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Faux police tactics signal danger

Around midnight, the 12-year-old Norcross girl was in her room, chatting over the phone with her boyfriend, the rest of her family fast asleep, when she heard a feverish knocking downstairs, followed by this: "Policia ... where is the ice and the money?"

What reportedly happened next at the split-level home on Steve Reynolds Boulevard -- an armed home invasion perpetrated by roughly eight masked, determined men with shotguns, rifles and pistols -- ranks among the most harrowing and horrific in police classification, a copycat crime that's recently gained legs in Gwinnett.

The girl told police she listened as her father, a Norcross supplement store employee, was beaten in the upstairs hallway, dragged across the home while being implored for drugs and money the victim claimed did not exist. The robbers burst into the girl's bedroom and bound her wrists with an electrical cord, a gun barrel to her head. Ditto for her sisters, ages 9 and 10.

For 30 minutes, the men pillaged, overturning dressers, ripping off air-conditioner grills, punching holes in walls and -- perhaps most disturbingly -- leaving two kitchen knives red-hot on a lit gas burner, known torture devices that reportedly were not used.

The men tore away in a Toyota Tundra the father had borrowed. Their loot: jewelry, cash, perfume and three flat-screen televisions. Police arrived to find the dazed father dripping with blood, the source of bloody "drag marks" upstairs and bloody pools elsewhere.

Whisked to Gwinnett Medical Center, the father was too groggy to recount what had happened, or to accurately describe his violent assailants, according to a Gwinnett police report. They all remain at large.

The May 5 home invasion marks at least the third instance in recent months -- and the second time since April -- that armed gunmen either posed or announced themselves as police, FBI agents or other law enforcement in the process of overpowering unsuspecting victims at home.

Experts say the objective is to gain a tactical advantage, to cause a momentary calm in an effort to dismantle the victims' guard. It's an example of criminal innovation tested by high-level crime sects that eventually trickles to brainstorming bands of thugs.

"Every once in a while, an offender or group of offenders finds something that works for them," said Volkan Topalli, an associate professor of criminal justice at Georgia State University, and director of the school's crime and violence prevention policy. "It's a very daring thing to do, obviously. This kind of thing will probably happen again until they get caught."

Police records show the home invasion cop-posturing, in some instances, appears haphazard. In others, perpetrators are quasi-military and organized. Topalli and local law enforcement stressed that home invasions of this nature are rarely random and usually occur between drug traffickers.

"A strong percentage of these have been drug-related," said Gwinnett police spokesman Cpl. Edwin Ritter, who in nine years with the force has seen an uptick.

Topalli again: "Offenders rip each other off all the time. They have the two things offenders want the most -- drugs and money -- and they're not going to go to police when they're ripped off."

Still, some recent victims, including those on Steve Reynolds Boulevard, have been adamant that robbers had kicked in the wrong door.

On April 23, a team of up to six men donning FBI T-shirts invaded a woman's home on Broomfield Way in Lawrenceville.

The perpetrators struck the unsuspecting mother, 54, with a pistol, bound her with zip-ties and repeatedly demanded money, before fleeing in an Infiniti that was later recovered -- a pistol and FBI shirt inside, police said.

The victim told police the assailants must have had the wrong house. (Police named Alexis Alberto Reyes, 24, as an at-large suspect; the others have not been identified).

And in November, a team of rifle-wielding robbers in bulletproof vests posed as police while raiding two Lawrenceville homes in a search for drugs and cash, witnesses told police.

Twelve people, including three children, were held at gunpoint in two neighboring homes on Lexington Drive. A 36-year-old man was bashed in the head with a firearm. Victims told police the robbers kicked in their back doors and simultaneously plundered the homes, communicating with each other via shoulder radios.

The gunmen inquired about "the drugs" and threatened to return and kill the family if they contacted police. They left one home with $2,000 cash, the other with an assortment of wallets, cell phones and a 32-inch plasma television.

Responding police found no signs of drug activity at the residences.

All three cases appear unrelated, Ritter said this week. Suspect descriptions -- black men in the May 5 case; Hispanics in the earlier two -- don't match. No arrests have been made.

Topalli said he wasn't aware of data that suggest any particular ethnic groups falls prey to home invasions more than the next. Offenders generally target victims of mutual race, he said.

"That's not always the case, but that is pretty much the overwhelming trend," he said.

As for advice, Ritter cautions Gwinnettians to be perceptive but not resistant when someone at the door claims to be law enforcement.

"Look for (a legitimate) uniform, and a uniform patrol car," he said. "Usually, when we have search warrants, we'll have patrol cars in view. It's an identifier for us."

While the crimes don't appear to be a major, widespread pattern in metro Atlanta, Topalli said eradicating the acts quickly is imperative.

"It is incumbent on law enforcement to interdict and catch these guys quickly. Lesser offenders will start picking up on this," he said. "It's more sophisticated than your typical smash-and-grabs. They are thinking a little bit above their pay-grade."