A stocky man shows up in a basketball uniform for a game at Century High School in North Dakota. Players and coaches assumed he was a fan who had come with another team, so nobody objected when he began to pitch in around the bench.
“He helped lay out uniforms, got water. He even gave a couple of kids shoulder massages. Creepy stuff like that,” said Jim Haussler, activities director for the Bismarck Public School District. Creepy indeed!
When the game was over, the young man hung out with the winning team on the court and asked if he could get a piggyback ride. One shocked and caught off guard player gave him one.
“He makes himself appear as if he’s limited or handicapped. I think he plays an empathy card, so to speak,” Haussler said. “We didn’t realize what we were dealing with until several days later.”
What they learned they had been dealing with the night of Feb. 4 was the Piggyback Bandit. Sherwin Shayegan of Bothell, Wash., is a 28-year-old man who ingratiates himself with high school sports teams. Once he has blended in and gained acceptance, he then hoists his 5-foot-8, 240-pound frame onto the backs of the student athletes.
Shayegan’s strange behavior goes back to 2008, but he remained confined to Washington and Oregon. He has since expanded his horizons beginning last fall and has worked his way east to Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota. He has left a trail of shell-shocked athletes along his way.
Shayegan has asked for piggybacks, attempted to pay for piggybacks and just sprung some on unsuspecting kids. He favors basketball games, but he also has leapt onto hockey, soccer and football players.
Other guises Shayegan has used is pretending to interview athletes for a term paper, acting as a team manager or simply blending in with the crowd for his piggyback kicks.
No one knows why he does this or who coined the “Piggyback Bandit” nickname.
On Tuesday, Shayegan was contacted on his cellphone, but he politely declined to talk about the piggyback rides until he could speak to an attorney. “I’d prefer not to comment, if that’s OK,” he said.
Shayegan has a long criminal rapsheet in Washington. He also has nine outstanding warrants in one town in that state. Due to his piggyback games, he has been banned from high school sporting events in Washington, Oregon, Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota.
One of his arrests came about in October in Helena, Montana for jumping, without warning, on two high school soccer players during a state tournament.
“What’s disturbing to me is that he is jumping on our young athletes, he is 240 pounds, and he can hurt someone,” said Mark Beckman, executive director of the Montana High School Sports Association.
Although Shayegan pleaded guilty on Feb. 1 to two misdemeanor assault charges, was fined $730, given a 360-day suspended prison sentence, told not to go to any more Montana high school events, and told by the judge to, “Go back to Seattle and behave,” he didn’t stop. It was three days later when he attended the Bismarck basketball game and received another piggyback ride. He also received a piggyback ride from a hockey player after a hockey game that same day.
“I think at one point he was giving water to individuals,” said Mike Ludwig, St. Olaf’s sports information director. But he kept getting too close to the players, making one coach uneasy. Someone told Shayegan to back off, and he did, Ludwig said. Shayegan did not get any piggyback rides that night.
He later appeared at high school events in St. Cloud and Minneapolis. The Minnesota State High School League joined the other states in banning him. Executive director David Stead wrote that Shayegan, “Is known to cause a direct threat to the health and safety of student athletes and others.”
Police are attempting to locate Shayegan and believe he may have gone back to western Washington, where he has 16 convictions dating back to 2004 that include multiple counts of criminal trespass, vehicle prowling, resisting arrest and a felony possession of controlled substance without a prescription.
The western Washington town of Mount Vernon has nine outstanding warrants for his arrest. The majority are for failing to appear in court or not showing up for work crews as part of a sentence for an earlier conviction. Police in the nearby city of Anacortes have issued a bulletin asking anyone who sees or contacts him to call 911 immediately.
Only one person could give a glimpse into Shayegan’s background and when all this strange behavior may have begun. Mike Colbrese, the executive director of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association, said he became acquainted with Shayegan about seven years ago. He said Shayegan was a common fixture at games and used to ask for work as a waterboy in state high school basketball tournaments.
“He would just wander around. You wouldn’t see him interacting with coaches and players when we were first aware of him,” Colbrese said. Nobody knew where he lived or what he did, Colbrese said. Eventually, he was viewed as an eccentric nuisance who generally bothered staff for jerseys or for a role at games.
The view on Shayegan changed in 2008 when Joel E. Ferris High School of Spokane won that year’s state basketball tournament and Colbrese spotted Shayegan hanging around the locker room after the game. “He was jumping on players’ backs after they showered and came out of the locker room,” Colbrese said. Washington high school sports officials stopped viewing him as an eccentric and started looking at him as a possible threat.
Colbrese said he is disturbed by what appears to be Shayegan’s progressively aggressive behavior in recent months and warned officials in other states not to be fooled by his act.
“He’s certainly socially awkward in any social setting. But he’s also not afraid to approach people. It doesn’t take very long to find out he’s a little bit different,” Colbrese said. “What people don’t realize is that he’s very smart. He knows how to play the system. He just knows what to say and how to say it.”
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