SEATTLE - A series of recent high-profile crimes all have a common thread. They involve people posing as police officers.
The KING 5 Investigators have learned it may be more than coincidence that there are so many "police posers" on the streets these days and that it is often hard to tell them apart from the good guys.
To passers-by at a Federal Way truck stop earlier this year, it looked like law enforcement was taking down one of its own. A marked K-9 vehicle was pulled over, the man driving it placed in cuffs, and the sidearm from his holster seized. He was stopped by an off-duty King County detective who saw the car driving down I-5 and played a hunch it wasn't an actual cop.
He was right, yet the 38-year old Renton man had the gun and a car outfitted with emergency lights and loaded with police gear.
"I think if they have the equipment (like)the cars, the radios, the lights, the uniforms, they have an ulterior motive and it's not a good one," said Lila Gatewood of Pierce County.
She isn't a backseat driver on this issue, she's a victim. In 2007 a truck, with flashing red and blue lights, pulled her over. Mark Ditty stepped out, yelling that she cut him off while he was tailing a suspect.
"he was in a blue uniform when he approached the car, there was a badge, " said Gatewood.
However, Ditty wasn't a cop and Gatewood wonders what would have happened along highway 512 if a real trooper hadn't appeared minutes later, leading to Ditty's arrest for impersonation.
"I think it was gonna turn out bad, either handcuffed or taken away or sexually assaulted," said Gatewood.
In recent weeks, several criminals have hid behind flashing lights and badges in a series of unrelated crimes. In Pierce County, two gun-wielding men with a police lights in their vehicle have pulled over and handcuffed restaurant employees, and used their keys to rob the restaurants. They raped one captive.
In another case, detectives arrested an armed man who visited a University Place school in uniform, a man with a long history of impersonating officers.
And before he was accused of killing a Seattle Police officer, Christopher Monfort wanted to be one. He was rejected by at least one police department, but drove this police-type car with a spotlight in the months before he was accused of killing photo officer Timothy Brenton.
Police impersonation is hardly a new crime but there are those who believe there's more of it going on.
The Web site www.Policeposers.com tracks incidents nationwide. Its operators tell KING 5 they've seen growing numbers of police impersonation cases. They believe online stores that sell realistic police equipment, including badges and lights, make it too easy for imposters to fulfill a fantasy or commit a crime.
"I think most agencies are seeing that", says Pierce County Sheriff's detective Ed Troyer. "(We) have a list of cars and people we're concerned about who dress and act like cops, whether its for criminal activity or for the feeling of pretending to be out there like law enforcement. We have a few people out there with some mental issues trying to pretend they're being law enforcement officers."
In Pierce County the two imposters who escalated from restaurant robberies to rape are still at large.
Here's what authorities suggest if you're pulled over by an unmarked car with flashing lights:
- First, drive to a well lit area.
- If you have any question whether it's a legitimate police vehicle, call 911 to verify the traffic stop.
- And authorities even recommend you ask for a marked vehicle to respond in Pierce County, where the rape and restaurant robbers occurred.
Some police posers walk the thin line of legality. The Renton man had a concealed weapons permit and because his car doesn't specifically say "police," it's legal. He's free, back on the road today, and exactly what Lila Gatewood fears seeing again in her rear view mirror.
"I worry about the vehicle behind me or the one sitting beside me," she said. "It brings it right back to the surface."