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SWAT standoff: Eviction results in 4-hour incident

Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

DULUTH -- A four-hour showdown between deputies and two Duluth residents determined not to be evicted devolved into a SWAT incident Wednesday, illustrating what some called fallout from the couple's misfortunes and a sour economy.

Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department deputies attempted to serve an eviction about 9 a.m. on Howard Graber and his wife, Nova Lee Graber, at the Davenport Park Lane home they lived in. The Grabers refused to leave the home and would not negotiate with deputies, so SWAT team negotiators were called in, an official said.

When talks failed, suited members of the department's SWAT team entered the home about 1 p.m. and took the couple into custody. Both were charged with misdemeanor obstruction and were being processed into the Gwinnett County Jail late Wednesday. Their bond amounts were not known.

Friends of the couple said Howard Graber, in his mid-40s, suffered a debilitating stroke a couple years ago and had to forfeit a lucrative career in software sales. He and his wife, a homemaker, have since struggled to keep pace with their mortgage on his disability income alone, and have mounted a legal fight to keep their home, friends said.

The Grabers lived together in the well-kept two-story house, its windows girded by green shutters, for more than 10 years, said Gary Davis, a personal friend and former neighbor in the Park at Cambridge subdivision.

"(Howard Graber) just got out of his wheelchair a few months ago," Davis said. "Real smart guy, but he just lost his income."

Davis said the couple had filed suit against a New York-based bank to avoid foreclosure. Court records list the defendant as M&T Bank.

Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Stacey Bourbonnais said a writ of possession was served on the couple June 24, and the eviction was scheduled for Wednesday.

Evictions are handled on a case-by-case basis, and protocol allows deputies to call in SWAT teams to remove uncooperative occupants, Bourbonnais said.

"Because it was obvious they were not going to cooperate, SWAT was called," she said.

Lateef Bey, an associate who met the couple in homeowners and foreclosure protection meetings, said they'd filed a counter-affidavit in Gwinnett State Court in the belief they'd been denied due process.

A copy of that document was taped to the Graber's front-door and sent to high-ranking sheriff's department officials, Bey said. By forcefully entering the home, Bey feels deputies exceeded their authority and failed to abide by Georgia code.

"I think that this is a very sad day. Tomorrow it could be your home," Bey said. "We live in a state of tyranny if we can't get our rights enforced."

The Graber's legal pushback appeared to have failed them by mid-afternoon.

Moving crews cluttered their front yard with piles of cabinets, computer equipment, couches and a television.

Neighbors huddled on a street corner and talked of holding a vigil Wednesday evening to protect the Graber's stuff.

Despite indicators that the economy is improving, deputies on scene Wednesday said they continue to serve 30 such evictions per day in Gwinnett, with only about 1 percent of occupants showing resistance. Eviction orders are backlogged about a week, about the same as last summer, said Sheriff's Department Sgt. G. Chapel.

"These (incidents) are kind of rare, but they do happen," he said.

Most evictions are served on foreclosed homes and rental properties, from trailer parks to addresses in famously swank neighborhoods, Chapel said.

Once moving crews empty the home's contents into the yard, it's considered abandoned property, and deputies bear no responsibility for the valuables, the deputies said.