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on security

May 28, 2015 | 08:00 GMT

13 mins read

On Surviving Home Invasions

VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor

By Scott Stewart

Just before 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 14, the Washington, D.C., Fire Department responded to a report of a house fire in the city's upscale Woodley Park neighborhood. As firefighters battled to extinguish the flames, they encountered a grisly crime scene inside the home — three adults and a child had been brutally murdered before the building was set on fire in an attempt to destroy evidence of the crime.

The multimillion dollar home belonged to Savvas Savopoulos, the CEO of American Iron Works, a construction company that specializes in large buildings for commercial and government use, including the new Food and Drug Administration headquarters building. Police identified the victims as Savopoulos, his wife Amy, their 10-year-old son Philip and their housekeeper, Veralicia Figueroa. According to police, the victims died from either sharp or blunt force trauma wounds — they were stabbed or beaten to death. The police also reported that the child was tortured prior to death, apparently to force his father to comply with the criminal's demands. The violent coercion appears to have worked; Savopoulos' personal assistant reportedly delivered $40,000 in cash to the residence shortly before the home was set on fire.

Police later found Savopoulos' Porsche 911 on fire in a church parking lot in New Carrollton, Md. It is believed that the Savopoulos family was taken hostage on the evening of May 13 and held overnight until the money arrived. Pizzas were delivered to the home that evening and paid for with an envelope of cash left on the door. It was the pizza that ultimately provided a conclusive lead for the police, because DNA found on one of the uneaten pizza crusts identified the prime suspect. The DNA matched that of 34-year-old Darron Wint, who was raised in Guyana and moved to Lanham, Md., in 2000, and had previously been arrested for assault and burglary. Wint's Lanham address is close to where Savopoulos' Porsche was found. Wint was apprehended and now faces first-degree murder charges. Investigators believe that Wint had at least one accomplice.

According to police, Wint was employed as a welder with American Iron Works from 2003 to 2005, indicating that this was a targeted crime rather than a random occurrence.

Home Invasion Robberies

Home invasion robberies are actually quite common. For many years, they have occurred almost daily in the United States. They normally happen in low-income households and are often tied to illicit debt collection, attempts to rip-off drug dealers or associated with the theft of narcotics from a stash house. However, in recent years there have been a number of high-profile cases in which middle- and upper-class families have been targeted for home invasion robberies, sometimes with horrific results.

For example, in July 2007, Dr. William Petit, Jr., his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and their two daughters were brutalized, tied-up and held hostage for several hours in their Cheshire, Conn., home. After withdrawing $15,000 from a bank the next morning, Hawke-Petit was strangled, and the house was lit on fire. The two daughters, who had been raped during the home invasion and were bound in the upstairs bedrooms, died in the fire. Petit, who had been severely beaten and tied-up in the basement, survived.

While they are often vicious crimes, home invasions, like other types of criminal acts, do not just happen out of the blue. They are planned and executed following a process we refer to as the criminal planning cycle.

The Criminal Planning Cycle

The Criminal Planning Cycle

There are points during this cycle where criminals are vulnerable to detection if the potential victim is alert to the danger.

Detection Points

As in a terrorist attack, during the target selection and planning phases of the criminal planning cycle, the criminal will need to have eyes on the target to determine if the target fits his criteria. This is normally determining if the target is vulnerable and if the benefit of committing a crime is worth the risk. Certainly, surveillance can be aided electronically — by stalking a potential victim online — but electronic surveillance is no real substitute for physically surveilling or "casing" the crime scene, especially in a home invasion. Even in a case like the Savopoulos murders, where the suspect was a former employee of the victim's company, he likely did not have first-hand access to the CEO's home. This means that to plan the crime, he needed to case the house to determine its layout, who lived there and what physical security measures were in place, and he needed to figure out a way to enter the home.

