BY JENNIFER SINCO KELLEHER
Armed burglars who targeted occupied Long Island homes prompted even Gov. George Pataki to pledge in October that police here would have every resource at their disposal.
It put Suffolk Police Commissioner Richard Dormer and County Executive Steve Levy on the defensive, reiterating at every opportunity that Suffolk is a safe place to live.
Dormer released a statement then proclaiming that first-degree burglaries were down in 2005 from the previous year. From Jan. 1 to Oct. 13, 2004, there were 23 first-degree burglaries of occupied homes in which the residents did not know the armed attackers, police officials said. For the same period in 2005, there were 17.
Nine home invasions in Nassau and three in Suffolk are believed to be linked to a three-man crew of burglars that crept into houses after midnight, confronted terrified residents with weapons and demanded valuables.
"We had one crew that was running around doing random, Average Joe homes," Det. Sgt. John Giambrone of Nassau's Robbery Squad said. "We had no idea where or when these individuals were going to strike. And that's what struck the fear - and rightfully so - among every Nassau resident."
But that crew is now behind bars, and since the arrest of the last member in November, armed burglaries of random, occupied homes in both counties seem to have quelled, Nassau and Suffolk police said.
Since then, only one - a Centereach apartment in November - appears to have been random.
Most of the homes that the arrested crew invaded had several things in common, police said - open windows or doors and easy access to a parkway or the Long Island Expressway.
While all residents should take basic precautions of locking doors and windows, even while at home, the random home invasion isn't a reason to live in fear, Suffolk Third Squad Commander Det. Lt. Matt Sullivan said.
"There has not been a rash of them in Suffolk County," he said. "In a lot of other cases, there seems to be a reason the home was targeted."
Those reasons tend to be drugs, the homeowners' involvement in a business that generates a lot of cash, or the perpetrators having a previous relationship with the residents.
Chris McGoey, president of a Los Angeles security consulting company, said those who invade homes are typically selective about their targets.
"For the average homeowner, the risk is not great," he said. "But for those who have a high-profile lifestyle or their home looks like an easy target, they're going to be put at the top of that risk."
Victims of a Great Neck home invasion last month said they believe members of their family were followed home from their Brooklyn jewelry store. Four suspects in that case were later arrested.
On Sept. 11, 2004, Marty Bodner's West Hempstead family was targeted because of his catering business, he said. Early that morning, he woke up with a shotgun aimed at his head and a machete to his neck, while another man held a knife over his wife.
The Bodners and their then 8-year-old daughter and 20-year-old son were tied up while the men took about $50,000 in jewelry and electronics.
Three men, Eddie Hernandez, 21, of Ridgewood, Erlyn Binet, 22, of Flushing, and Anthony Haynes, 24, of Brooklyn, were later arrested and convicted of first-degree burglary. They are now serving 10-year prison sentences.
"The person who was the ringleader was our cleaning lady's son," Bodner, 50, said. "We were very good to her and this is the way he paid us back."
That relationship helped the men gain knowledge of the family's habits, and they were able to get in through a door Bodner isn't sure was locked and because he normally didn't activate his alarm during the Jewish Sabbath.
Bodner said because his ordeal wasn't a random case, he doesn't think others should be afraid. "But I think people still need to be careful," he said.
A case that is still being investigated involves an Islip Terrace apartment that was converted from a garage. On Nov. 29, a couple was asleep on the sofa when armed men burst in, taking cash and a rifle. Detectives don't believe that apartment was targeted randomly.
From the outside, the apartment looks very much like it is still simply a garage. Even neighbors said they had no idea people were living there.
The Halloween burglary of a Brentwood home where a couple was bound with a telephone cord and duct tape is also not believed to be random, Sullivan said.
Three men from Brentwood who have been arrested in that case had a "loose acquaintance relationship with the family members," Sullivan said, declining to elaborate.
Sullivan noted that often what seems to be a home invasion ends up being a drug deal gone wrong. In Nassau, Giambrone estimated that there are about 15 to 20 home invasions each year in which drugs or the residents' business dealings were the reasons a home was targeted. Suffolk police did not make similar data available.
Even the victim of one of the three in Suffolk that was believed to be part of the pattern said she doesn't feel like Long Island is suddenly a hotbed of home invasions.
The Great River woman, who asked not to be identified, said the Sept. 28 home invasion, in which burglars entered through an unlocked window, taught her family to be more careful.
"I'm not afraid to be home," she said. "I won't live in fear. I won't be a victim."
In search of safety; Cops and burglary victims stress vigilance over fear