A string of home invasions has hit Buffalo, including one that victimized a woman dedicated to revitalizing the city by helping low-income families own their own homes.
Erma J. Brown, 56, has worked for the past three decades helping low-income city residents fulfill their dream of home ownership. She and her husband, Benny, 60, were hospitalized after they were tied up, beaten and terrorized during an invasion at their Purdy Street residence Tuesday morning.
Theirs was one of five homes invaded in just over a week in Buffalo -- a crime spree that is frightening some residents and community leaders.
"That's way too much, given a city of this size," said Rudolphus Boans Jr., vice president of the community group 100 Mighty Men.
"I don't know what the problem is," he said. "If the problem is this great, there may be a need for more police officers."
All five crimes involved either two or three men barging into homes and confronting the occupants. In four of the cases, intruders beat up the residents by pistol-whipping them or punching them and then stole their cash. In two of the crimes, the intruders tied up their victims.
During one incident, the intruders slammed a woman against the wall, assaulted her, groped her and threatened to rape her.
Buffalo police spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge does not think the five incidents constitute a rash of such crimes.
"I don't think we're seeing anything out of the ordinary, as far as home invasions go," he said.
"There's very few home invasions involving innocent victims. Most of these home invasions are drug-related, and the victims are known to the perpetrators," DeGeorge said, speaking generally while declining to characterize any of the most recent cases.
"Overall, burglaries are down a couple hundred from the same time last year," he said.
For the victims, the statistics are little comfort.
Erma and Benny Brown were recovering at home Wednesday. Friends say the injured couple, who had been hospitalized for hours, are bandaged, bruised and bloodied from the ordeal.
"It's scary," said Ida Thomas, a close friend of the couple for 25 years who said they are not involved in any illegal activity. "She's just a nervous wreck, and it's just barbaric what they did to them."
At about 8 a.m., Erma Brown was inside the house getting ready for work. Her husband had gone outside to take out the garbage when two men grabbed him, threw him to the ground and pistol-whipped him.
They punched him repeatedly and slashed his left hand with a knife. After taking him inside, they also punched and kicked his wife. They tied up the couple, using plastic restraints, stole about $100 and fled.
For the past 30 years, Erma Brown has been executive director of the Ellicott District Community Development Corp., a nonprofit agency that assists low-income residents trying to rehabilitate their home or trying to buy their first home. Her husband is an active volunteer with the agency, where Thomas works as project director.
Ellicott Council Member Brian C. Davis described Erma Brown as a longtime partner with the city.
"She's a phenomenal woman," said Davis. "She's been trying to improve housing conditions in this city for years. It's just ironic that she falls victim to a crime at her home when she's been fighting for housing issues for so long."
This week alone, there have been four home invasions, including at the Browns'.
The most recent happened early Wednesday, when a Phyllis Avenue woman was pulled from her bed at gunpoint, tied up with an extension cord and robbed. The woman's three children were home but were not harmed, police reported.
Early Tuesday, two intruders broke into a home in the 300 block of Military Road, robbed the two men who lived there and left one of them with a severe head injury, police reported. Hector Bocanegera, 29, was released after treatment in Erie County Medical Center.
Sunday, three women were pistol-whipped during a home invasion at an East North Street house. Two of the women were visiting the home, while the third woman, who lives there, was robbed of $500, which was her child's public assistance money.
And July 17, three men with guns barged in on a father and son who run an auto parts business from their Kensington Avenue home, tied them up and looted the place. Before fleeing, they used one of the guns to strike Edwar Manikout, 26, in the head. His wound required 14 staples. Police arrested two men a short time later, but the third robber remains at large.
Police say they are investigating whether the brazen break-ins are being committed by the same assailants.
"We will do what we need to do to find these people -- especially when it's against an innocent victim," DeGeorge said.