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DENVER -- The Denver7 Investigates team discovered that patrons to Elitch Gardens can quickly become theft victims if they're not paying attention.
Data and records obtained by Denver7 show nearly two dozen reported thefts at the park since the beginning of the season. Nearly a third of them occurred outside of one ride in particular -- the Mind Eraser roller coaster.
"It's the most popular ride in the park," Shepard Saabye, one of the teenage victims said.
Saabye and his teenage sister, both from Monument, said thieves stole roughly $1,600 worth of their belongings that they placed inside of a backpack -- two iPhones, a wallet and more.
"Within an hour of us being there, our stuff was stolen," he said.
They were aboard the Mind Eraser at the time of the theft in late June. They said the park removed free cubbies that used to be on the coaster's platform and instead ask riders to pay for $2, one-time use lockers toward the ride's entrance.
Riders are told not to carry any loose objects while aboard the ride.
Left without the ability to pay for a locker, the Saabyes said they set their bag in front of the lockers like roughly a dozen other people had done. When they returned roughly 25 minutes later, their bag was gone.
"We were able to track it on somebody else's phone leaving the park," he said, referring to the GPS-tracking app he had installed on his phone that was in the bag. The tracking app stopped functioning moments later, which indicated that the thieves powered down the phone.
Denver7 had received tips about the theft issue over the last month and a half.
In an effort to determine if the issue was as severe as viewers indicated, the Denver7 Investigates team placed a backpack in the same area as the Saabyes had set down their bag. Within 15 minutes, thieves moved in.
"Hey man, yo, can I get my bag back?" a Denver7 photojournalist is heard saying on an undercover camera as he retrieved the bag.
The man who was wearing Denver7's backpack refused to answer any questions, but did return the bag. The man who was walking with him, carrying another backpack, swatted at an iPhone Denver7 was also using to record the encounter.
No one from Elitch Gardens approached Denver7 during the exchange.
Minutes later, teenager Trashan Ward from Miami, said someone stole his backpack too.
"What's the purpose of having a ride knowing that people are going to have bags, and you're making someone pay for a locker," he said.
A security officer in the area told Ward that he was unaware of any repeat theft issues despite the fact Elitch's has a large sign placed in the area saying it is not, in any way, responsible for lost or stolen belongings.
The Saabyes believe the park needs to make more of an effort to improve security. They say the new, one-time use lockers are not the solution especially since a single day pass to the park is $54.99 at the gate for people more than four feet in height.
"I understand that my kids had a responsibility to try to safeguard their property, and that they own some of this responsibility," father Eric Saabye said. "But this was really, when you looked at it objectively, it was set-up almost perfectly for a thief to operate."
Denver7 Investigates uncovered 19 thefts reported to Denver police at Elitch's since April. Five of the reports specifically mention the Mind Eraser. The Saabye family's report did not. Denver7 did not file a theft report.
Denver7 asked to conduct an on-camera interview with an Elitch Gardens manager to understand how the park might improve security, but a park spokesperson declined.
In a statement, the spokesperson said:
"The safety and security of our guests and employees are our top priority at Elitch Gardens and to help achieve this we employ uniformed security officers, off-duty Denver police officers and undercover agents. Unfortunately, theft is a risk whenever one leaves valuables unattended in any public place. When it occurs on our property, it concerns us greatly and we work diligently with our security team to try and recover lost items. At Elitch Gardens, where we serve over one million guests annually, we recommend that patrons make use of available secure lockers and never leave anything of value unattended. Both full day lockers and ride lockers are available for this reason. We implemented a cashless wristband service this season for guests to make purchases while in the park simply by swiping a wrist band, therefore eliminating the need to carry cash. In an attempt to improve security, this season the park also installed secure, one-time use, $2 lockers at the entrance to the Mind Eraser that guests may rent to store and secure valuables while enjoying the ride. The park also offers free, non-secure cubbies for items not of value such as flip-flops, towels and drinks. Signage located above these free cubbies communicates that items placed in these cubbies are not secure."
"It looks like they may have made the situation worse," Eric Saabye said.
In an email to Saabye, Elitch Gardens Operations Manager Patrick MacFarlane had said, in part, that the $2 lockers were put in place "to reduce ride downtime."
He further said, referring to the old cubbies, that "our capacity has increased without the loose articles on the [roller coaster] platform."
Saabye had requested the park reimburse him 50 percent of the value of the stolen items, but MacFarlane refused.
"I do not ever plan on going back just because it's run so poorly and not in a way that's built for us," Shepard Saabye said.
"I'm not going to send my kids back to a place where obviously no one is monitoring the crowds or the safety of the park...visitors," Eric Saabye said. "So, if that's how they treat that one instance, what else are they doing or not doing?"