't edited, begins:
I would like to appoligize to you guys I made a mistake and I hope you guys will forgive me but after I am done talking to you guys you guys will probably trespass me like 98% of schools and school districts did in Washington, Oregon, and Montana.
Sherwin's trespass list is heartbreaking. But there's a certain caginess at work, too. Sherwin was trespassed in Montana back in October. When he returned to the state in February, he didn't seek out any piggyback rides. But as soon as Sherwin crossed the state line into North Dakota, where he hadn't been trespassed, he went right back to piggybacking.
Sherwin goes on to apologize for his cover story. The Special Olympics bit, he admits, was a ruse. Sherwin's letter ends:
[W]eather you guys trespass me or not I probably don't think after today it will be a good idea for me to come to your campus.
The Piggyback Bandit has trespassed himself! Two forces seem to be warring within Sherwin: a need to be liked by athletes and a fear of being punished by adults. It's as if Sherwin is searching for his missing friends and his missing father. A few weeks after delivering the note to Fargo North, Sherwin mailed a box to the school. It contained the jersey and shorts he'd procured from Dan Shultis.
But there was a larger purpose behind the Bandit's apology. It was a distraction. "He was supposed to go back to Washington," Shultis says. "Instead, he took a bus to St. Cloud."
Sherwin's trip derailed in a Minnesota town about an hour and a half outside the Twin Cities. St. Cloud looks like any number of places Sherwin had visited. It has nice folks, a lively high school sports scene, and a bus station. But the people of St. Cloud had gotten wise.
At eight o'clock one morning, I meet Michael Mullin, the president of Cathedral High School, on the front steps of his school. Mullin, who has a gray beard and the charm of a country schoolmaster, is a little embarrassed about providing a forensic re-creation of Bandit's caper. "This seems silly to me," he says as we walk to the gym. "But this is the door he came in." It was February 9 — just a day after Sherwin sat in the principal's office in Fargo. Cathedral High had a basketball game against Albany Area High, and Joe Burt, a Cathedral guard, was set to break the school's career scoring record. In back issues of the St. Cloud Times, I can't find advance mention of Burt's feat. So it's unclear if Sherwin went to St. Cloud to witness history or merely to catch a game.
By this point, the Piggyback Bandit had caused a regional panic. The same day he arrived in St. Cloud, North Dakota became the fourth state to trespass Sherwin. And now, cops were tracking him. When the Fargo police discovered which bus Sherwin had taken out of town, Andy Dahlen, the principal at Fargo North High, called a friend in St. Cloud. On February 9, teachers around town were shown Sherwin's mug shot and told to keep a lookout.
Sherwin probably had no idea he'd been made. That night, he walked through the gym door, past St. Cloud's crowded trophy cases, and bought a $6 ticket from a science teacher, Erik Ellingboe.
Sherwin took a seat on the near side of the court. "One thing I noticed that seemed strange," Mullin remembers, "is that he had a cloth-covered diary, 8½-by-11-inch size, and had begun to write in it." The diary might have included the names of the player or players Sherwin intended to meet.
After Sherwin walked into the gym, Ellingboe alerted Mike Mullin. A mere 20 or 30 seconds later, Mullin appeared before Sherwin. In his administrator's voice, Mullin said, "Sir, we're going to have to ask you to leave."
"I just got here!" Sherwin exclaimed.
But Sherwin's authority-fearing side kicked in. He didn't put up a fight. He was led out of the gym by a posse of Cathedral faculty members and parents, which grew to about seven or eight by the time they got Sherwin to the front door. Someone walked back to the till to refund the six dollars Sherwin had paid for the ticket.
Perhaps because Sherwin's stay was so brief, and because it didn't include a piggyback ride, Mullin feels a little guilty about the preemptive strike. "He bought a ticket to a basketball game and was exhibiting proper behavior," he says. "He wasn't doing a darn thing wrong." But by this point, Sherwin had gone from being an oddity to an official menace. The next day, February 10, Sherwin was trespassed from high school sporting events in Minnesota. He'd been banned in five states — numerically speaking, in one-tenth of the country.
Three nights after the incident at Cathedral High, Maija Jenson, a radio-station program director, spotted Sherwin. He was in Duluth, two hours northeast of St. Cloud, at the roller derby.4 Jenson remembers Sherwin edging close to her and her friends, as if he wanted to join the conversation but didn't quite know how. The general manager of the roller derby couldn't confirm Jenson's account. But it's important to know the general manager's name is Red Malicious.
The Piggyback Bandit's road trip was finished. On the bus ride back to Washington, which on Greyhound would have lasted nearly two days and required four transfers, Sherwin was devastated. "This last time he called me," says his friend Paul Huenefeldt, "he was on the bus on the way back, and I've never heard him so down in my life."
An Associated Press story made Sherwin famous and turned him into fodder for "News of the Weird." According to Huenefeldt, Sherwin took cover in the Seattle suburbs and searched for a job. His family remained silent. But one afternoon, I reach Sherwin's mother, Rana.
At first, Rana insists that the Piggyback Bandit is a media invention. "I don't understand why they're making up this kind of story," she says. "He is not a piggyback rider, so far as we know."
But when I press her, Rana admits, "He is a really, really big sports fan. He knows all the players' names. He knows the score." She claims that Sherwin never hurt anybody in his life. And then, in a voice reserved for a plea for mercy, she adds, "As a mother, I have to tell you he is a very good person."
Sherwin hadn't managed to re-create his life at Inglemoor High. He was a pariah now rather than a pal. He was more likely to get a trespass order than a high five. But as Paul Huenefeldt explains, this distinction probably mattered less to Sherwin. His condition consigned him to live on the sidelines, peering longingly at the world beyond. The Piggyback Bandit wasn't about making friends. It was about Sherwin announcing his existence. "It gets back to, 'Oh, somebody cares about me,'" Huenefeldt says. "'Somebody knows there's a Sherwin out there.'"
A few months pass without a peep. I call Huenefeldt back. "He's traveling again," Huenefeldt says. He has heard Sherwin's excited voice calling in from parts unknown. "He gets on those doggone buses and he takes off and goes places," Huenefeldt says. "We'll see what the future brings. I don't think we've heard the last of him."
Sherwin Shayegan is back on a bus, rolling through the American heartland. Soon, he'll probably be standing at the edge of a field. He wants to be America's team manager, and he'll never understand why we can't love him back.