Heather Southerland had just gotten in her car after an evening visit with a girlfriend in Leesville, La. As she drove away, a green Ford Bronco pulled close behind her, flashing its lights. Southerland, 24, turned onto a deserted side street. "The man got out of his Bronco and said, 'Leesville Police Department, undercover narcotics, step out of the car,'" she recalls. He ordered her to walk backwards toward him and put her hands on the trunk of her vehicle. She asked to see his badge—and he refused. "He said I didn't need to see his badge," she says. "I knew right then something extremely bad was about to happen."

It did. Seconds later, as she tried to flee, the man grabbed her and raped her at knifepoint. Impersonating a cop is one of the oldest criminal ruses around; with a bubble light, fake badge and a lot of attitude, it isn't difficult to get a potential victim to let their guard down for a moment. What is startling is that such incidents happen more often than many people imagine—and that in the age of the Internet, where badges and uniforms are readily available, it has never been easier to pull off. While no national statistics are kept, earlier this year the Chicago Sun-Times ran a series on fake cops that documented how in the past three years there had been more than 1,000 cases in the Chicago area alone of people posing as police to commit a variety of crimes.

The series produced such an outcry that the Illinois legislature is considering a set of laws increasing the penalties for those caught impersonating a cop. "It's frightening if you're driving at night and you have to worry whether the car behind you with the flashing lights is a real police car," says Sgt. Brian Carr of the Houston police, whose own department last month arrested a man who allegedly masqueraded as a cop to try to enter a woman's apartment. The man had allegedly used fake police decals on as many as 15 different vehicles over the years.

A series of high-profile cases across the country highlights the danger. On Long Island, Reginald Gousse is now on trial for the 2005 murder of assistant bank branch manager James Gottlieb, 49, who was shot after Gousse, who has pleaded not guilty, allegedly pretended to be a police officer and pulled him over. The mortally wounded Gottlieb told a witness, "I stopped because I thought it was a cop." Meanwhile, in Blacksburg, S.C., Charles Connor is accused of going into a convenience store last September in a police-style khaki shirt with a two-way radio and a gun on his hip and telling owner Nick Patel that he was a North Carolina cop. As police tell it, for 90 minutes he hung out in the store, chatting with Patel until they were alone. Then he demanded all his money. Patel, married with two children, turned over $5,168. Then, police say, Connor, a former corrections officer who has pleaded not guilty, shot Patel in the head. "Connor knew enough to convincingly pretend to be a police officer," says Cherokee County Sheriff Bill Blanton. "When someone poses as an officer, they automatically gain the trust of their victim."

Sometimes a moment's compliance is all the fake cop is looking for. According to authorities, last September Luz Heredia, 53, of Melrose Park, Ill., was in a car on her way to her factory job with two coworkers when a man approached and flashed a badge. Moments later he allegedly grabbed Heredia, who had six grandkids, and pulled her from the vehicle, saying, "You're coming with me." He forced her into his SUV. Less than two hours later she was found sexually assaulted and beaten; she died five days later. (Jorge Dominguez, 28, has been charged in the crime and has pleaded not guilty.) "My mother had her gut instinct," says Heredia's daughter Lina Hernandez. "But she didn't want to go against the law."

The impostors often have a habit of playing their roles repeatedly until they get caught. In the Southerland case that didn't take long. As she was being driven to the police station Southerland noticed a green Bronco, similar to the one driven by her assailant. Cops checked up on the vehicle, which was registered to Chad Elliott, 31, a welder. They ultimately linked Elliott to an earlier incident in which a man posing as a police officer had raped a 19-year-old woman on the outskirts of town after stopping her on the pretext of checking to see if she had been drinking. Elliott pleaded guilty to forcible rape in both attacks and was sentenced to 50 years in prison. "The level of force he used seemed to increase every time," says Chief Det. Marvin Hilton. "I think if he had continued, he would have killed someone."

Wendy Cohen knows the price of being one victim too late. Her daughter Lacy Miller, 20, was abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered in January 2003. Police believe Jason Clausen used a flashing hazard light to waylay Miller as she drove home in Fort Collins, Colo., late one night. "If he hadn't had the lights, she'd still be here because he couldn't have pulled her over," says Cohen. Authorities say that in the two weeks before Miller's murder, Clausen, 25, who had tried and failed to become a real sheriff's deputy, had twice faked being a cop. In one instance he had used his police-style lights to pull a woman over but had fled when she asked for identification. In another he was caught masquerading as an officer near a motel that had been robbed. (Clausen pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to life without parole.) "He had the police paraphernalia—a badge, guns and the red lights," says Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden. "Maybe Lacy's murder would have been preventable had a tougher law been on the books."

Seeking to close that loophole, Cohen started a petition drive that in 2004 helped to form a new set of statutes, known popularly as Lacy's Law, that have significantly strengthened the sanctions against fake cops. Whereas using police-type lights without proper authority was formerly only a traffic infraction, it is now a criminal matter. And anyone caught breaking the law, even trespassing, while pretending to be a police officer can now be charged with a felony. But Southerland believes that perhaps the best defense is even greater wariness (see box, page 66). "Women especially should not stop their cars, let alone get out of them, when they are not absolutely certain the person flagging them down is a police officer," she says. "This opened my eyes to a lot of things. I thought I was a careful person."

CONVICTED OF FORCIBLE RAPE
Chad Elliott

ACCUSED OF MURDER
Charles Connor

ACCUSED OF MURDER
Jorge Dominguez

CONVICTED OF MURDER
Jason Clausen

  • Contributors:
  • Vickie Bane/Fort Collins,
  • Steve Barnes/Leesville,
  • Cary Cardwell/San Antonio,
  • Steve Helling/Blacksburg,
  • Hilary Shenfeld/Chicago,
  • Diane Herbst/New York,
  • Kristen Mascia/New York.