Police said Friday a business owner and former NFL player allegedly staged a burglary in a restaurant he owned and vandalized the building, possibly trying to make it look like a hate crime.
Edawn Coughman, 31, of Buford owns multiple Create & Bake Pizza franchises in Gwinnett County along with Coughman’s Creamery, an ice cream shop in Lawrenceville. Police said Coughman allegedly vandalized his own business, marking it with graffiti that included the n-word, “Monkey,” “MAGA” and swastikas on the walls and booths of the restaurant in spray paint.
Cpl. Michele Pihera with Gwinnett County police said investigators have not pinpointed a motivation for the staged burglary. Police said Coughman contacted his insurance company to report damages to his businesses and did not report the crime to police until officers approached him at the scene.
Pihera said police would have investigated the incident as a hate crime if a witness hadn’t reported the suspicious situation quickly, allowing officers to find Coughman at the scene.
“It’s possible he was trying to stage this as a hate crime,” Pihera said. “We don’t know if he was trying to get attention for this. What we do know is, if that witness had not called us and if those officers had not responded as quickly as they did, we would probably be sitting here talking about a completely different crime in which Mr. Coughman would be trying to say he’s a victim.”
Pihera said Coughman denied he staged the burglary when asked by police.
At approximately 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, Gwinnett County police received a burglary-in-progress call. A witness told a 911 call-taker there was a person inside the conjoined pizza restaurant and ice cream shop damaging the businesses. The caller described a suspicious vehicle, a black Chevy Silverado with no license plate.
Officers responding to the scene saw the vehicle at the shopping center. Officers identified the driver as Coughman and learned he was the owner of the businesses that the witness said was being vandalized.
Police grew suspicious for several reasons. Coughman was wearing gloves and a hoodie. They noticed several flat-screen TVs in the vehicle that had been hastily pulled from walls with mounting brackets still attached. Coughman told police he was the victim of a burglary earlier in the day and had returned to the business to retrieve the items in the vehicle.
“It’s possible they were taken in an effort to make it look like a burglary,” Pihera said.
When officers went inside, there were “racially motivated comments and symbols” on walls and booths inside. Police noted the smell of fresh paint, some of which was wet.
Police also noticed pry marks on the back door, which they said were connected to evidence later found in the truck Coughman was driving. Police said investigators found a license plate, spray paint and a yellow crowbar inside the truck, which does not belong to Coughman.
“We believe he used that possibly not to have the truck or identity of the truck return back to him,” Pihera said.
Police said they believe everything took place shortly before officers arrived at the scene of the incident.
“The crime is the fact that he reported to us he was a victim of a burglary,” Pihera said. “We’re also looking into the fact that his insurance company could also be a victim, depending on if a claim was in process. ... There’s also a possibility the owner of the building could also be a victim.”
Coughman was arrested and taken to Gwinnett County Jail, charged with false report of a crime, insurance fraud and concealing a license plate. He has since bonded out. Pihera said there is a possibility additional charges will be filed.
“The case does not fit the mold of our typical criminal investigations, so we have to look outside of the box to see how many victims we truly have,” Pihera said.
Coughman owns two Create & Bake locations in Gwinnett, including a restaurant located east of Mall of Georgia near Georgia Highway 20.
Police said Coughman has one prior arrest in Gwinnett County for traffic violations. Coughman had stints with multiple NFL teams as an offensive tackle from 2012 to 2016. Coughman was signed out of Shaw University to the Seattle Seahawks practice squad in 2012. He spent parts of the 2013 season with the Dallas Cowboys and Buffalo Bills. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers claimed him before the 2014 NFL season and he was signed by the Washington Redskins later that season.
In 2015 and 2016, his final NFL season, he bounced around between the Buccaneers, Houston Texans and Arizona Cardinals.
If the scene was forged, Pihera said, the crime takes away from the needs and concerns of legitimate victims of hate crimes.
“This diminishes those cases in which we have true victims of hate crimes,” Pihera said. “We wanted to make sure we got in front of this to explain to the community that this was not a hate crime, we believe that Mr. Coughman was responsible for the vandalism inside the business.”