Wave of Home Invasions Puts the Wealthy on Alert

Wave of Home Invasions Puts the Wealthy on Alert
(Taken from The Wall Street Journal)

Lax Security Often Opens Door
To Increasingly Brazen Crimes;
The Buffetts' Uninvited Guest
November 15, 2007; Page D1

In the past year, billionaire investors Warren Buffett and Ernest Rady, socialite Anne Bass and professional basketball players Eddy Curry and Antoine Walker all have joined a group to which they would rather not belong: victims of home invasion.

In affluent enclaves across the country, from Beverly Hills, Calif., to Scarsdale, N.Y., these high-profile cases and others -- many of them unsolved -- have set nerves on edge amid what law-enforcement officials and security experts say is becoming an alarming trend. One particularly gruesome case in July underscored the dangers for many, when a home invasion in Cheshire, Conn., ended in the deaths of a doctor's wife and his two daughters. Two men have been arrested and charged in the case.

In home-invasion robberies -- unlike burglaries -- thieves hope to confront the occupants, often intending to force victims to open a safe or divulge bank-card PIN numbers. Home invasions aren't separately tallied by the Federal Bureau of Investigation or by most state and local police. According to the most recent FBI data, residential robberies, which include home invasions, rose nearly 13% in 2006 from 2002, even as violent crime overall decreased 0.4%. Last year, 64,000 residential robberies were reported.

Experts believe home invasions are underreported. Security experts who serve high-profile clients say their clients often don't report attempted robberies to the police because of privacy concerns. And local law-enforcement agencies only keep track of incidents within their jurisdictions, making it difficult to establish a national picture for these crimes.

The Connecticut State Police handled two high-profile home invasions recently, including the Cheshire case. Police spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance says, "It hasn't reached epidemic levels, but certainly we are very aware of this type of criminal activity and behavior."

The impact on victims is profound. When Mr. Rady, the 70-year-old Wachovia Co. director and principal shareholder, his wife Evelyn, 66, and their housekeeper were assaulted by a Taser-wielding intruder in their La Jolla, Calif., home in February, "it was a life-changing event for the family," says their attorney, Robert L. Grimes. Since the robbery, members of the extended Rady family have hired personal armed bodyguards and installed elaborate home-security systems, the attorney says.

According to San Diego police, Mr. Rady was stunned with the Taser, bound with duct tape, and cut with a sharp object as the intruder tried to force the couple to produce cash and valuables. The robber, who is still at large, escaped with less than $100, police and Mr. Grimes say.

One reason for the rise in home invasions is demographic: The numbers of rich people with homes to plunder has risen fast in recent years. But police and security experts say robbers are hitting homes more because their traditional targets -- banks, stores and offices -- have been hardened with closed-circuit video surveillance, alarms and guards. By comparison, security at many private homes remains lax, they say.

Indeed, in several high-profile crimes, assailants gained access through unlocked doors. In other cases, home-alarm systems apparently weren't turned on. Security and alarm experts say this is a surprisingly common mistake: Many homeowners lock their doors and set alarms only when they are away.

Increasingly, wealthy and high profile individuals must step up security at home and be vigilant in their cars to avoid becoming victims, security experts and police say. They may also need to reduce the amount of information they reveal about themselves on the Internet in places like Facebook, and in the media. And perhaps most importantly, they should thoroughly investigate the background of anyone who has access to their home, because many robberies are inside jobs.

"I have gone out to estates that are absolutely magnificent and have been shocked that they have the same level of security as for a rowhouse in Queens," says Paul Michael Viollis Sr., chief executive of Risk Control Strategies of New York. The firm does complimentary "personal risk assessments" for high-net-worth clients of the Chubb Group of Insurance Cos.

In some areas, that is beginning to change. Around the stately homes of Greenwich, Conn., many of the low, meandering stone borders typical of New England are being replaced with thick, shoulder-high walls and densely packed treelines to block any view from the street. Local real-estate agents say they've also seen an upswing in the number of people putting in driveway entrance gates with touchpad security systems, even for relatively modest homes.

Gideon Fountain, vice president of Cleveland, Duble & Arnold, a Greenwich real-estate firm, says investor Edward Lampert's kidnapping there in 2003 was a watershed event. Mr. Lampert was held at gunpoint for two days and talked his captors into letting him go. "People think what are the odds it could happen to them? Not good, but possible," Mr. Fountain says.

Inadequate security may have played a part in what happened to Anne Bass, the 65-year-old ex-wife of billionaire oil investor Sid Richardson Bass, and her friend, painter Julian Lethbridge, 60, in April, when several robbers entered her 1,000-acre estate in rural Litchfield County, Conn. Bass's preschool-age grandson also was home at the time.

The robbers put a gun to Mr. Lethbridge's head and held the two captive, their eyes blindfolded and their mouths taped shut. At one point, Ms. Bass and Mr. Lethbridge were injected with a blue liquid the men claimed held a lethal virus, hoping to scare the captives into handing over millions in cash for an antidote. They left about 10 hours later, apparently convinced there wasn't a lot of cash in the house.

A case containing a gun, knife and syringes, including one with a blue fluid, washed ashore days later about 90 miles away in Queens, N.Y. A Jeep stolen from the property also was recovered in New York City, but no arrests have been made, according to Connecticut State Police.

Several security and alarm experts say crimes like these can be prevented with a perimeter motion-detection system that sounds whenever someone drives or walks onto a property. Many alarm systems wire only the doors and windows of a home; the problem with that, security experts say, is that by the time someone trips the alarm, it can be too late. Moreover, any alarm system has to be armed to work, and often, they aren't.

Home-invasion robbers also pick their victims by staking them out in public and following them home. That is what may have happened to Messrs. Walker and Curry of the National Basketball Association in separate incidents in July. Police believe the men were trailed to their multimillion-dollar homes in Chicago, where they were surprised by armed masked men. In each case, the robbers stole thousands of dollars in cash and jewelry, as well as the victims' cars, police say. Four men, alleged gang members, have been charged in connection with those robberies.

Police and security experts say that to avoid this type of robbery, people should be alert to whether they are being followed before driving onto their property, and if they are, to call the police or drive to a police station. Houses should be well-lighted with automatic exterior lights. Additionally, security experts advise clients to avoid drawing attention to money and possessions while they're out and about. They also recommend reducing the amount of detailed personal information that can be found on the Web.

While at home, it is a mistake to open the door without verifying the identity of a visitor first and to accept unscheduled deliveries. Security experts say homes should be equipped with a voice-video intercom system with cameras trained on the doors and the grounds, and deliveries should be sent to a post-office box or family office instead of to the residence.

On Sept. 5, Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett's wife, Astrid, accompanied by a security guard, answered the doorbell at the couple's Omaha, Neb., home, according to police there. They encountered a man dressed in black with camouflage paint on his face who tried to force his way in. The guard managed to wrestle a gun away from the intruder while Mrs. Buffett called 911. The intruder fled, and the gun turned out to be fake, according to Omaha police. No arrests have been made. Mr. Buffett wouldn't comment for this story.

Security experts emphasize that preventive steps can be taken without resorting to extreme measures, such as obtaining firearms without proper licensing and training. Such actions can raise legal problems for people wanting to protect their homes and families, as with Harry Maxwell Rady, the son of banker Ernest Rady.

The younger Mr. Rady, 40, pleaded guilty to illegally receiving AK-47s and other semi-automatic firearms after the robbery to defend his family from potential kidnappers, his attorney, Mr. Grimes, says. Mr. Rady was sentenced on Nov. 2 to 10 months of home confinement and three years' probation. He also was fined $75,000 for violating federal gun laws.

--Sara Schaefer Muñoz contributed to this article.

- The Hackett Security Team

No comments: