Psyches take biggest hit when crime invades the home

While burglaries are down citywide, a series of audacious home invasions in and around Buckhead have left many who live in the affluent north Atlanta neighborhood on edge.

In late May, two gunmen entered a $3 million mansion on Paces Ridge Road, covered the residents' heads with towels and drove one victim to an ATM to withdraw cash. The robbers stole jewelry and "demanded more money by morning and threatened to harm (the) family if demands were not met, " police said at the time.

A month later, another Buckhead couple were held at gunpoint for more than 90 minutes as two masked men demanded, and eventually received, jewelry and cash.

“We obviously feared for our lives,” one of the victims, Mark Mansfield, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Thank God they didn’t shoot us.”

A west Midtown father wasn't so lucky. Two weeks ago, Michael Lash was shot in both legs by an 18-year-old after trying to prevent the suspect and three other youthful accomplices from entering his home where his wife was putting their two young children to bed.

Whitney Lash dodged bullets as she ran from the home carrying the couple’s 6-month-old daughter.

The alleged shooter, Brandon Jerome Smith, was arrested last week. On Tuesday, three teenage suspects, all juveniles, were arrested, police said; their names and the charges were not released. All four were indicted by a Fulton County grand jury on Tuesday.

Neither Whitney Lash, her daughter or the couple’s 2-year-old son were injured, and her husband is expected to fully recover.

But the psychic scars may take longer to heal.

“Home invasions can be particularly difficult to deal with because they combine the trauma of terrorism with the feeling that you’ve been singled out,” said Charles Figley, a professor specializing in disaster mental health at Tulane University. “Home is the one place human beings can go to feel safe, and when that security is taken from you it can be very traumatic.”

Even when the burglars are stopped in their tracks.

Six months ago, Sara Rethinger was asleep in her Lake Claire home she shares with her husband and two children when she was awakened by a noise outside.

While investigating the source of the noise she spotted a beam of light shining on a back door handle. Someone was trying to break in.

Fortunately the would-be intruder was dissuaded, likely due to the family’s barking dog. Still, Rethinger has found it difficult to forget.

“I’m constantly on alert now,” Rethinger said. “It changed the way I feel about my house. I had to get earplugs because I couldn’t sleep. Every noise had me on edge.”

Zone 2, which includes Buckhead and west Midtown, has seen a 15 percent increase in residential burglaries from the same time last year, according to Atlanta police crime stats. They accounted for 333 of the 469 total burglaries reported in Zone 2.

“We look daily at crime patterns and trends and deploy our resources accordingly,” said APD Zone 2 Commander Van Hobbs. “The police cannot be everywhere all the time but we use technology to deploy our personnel.”

Two suspects from Memphis were indicted in connection with the May burglary and are considered possible suspects in the June break-in and another, similar incident in Buckhead earlier this year.

Figley said there’s been little research into the traumatic effects of home invasions. Many people don’t want to discuss it while those who haven’t experienced it tend to overlook the impact it can have, particularly when other family members are involved.

Rethinger compared her brush with a burglar to an incident several years earlier, when her purse was snatched as she walked on a crowded street.

“That didn’t freak me out,” she said. “But when they come into your house, it makes it personal.”

Victims will often question their behavior during a break-in and whether they could have done something differently to protect, Figley said. They also can’t help but wonder: What if it happens again?

“You have to create your own narrative,” said Figley, who has worked with numerous patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. “Don’t beat yourself up, it’s going to take awhile.”