During this surveillance phase, criminals are vulnerable to detection. This vulnerability is magnified by the fact that most criminals are terrible at conducting surveillance. The behavior a person displays to those watching him or her is called demeanor. To master the art of surveillance, a person needs to master the ability to display appropriate demeanor for the situation. Practicing good demeanor is not intuitive. In fact, maintaining good demeanor while conducting surveillance frequently runs counter to human nature. Because of this, intelligence, law enforcement and security professionals assigned to work surveillance operations receive extensive training that includes many hours of heavily critiqued practical exercises, often followed by field training with a team of experienced surveillance professionals. This training teaches and reinforces good demeanor. Criminals simply do not receive this type of training, and it shows.

The main reason that criminals are able to get by with such a poor level of surveillance tradecraft — especially bad demeanor — is that most victims simply are not looking out for threats. Indeed, most people don't practice good situational awareness of what is happening around them. I have interviewed a large number of crime victims who noticed criminals before they were attacked, but for some reason chose not to take action to avoid the situation. In most cases, they simply had the wrong mindset. They ignored what they were seeing because they either did not trust their senses or somehow thought they couldn't be victimized. It is critical to maintain a proper personal security mindset and practice situational awareness.

Most ordinary burglaries require some prior knowledge of the victim's home and schedule. Of course, some targets are chosen spontaneously, with little or no pre-operational planning. But for the most part, a potential burglar needs to be aware of whether there is an alarm system; if so, how to circumvent the alarm; and where valuables are kept within the house. They typically case their victims in advance to get a feel for their routines, specifically the times when they are most likely to be away from home.

What Home Invasion Robberies Entail

Home invasion robberies require the same kind of preparation as a burglary, but they require more careful planning since there is an element of kidnapping in the home invasion, and the crime lasts far longer than a normal burglary. This means the home invasion robber needs to go beyond cursory surveillance of their intended victim or victims and do an extensive study of their routine and home. A home invasion robber must also plot out the robbery in more detail and include how they will gain entry to the home — either by stealth, a ruse or by force — as well as plan for a way to restrain or control the victims during the operation.

Once a target is identified and the home invasion planned, the actual home invasion begins when the robber or robbers gain entry and seize control of the occupants of the house. Even if the invaders gain access by sneaking in late at night, as the perpetrators did in the Petit case, or under a ruse (such as delivering documents, as in the February 2007 home invasion of billionaire Ernest Rady in California), once they encounter the inhabitants of the home they usually employ overwhelming force until the inhabitants are subdued or incapacitated.

The occupants are immediately controlled and restrained if necessary. Only after the site has been swept for any individuals who might be hiding is it considered safe to begin the collection of valuables inside the house. In some cases, home invasion robbers will take a member of the family to a bank or ATM to withdraw cash while holding other members of the family hostage in the home. In the Savopoulos case, an executive assistant was tasked to bring the money to the home. 

Once the valuables are secured, the criminals turn their attention to the disposition of victims, who are also witnesses. Depending on the mindset of the criminals involved, they might further brutalize or rape the victims, kill them to prevent identification or leave them to be found alive later. Finally, the robbers make their escape, usually departing the scene after taking precautions to prevent the victims from notifying authorities or pursuing them. This is normally achieved by restraining the victims and then cutting phone lines and smashing or collecting cell phones and other electronic devices.

Unlike a traditional burglary, which is normally over quickly, home invasion robberies often become protracted affairs. Torture and rape are sometimes used to force the homeowner to meet the criminal's demands. While in control of the residence, the intruders have the time and privacy to make the ordeal very ugly for the victims, who are completely at the criminals' mercy.

In some cases, like the April 2007 invasion at the Connecticut home of socialite Anne Bass, the criminals are well prepared and professional and not excessively violent. But other cases, like the Petit case or the Savopoulos case, appear to be conducted by common street criminals with little regard for human life or the consequences of their actions.

While each home invasion robbery is unique, there are some common threads. Home invasions most often occur at night or on weekends, when the perpetrators expect their victims to be home. The robbers are usually armed and tend to operate in groups of two or more. Random home invasions are very rare, and extensive pre-operational surveillance is almost always conducted. Because of the inherently confrontational nature of home invasions, the robbers have to be sure they do not encounter armed or potentially combative homeowners or guard dogs. Inside knowledge is often part of the home invasion planning process. For low- and middle-income victims, this knowledge might come from an acquaintance of the victim. For high-net worth victims, the criminals' knowledge frequently comes from household staff or a contractor who has had access to the house at some point. For example, a former household manager planned the Bass home invasion.

