The neatly-kept living room, with an Olivia cartoon on the TV, could have been any one of our living rooms.
The 3-year-old girl on the couch, paralyzed with fear, could have been any one of our kids.
The video of the home invasion in New Jersey, caught on a nanny cam, went viral last week and horrified the country. Our family was on vacation when I heard about it. I hesitated before I clicked on the video; I knew what I’d see would forever remain lodged in my mind. But I watched. I couldn’t help it: That home invasion happened close to where we live.
I did not personally know this mom, but I could easily have. Like me, she’s a working mom with two kids in a nice suburban neighborhood. The intruder repeatedly punched her. He kicked her in the face. He threw her down the basement stairs. She suffered a concussion, bruises, chipped teeth and cuts around her mouth. I heard her talking on the news, her face off camera; she said she had purposely not resisted her attacker, because she did not want to traumatize her little girl.
How could this have happened?
This summer, it’s ten years since we moved to our house. There have been daytime burglaries over the years in the area, and a few home invasions in surrounding areas. In general, violent crime are rare where we live. After a robbery on our block years ago, I started a Neighborhood Watch Group. The police let me know if there were any incidents—say, a rash of bicycle thefts—and I’d alert the group. The police encouraged us to keep an eye on each other’s homes. If you see something weird, they said, don’t hesitate to call the precinct.
Over the years, I’ve called the police when I’ve seen the occasional stranger wandering around, or a workman who didn’t have an official vehicle parked nearby. But the watch group had fallen to the wayside in the last couple of years; just last month, a sergeant had gotten in touch to let me know about a couple of robberies, and to tell me to remind neighbors that the police offered free home security checks.
And now, the home invasion. The creep boldly kicked down the back door, in the morning. Our area had never seen a crime of this caliber, a shocking, senseless beating by an intruder in front of a child, no less. People in a local mom group I’m part of shared information on where to drop off meals for the family. Local businesses and individuals contributed toward the reward money for tips leading to an arrest. I couldn’t get the incident out of my head the entire vacation, and kept obsessively checking the news.
Friday evening, cops arrested Shawn Custis, 42, in New York City. The guy has 12 felony convictions dating back to the 1990s, reports say. He faces charges of first-degree attempted murder, first-degree robbery, second-degree burglary and two counts of endangering the welfare of a child. I felt relieved—especially for the poor mom, because at least she’d have the peace of mind knowing her attacker had been caught.
As we drove back into our neighborhood after vacation, the pleasures of suburbia greeted us. We passed kids playing in the street. I waved to a cluster of neighbors talking on a corner. The blue hydrangeas in our front yard were in full bloom. This is the neighborhood I adore, the house of my dreams. And I decided then and there that I was not going to be afraid.
I keep thinking back to the criminology class I took in college, and the discussion we had one day about how there’s no such thing as a “safe” neighborhood. As much as we like to think of our homes as a haven, crime happens; to pretend otherwise is to live in a fairytale. I’ve gotten a bit complacent over the years, not even bothering to turn on our home security system, but now we will. We’ve activated the little chime that tinkles whenever anyone comes in and out of a door. I’m also going to reinvigorate our Neighborhood Watch Group, starting with a meeting with that sergeant about safety tips and what to do if you confront an intruder. And, of course, I’ve reminded the kids about steering clear of strangers.
To date, the police have yet to release further details about the crime. Local moms haven’t stopped buzzing about it. This attack, some said, had seemed personal; instead of telling the woman to stay put, the jerk kept coming after her. “He spent more time beating her than robbing her,” someone noted on a message board. He seemed to know the layout of the home, another person mentioned. The woman’s nanny had called in sick that day, the rumor was. And she had a nanny cam. Perhaps this wasn’t a random attack but retribution of sorts, some wondered. Others pointed out that it’s natural to try and make this seem like a targeted crime, as a way of reassuring ourselves, but that it wasn’t likely the perp knew the victim.
I keep thinking of this mother, and fervently hope she will manage to get past this. I pray that her daughter is not emotionally scarred for life. But I refuse to let one Bad Guy destroy the serenity of my life in the home and neighborhood I love.
Image: Screen shot from News12 NJ video