A recent arrest may have cracked a multi-state, years-long crime wave.
From the March, 2018 issue
On January nineteen, officers from the AAPD and other local departments swarmed the Red Roof Inn on Plymouth and arrested three people. They've since been charged with invading a nearby home earlier that day. And they may be linked to many more such crimes.
"We had had a series of home invasions in November and December on the north side of town," says detective lieutenant Matt Lige. "We were getting two or three home invasions during the daytime for a week at a time then nothing would happen. We have indications that [the January 19 break-in] was from the same group. I cannot definitively say that a direct link has been established, but you cannot ignore the similarities."
From November through January, Lige says, similar invasions hit probably "fifteen to twenty homes that we're aware in this city. But a number of communities in Washtenaw County were affected: Pittsfield Township, Scio Township, Ypsi Township. And once this went public, we were getting calls from Oakland County, Macomb County, up near Lansing, and Waterford."
The suspects were "going from hotel to hotel, staying under the radar, renting rooms by the day, paying cash. This crew would come for a week, then they'd leave and go to another community, stay there for a week and do the same thing. Then they'd go to another community and do the same thing. There's planning, preparation, and rehearsal, all the things that go into an organized professional enterprise. And we fricking put it together!"
Lige credits a combination of old-fashioned police work and newfangled high tech. Still visibly excited three weeks later, he explains how the suspects--two men and a woman--were identified.
Two days before the arrests, the woman went up to a house on the north side and rang the doorbell. "After she rings it a couple of times and there's no activity, she knocks on the door," the detective recounts. "Then she starts to bang on the door. After four attempts to figure
out if someone's there, there's no response."
The woman left--"and ten minutes later at this same exact house, the house alarm goes off. The homeowner calls his wife, and she says, 'No, I'm not there.' We got a call that the home alarm is going off. By the time the road cops get there, the house is ransacked. Jewelry is taken. Money is taken. The crew is gone."
But not without a trace: the home had a video doorbell. "Every time the doorbell is activated, there's an image taken of whoever is standing in front of the doorbell," Lige explains. "Homeowners nowadays are installing devices like this in the event there's package theft, mail theft, and, unfortunately, home invasion."
When the woman rang the bell, her image was "downloaded to the person who lives there on a cell phone." The homeowner provided the image "to the cops taking the report, and things started falling into place. We found a car that we can tie to a guy who used to live in Texas that's got a huge history of doing home invasions. Through more investigation we're able to link the person who owns that car to a larger ring of multistate home invasions."
At that point, Lige says, the detective bureau went on "high alert. Assignments and routines are changed. There's a shift in manpower. There's a shift in the day-to-day operations. But we wanted to keep this low-key. We did not want the crew to know we were on to them.
"They were specifically targeting jewelry and cash. They weren't taking electronics, computers, laptops, phones, cameras. It was 'get in through damaging the house or an unlocked door and take items that are easily transferable.'"
They were also targeting specific ethnic groups. "We have a large segment of Ann Arbor that is Middle Eastern, Asian, Indian, and culturally there is a history of keeping jewelry and money in the home," Lige says. The detectives believe the homes to be hit were chosen in advance, based on the owners' last names.
"We pulled a lot of assets to follow this group," Lige says. "We had state resources and law enforcement from the surrounding areas that were contributing to an ad hoc task force." In the forty-eight hours leading up to the arrests, they worked in shifts around the clock. "The arrest process was badass," Lige says, but the suspects "were taken into custody without any injuries or unnecessary use of force ... We worked all Friday night after the arrest was made, and we were here all weekend making sure that we're airtight for bringing this to the prosecutor for the next phase of the investigation."
That phase includes looking for possible ties to a string of ethnically targeted home invasions in the Ann Arbor area in 2014. That crew, too, used a woman to make the first approach--but they sometimes picked houses that were occupied and used guns to terrorize the residents.
The FBI took over that case, because the crimes here are believed to be linked to similar ones in New Jersey, Georgia, and Texas. Six suspects arrested in Texas in 2015 have yet to come to trial. "If we keep it local, it won't take as long," explains Lige. "If the FBI takes it over, then it becomes a much bigger timeline."
He hopes the legal process doesn't take much longer, because he'll be up for retirement shortly. "I have my twenty-five years in May," Lige says. "I want to retire on my last day feeling like I did on my first day. And when investigations [end] like this, I feel like I felt on my first day on the job!"
[Originally published in March, 2018.]
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