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Home invasion faced with clear heads, pounding hearts

One Denver couple survives a nightmare. You can learn from their ordeal.

By Joe DePriest
jdepriest@charlotteobserver.com
Joe DePriest
Joe DePriest is a columnist for the Neighbors of Catawba & Gaston.

The sound of breaking glass wakes you in the dead of night. An intruder slips in and begins stalking around the house. There's no telephone in your bedroom, and you can't dial 911.

So you wait – and pray – as the door begins to open.

A nightmare scenario. One that Troy and Becky Howard of Denver recently experienced.

This is what Troy Howard did when an intruder opened his bedroom door: he slammed it shut and blasted away with a double-barrel shotgun.

The suspect ran, trailing blood through the house, down the drive and onto Catawba Burris Road. The Lincoln County Sheriff's Office has warrants out for the arrest of 16-year-old Tyler Lee Hice.

Police define a home invasion as a robbery in which someone knowingly breaks into an occupied home with the intent of robbing the people inside, using threats or violence.

According to authorities, most home invasions aren't random; victims and robbers are often connected in some way, directly or indirectly.

Home invasions are something that happen to other people. That's the way always I've looked at it. Or tried to. I shove to the back of my mind that faint throb of fear that pops up every time I hear about a house being broken into. But reality sets in. The anxiety resurfaces when I realize innocent victims are also targets. Home invasions can happen to anybody.

Standing his ground

Troy Howard, 71, felt safe.

He and his wife, Becky, had lived in the same house since 1961.

East Lincoln was where Troy Howard had grown up – not far from the legendary Rock Springs Campground started by Methodists nearly 200 years ago.

Back in the 1950s, when Howard was in the Marines, a grenade explosion damaged his hearing. He wasn't wearing a hearing aid on June 9 when his wife was startled by breaking glass in the carport around 3 a.m.

Nudging him in bed, she whispered in his ear: “Wake up. There's somebody in the house.”

Troy Howard picked up a 12-gauge shotgun from the corner while his wife locked the bedroom door and hid in a closet.

Armed and standing by the door in his new underwear, he remembered he only had two shotgun shells. The rest of the ammunition was in another part of the house.

So was the telephone. He couldn't call 911.

Others might have felt trapped, but not the former Marine. Howard clutched the shotgun, determined to hold his ground.

“I didn't know how many people were out there,” he said. “But I wasn't going to let them come in and kill me and my wife. I was standing like a Marine, ready to charge.”

Through a crack in the bottom of the door Howard saw a light moving in the adjoining room.

At the time, he couldn't hear anything. Later, his wife would tell him she'd detected a noise that may have been the intruder removing the door knob with a screwdriver.

Suddenly, the door flew open. And Howard went into action. He jammed the door shut with the shotgun and fired at the same time – twice.

“I decided to go for it,” he told me. “I hollered, ‘Get the hell out of here you s--n of a b---h'.”

At the urging of his wife, Howard waited about 30 minutes before venturing into the next room. The intruder was gone.

Things were in a mess from the shooting. But he and his wife were safe.

‘We need to know'

Lincoln County Sheriff Tim Daugherty and I recently talked about the home invasion and a series of suspicious late-night activities in the county.

Three elderly females told him about hearing loud knocking on their front doors from a woman claiming her vehicle had broken down. She wanted the residents to let her in so she could use the telephone.

In each case, the woman wasn't allowed inside the houses, but none of the residents called 911 or officially reported the incidents.

Daugherty said two of the women told him what had happened when he bumped into them at businesses around the county. The third woman, whom he knew, called him at home.

What can people do to feel safer at home?

Daugherty suggested keeping doors and windows locked; not letting strangers who want to use the telephone into the house; surrounding homes with adequate lightning.

Other options: install alarm systems and deadbolts and stock pepper spray and Taser devices.

And if you see any funny business going on around your house, call 911.

“We won't fuss at you,” Daugherty said. “We need to know.”

The ideal drill for a home invasion is this: Get out of the house. Let the intruders have it. Insurance can replace your stuff. Look after your own safety – and be able to give investigators detailed information later.

When I touched base with Troy Howard last week, he'd about finished installing an alarm system, along with deadbolts on all the doors.

The shotgun blasts made his hearing problem worse, but he expects that will improve with time.

Meanwhile, in the place he'd always felt safe before, Howard will be more watchful.

“It's hard to trust anyone,” he said.

I agree. But I'm hoping for a day when that's no longer true.

Joe DePriest: 704-868-7745; jdepriest@charlotteobserver.com

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