Recommendations for Minimizing Risk

Strategies for reducing the risk of a home invasion robbery involve enhancing physical security, protecting personal information and vetting household staff. Visible signs of enhanced physical security at the residence or around high-profile individuals will often discourage potential attackers and could send them looking for a softer target. High-profile individuals should take steps to keep personal information private to avoid drawing the attention of potential attackers, making it difficult for them to gather information that could be used to plan a home invasion. Thorough vetting of household staff — including their acquaintances — reduces the likelihood of an "inside job" being planned and carried out. Contractors and handymen with access to the residence should also be carefully vetted.

Household staff members should also be trained in situational awareness and sound security procedures. Not permitting unexpected visitors to enter the home until properly identified and cleared could have prevented the Rady home invasion.

In terms of physical security measures, entry doors should be of good quality, and doorjambs should be made kick proof. (This can be done quite inexpensively.) Existing locks and alarms should be used — the criminals in the Petit case entered through an unlocked door, and if the Petit home had an alarm installed, it was not turned on. Windows should be fitted with security locks and pins, and glass break sensors and detectors should be part of the alarm system. Alarm systems that employ enhanced exterior lighting are also quite useful, but again, only if the alarm system is turned on. It is important to practice residential security, whether expecting a threat or not.

In addition to a home security system, a safe room — a small windowless space designed and installed by a professional that can be completely secured from the rest of the house — can offer protection once a home invasion has started. Modern safe rooms can be discreetly installed in walk-in closets or bathrooms. Family members, including children, should practice using safe rooms as a matter of routine. A "panic" alarm — with a cellular backup — that has a different signal from those of other alarms in the house should be part of the safe room's equipment to alert authorities and let first responders know the family has buttoned down. Having a stand-alone backup power source is advisable in case the primary power source is cut. Depending on the family's convictions, it is prudent to keep a weapon such as a shotgun in the safe room as a last line of defense. In most cases, using these rooms is preferable to attempting to run from the residence in the event of a break-in because the residents could further expose themselves to the intruders during an attempt to run.

Survival Once an Attack Begins

Unlike abductions, in which the kidnappers have a stake in keeping the victim alive, at least until a ransom is received, home invasions can be just as likely — if not more likely — to result in the deaths of their victims.

The initial phase of the home invasion, during which the robbers attempt to take control of the home's inhabitants, affords the best chance to resist or escape. Once the family members have been restrained, escape and resistance becomes far more difficult. As opposed to crimes perpetrated away from home, and because a home invasion occurs at the victim's house, the idea of running away or escaping might not occur to the victim. Yet it can be an opportunity to get away from the criminals and summon help if there is no other option. 

If escape or resistance is not possible during the initial stage of a home invasion robbery, a good course of action is to feign compliance until (or unless) physical attacks begin. However, once violence is committed, and once it appears that no other options remain, every effort should be made to resist and escape. Victims should be willing to trade wounds for certain death.

In some cases, the victims might outnumber the robbers. If so, victims should seriously consider rushing their attackers. Even if shots are fired, most criminals are poor marksmen, and at the very least the noise could alert neighbors to the crime. In any case, the robbers are unlikely to remain in the house after such noise is made. As a final reminder of the need to flee or resist, it should be recalled that despite complying with the invaders' demands for money, members of the Petit and Savopoulos families were ultimately killed and their homes set on fire.

Low-income, middle-income and upper-income individuals and their families are all vulnerable to home invasion robberies. Victims of home invasions are liable to be seriously hurt or killed, even if they comply with the invaders' demands. Despite this bleak picture, there are ways to reduce the risk of becoming a victim of a home invasion robbery, as well as measures that can be taken to mitigate the danger if one occurs.

Scott Stewart supervises Stratfor's analysis of terrorism and security issues. Before joining Stratfor, he was a special agent with the U.S. State Department for 10 years and was involved in hundreds of terrorism investigations.

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