Gone are the days when burglars always sneaked into homes quietly, trying to avoid their victims, armed with only a screwdriver or a crowbar.
A new species of burglar has emerged.
He often travels in twos or threes, armed with handguns or baseball bats and intent on confronting his prey. These burglaries -- frequently aimed at the elderly or drug dealers -- often end in violence, with a victim tied up, beaten, stabbed or even shot.
Police have a new name for these nasty, armed burglaries.
They call them "home invasions."
Buffalo police have reported a rash of such invasions, more than a dozen in the last month alone, including three in one six-hour period earlier this week.
Deputy Police Commissioner Mark E. Blankenberg cited two kinds of victims:
"There are the predators preying on the elderly, because they think they have money stashed away and because they're vulnerable. The other faction is drug dealers raiding the stash houses of other drug dealers for their drugs and money. Recently, it's been more of the latter."
There's a common denominator to these crimes: the callous violence exhibited by the burglars, often young teens.
"Some of these perpetrators are young punks who have added a degree of viciousness to these crimes that didn't happen years ago," said Buffalo Police Commissioner Rocco J. Diina. "There's an unnecessary viciousness attached to these crimes. That's what's so appalling to us."
The art of burglary has changed drastically in the past 20 years or so. Gone are the career burglars, like the legendary Thomas G. Gascoyne, a master thief who boasted of hitting hundreds of Buffalo-area homes, and rarely confronted anyone.
In their stead are young, spur-of-the-moment burglars who often travel in small groups and bring their weapons and their appetite for violence with them.
"For some of these kids, it's not just the money," Blankenberg said. "It also could be the rush they get off the violence and the confrontation . . . They're
the stagecoach robbers of today."
It only makes sense that thieves would resort to home invasions.
So many of the traditional burglary and robbery victims have fought back, with more sophisticated burglar alarms, iron bars on windows, glass-block basement windows and surveillance cameras in convenience stores.
So thieves confront residents, often during waking hours, in their driveways or at their front doors.
"They're adapting and improvising and overcoming all these obstacles in a different way," Larry J. Baehre, the Buffalo police public information officer, said of the violent burglars. "So we have a new age of thieves who are into physical confrontation."
The most frightening home invasions target the elderly, such as Joseph and Edward Harla, two brothers living on the East Side who were the victims of five break-ins and assaults in one month last fall. Four youths -- ranging in age from 13 to 15 -- have been accused of torturing the brothers to learn where they kept their valuables.
Police are struck by how spontaneous and unplanned such attacks often are.
"These are just street punks who are not very sophisticated," Baehre said of such burglars. "These are crimes of opportunity that are very difficult to deter."
Burglars don't have to be rocket scientists to learn which elderly neighbors may be hoarding valuables. As one police official said, "It was no secret on the street that the Harla brothers failed to follow modern banking practices."
Other home invasions in the last few months have targeted:
An 80-year-old Stanislaus Street woman who was outside shaking dust off a broom when she was attacked in November. She was forced back into her house at knifepoint, choked with an electrical cord, robbed of about $140 and then beaten into unconsciousness.
A Person Street woman who was thrown onto her couch by two men who forced their way into her house, threatened her with a gun and tied her up with a phone cord before they ransacked her residence and stole some cash Jan. 2.
An elderly Rother Avenue couple burglarized at least five times, including twice in October. In one incident, a burglar kicked in the door, asked the 75-year-old husband for money, then hit him in the shoulder with a board.
The three latest home invasions occurred within six hours Monday night and early Tuesday, Buffalo police reported. In those three incidents, a couple and their 6-year-old daughter were forced into their home by three men, two packing handguns, on Rapin Place; an Edna Place man was forced to jump out a second-floor window to escape two men, one armed with a 9mm handgun; and a man was shot in the hand by burglars on Wyoming Avenue.
Some of the home invasions clearly are drug-related. Here's an example, from earlier this month:
Early on the morning of Jan. 12, an 18-year-old West Northrup Place man answered the door and was grabbed by two men who threw him to the ground, then put handguns to his head to force him back inside. The two attackers tied him up with an electrical cord and a shoe lace, before tying a rag around his head and pouring hot water onto him, according to police reports. They also struck him in the face with a handgun and beat him.
That wasn't the only indignity faced by the victim, 18-year-old Eugene A. Todie.
Northeast District officers also charged him with three felony drug-possession counts, after confiscating some cocaine and some pills similar to LSD.
The motive in the attack: His assailants accused him of being involved in the supposed theft of $15,000 from a drug house up the street.
Revenge isn't the sole motive when drug dealers strike out at each other, police say.
"I think it's turf wars," Blankenberg said. "Somebody's trying to take over somebody's area and put them out of business."