Today's Edition News Sports Obits Weather Events Contests Classifieds Autos Jobs Search
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
story.lead_photo.caption This March 26, 2020 image from surveillance video shows a man, believed to be William Rosario Lopez wearing a surgical mask, with a gun in a Connecticut convenience store. Just how many criminals are taking advantage of the pandemic to commit crimes is impossible to estimate, but law enforcement officials have no doubt that the numbers are climbing. Reports are starting to pop up across the country, as well as in other parts of the world of crimes that were pulled off in no small part because so many of us are wearing masks. (U.S. District Court of Connecticut via AP)

CHICAGO (AP) — The way the FBI tells it, William Rosario Lopez put on a surgical mask and walked into the Connecticut convenience store looking to the world like a typical pandemic-era shopper as he picked up plastic wrap, fruit snacks and a few other items. Then, when the only other customer left, he went to the counter, pulled out a small pistol, pointed it at the clerk and demanded he open the cash register.

The scene, the FBI contends in a court document, was repeated by Lopez in four other gas station stores over eight days before his April 9 arrest. It underscores a troubling new reality for law enforcement: Masks that have made criminals stand apart long before bandanna-wearing robbers knocked over stagecoaches in the Old West and ski-masked bandits held up banks now allow them to blend in like concerned accountants, nurses and store clerks trying to avoid a deadly virus.

"Criminals, they're smart and this is a perfect opportunity for them to conceal themselves and blend right in," said Richard Bell, police chief in the tiny Pennsylvania community of Frackville. He said he knows of seven recent armed robberies in the region where every suspect wore a mask.

Across the United States, masks have become more and more prevalent, first as a voluntary precaution and then as a requirement imposed by governmental agencies and businesses. And people with masks — as well as latex gloves — have found their way into more and more crime reports.

Just how many criminals are taking advantage of the pandemic to commit crimes is impossible to estimate, but law enforcement officials have no doubt the numbers are climbing. Reports are starting to pop up across the United States and in other parts of the world of crimes pulled off in no small part because so many of us are now wearing masks.

In March, two men walked into Aqueduct Racetrack in New York wearing the same kind of surgical masks as many racing fans there and, at gunpoint, robbed three workers of a quarter-million dollars they were moving from gaming machines to a safe. Other robberies involving suspects wearing surgical masks have occurred in North Carolina, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere in recent weeks.

The problem isn't limited to robberies. In the troubled Cook County Jail in Chicago, the virus has led to at least nine deaths and sickened hundreds of inmates and correctional officers. Staffers must wear masks and inmates are issued a new one every day — a policy that helped one inmate escape May 2.

Jahquez Scott, jailed on a gun charge and for violating his bond in a drug case, has tattoos of a small heart on one cheek and what looks like a blood-dripping scar on the other. But when he wore a mask, he posed as Quintin Henderson — who doesn't have tattoos on his face and was scheduled to be released, authorities said.

Scott made it out, though he was captured a week later.

In addition to rare jailbreaks, the prevalence of masks in society has created other problems for law enforcement. Before life in a pandemic, masked marauders had to free their faces immediately after leaving a bank or store to avoid suspicion once in the general public. But it came with the risk of being photographed and identified through omnipresent surveillance cameras and cellphones.

These days, they can keep the masks on and blend in easily with or without being "captured" in images.

"The video is much less useful if we are unable to see a face," said Carlos Marquez, a detective division commander in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, in an email.

It's leaving law enforcement without a crucial crime-solving tool.

"Guys are like, 'OK, I have to wear a mask, the police are not going to stop me on the way to a crime and back from a crime wearing a mask,'" said Brendan Deenihan, chief of detectives for Chicago Police Department. "Now, if you are going to commit a crime, you can leave your house with a mask on and drive for an hour."

With everyone basically incognito, would-be witnesses might not notice someone acting differently, and that would make it harder to get a good description or identification of the suspect, said Eric Nuez, chief of the Los Alamitos Police Department in Southern California and president of the California Police Chiefs Association.

It's less likely now that other shoppers would "stare at them, just making mental notes of what they look like," Nuez said. "If they look like everybody else walking in, they may not do that at all."

COMMENTS - It looks like you're using Internet Explorer, which isn't compatible with our commenting system. You can join the discussion by using another browser, like Firefox or Google Chrome.
It looks like you're using Microsoft Edge. Our commenting system is more compatible with Firefox and Google Chrome.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT