Drug-related home invasions on the rise in Lawrence

Several times a year, Lawrence residents answer a knock at the door only to be assaulted by armed robbers demanding drugs, cash, or both.

Very often, but not always, police say, the victims are drug dealers, typically college-age young people selling marijuana from their homes. In some cases, more aggressive criminals who see them as easy targets beat them up. In others, people have been shot and killed.

There are even cases where criminals force their way into a home after their intended target has moved away, leaving them to terrorize the current residents, who don’t have drugs or cash to give up.

At least five home invasions have occurred in Lawrence since December, but police believe the true number to be much higher. Many are not reported, said Sgt. Trent McKinley, a Lawrence Police Department spokesman, because the stolen property is itself illegal and the victims don’t want to tell police the whole story.

‘It is a regular occurrence’

Not everyone is reluctant to call police after being attacked. The most recent home invasion was reported in West Lawrence on Aug. 14. In that incident, two men attacked and robbed 19-year-old Payton Cummings at the apartment he shares with a roommate in the 2300 block of Wakarusa Drive. Cummings answered a knock at the door about 5 p.m. Two men barged in, struck him in the face, and threatened him with a handgun. The robbers left with a cell phone, a computer, and about $1,200 in music recording equipment.

Police said they believed an unknown amount of marijuana was also stolen, but Cummings declined to comment about that. He did say he was initially hesitant to report the robbery to police, but ultimately did because he wanted his property back.

Two days later, police arrested Lawrence man Charles M. Johnson, 22, and recovered some items that police said belonged to Cummings. Johnson was charged in Douglas County District Court with one count of aggravated robbery and is scheduled to appear in court again on Sept. 27.

Cummings said the incident left him conflicted. He was initially angry with the people who robbed him, but said he also knows that Johnson could go to prison for the crime. If he has kids, what will happen to them? If this is the result of America’s problems with poverty becoming mixed up with crime, Cummings said, he isn’t sure drugs are the problem.

“I was really bitter at first,” he said. “Then I took a step back, and it’s not something that I can stay angry about.”

For police, it was yet another case in what has become an all-too-familiar pattern. “It is a regular occurrence,” said McKinley, the Lawrence police spokesman. “It didn’t used to happen with that much frequency, and you’re seeing, more and more, firearms being used. That’s disturbing.”

Less than two weeks before the Aug. 14 incident, Lawrence detectives had been called to another home invasion in the 700 block of New Jersey Street, where four armed men had burst into a home, demanded cash, and injured two people. Later, investigators determined that the men were looking for a person who was suspected of selling drugs but had moved out of the residence days before. That case is still open, according to police.

So far this year, no one has been shot in these incidents. In December, one of three men accused of a similar robbery, just five blocks away, was accidentally shot while he and an accomplice allegedly attempted to kick in a door in the 1200 block of New Jersey Street. Connor McKenzie Mayhan, 21, of Olathe, testified in court that the target of the robbery was $30,000 in drug money.

Such robberies might always have been a feature of the illicit drug trade, but law enforcement officials say it appears to be a problem in Lawrence more than in some other cities. In Overland Park, for example, police counted only one or two drug-related home robberies in a year. “We don’t see it very often,” said Officer Michelle Koos, a department spokeswoman.

In Lawrence, police statistics don’t count home invasions as distinct from muggings or liquor store robberies, so specifics are hard to come by. And because the crime is typically under-reported, experts say, it’s hard to know whether the crimes are happening more frequently, or whether the victims are more often calling the police.

“In that sense, it might actually be positive,” said Richard Wright, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “It may sound odd, but it’s really important when criminals go to talk to police. That reduces violence in society and it might show an increased trust in the police.”

From bad to worse

Police and prosecutors have complained of an increase in this type of crime before. In 2011, they identified six drug-related home robberies over the previous two years. In 2008, they counted four, including a double homicide on Delaware Street, which Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson points to as an example of how badly such incidents can turn out.

There, two teenagers had gone to the home of Roland Klundt, a 20-year-old Baker University student, to rob him of drugs and money. But Klundt was armed, and shot one of the teens, killing him. The other teenager, Kellam Jones, 16 at the time, of Lawrence, then killed Klundt with a rifle. He was convicted of murder and is serving a 14-year sentence in the El Dorado prison. He will eligible for parole in June 2020.

“We certainly want to impress upon young people how dangerous this can be,” Branson said. While some may view marijuana as less harmful than other illegal drugs, he said, being involved in large quantities of drugs and cash has gotten people killed. “They’re putting their lives at risk, their friends’ lives at risk, and, of course, their property” at risk, he said.

The robbers put themselves in jeopardy, too, as police and courts have often been successful in solving these cases. Of the five home robberies reported here since December, police have made arrests in all but one. In a high-profile case, former Kansas University football player Chris Martin was dismissed from the program not long after being charged in a drug-related home robbery on Camelback Drive in May.

Most of the defendants in those cases, like Martin, are still working through the courts, but some have pleaded guilty and await sentencing.