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Crawford County Caper

Patrick Sullivan - April 30th, 2012  
How a cigarette butt led police to a group of burglars suspected of selling weapons to Detroit gangs

The first person to notice something awry was neighbor Philip Halbritter, who suspected trouble the day before a burglary even took place.

A loud car had come rumbling down the dirt road near his house, a quiet road any time of year, an especially quiet road in February. He heard the car long before he saw it, and when he did see it, he watched it do a bad job of making a turn onto his small road in an out-of-the-way, remote spot in Crawford County.

The car drove into a snow bank. When the two guys got out, he didn’t recognize them. So Halbritter watched.

“You know, when you’ve got two out of the Three Stooges putting on a floor show in your yard, you pay attention,” Halbritter said.

The guys pushed their car out of the snow bank and they left. But they’d made an impression.

The next day, Halbritter saw a door to his neighbor’s house was propped open.

His neighbor was in Arizona. Something wasn’t right. He hopped on his four-wheeler to check the place out and discovered a break-in had occurred.

“The deed was done, so I called the cops,” Halbritter said.

CIGARETTE IN THE SNOW

Halbritter reported the break-in on Feb.3, 2010.

When police arrived, they noticed wellworn tracks through the snow between the house and where a get-away vehicle would have been parked, around the corner from Halbritter’s place.

There had been a lot of foot traffic in between the cabin and the road, and someone had dragged something really heavy out of the house.

One of the first things Crawford County Sheriff’s Deputy Jason Alexander noticed was a cigarette butt, tossed into the snow outside the front door.

He asked Halbritter about it. Halbritter didn’t smoke.

Years ago Alexander had attended state police evidence school so he knew what to do with the butt. He took some photographs and then put on surgical gloves, picked it up and put it into a clean, brown paper bag.

The bag would be turned over to the state police crime lab for DNA tests.

Alexander also noticed the electrical box on the house had been vandalized. The globe had been pulled and wires were cut.

Someone wanted to disable an alarm, if there was an alarm, and they risked electrocuting themselves to do it.

GUN SAFE MISSING

When Alexander entered the house, which by now he knew was owned by a man named Dennis Lorenz, he saw it had been ransacked.

“It was apparent from entry into the first room that there had been items removed. In every room, clothes, beds, drawers, and other items were tossed,” he wrote in a police report.

After Alexander secured the house and came back outside, Halbritter informed the officer that Lorenz had kept many firearms in the house.

When Alexander spoke with the homeowner by phone, he learned there had been two gun safes upstairs in the house. Now there was only one.

Alexander, with help from Lorenz via telephone, began to tally what was stolen from the house -- Nineteen rifles, shotguns and handguns had been taken at a value that Lorenz estimated at $18,250.

They included a 12-guage Mossburg Home Protection shotgun. A .38-caliber Police Special Smith & Wesson revolver. A .38-caliber Colt Agent snub nose wooden grip revolver, and a 9mm P3B Luger.

Also among the stolen items were a large collection of hunting knives valued at $3,000, a strong box that contained jewelry and concealed carry permits, binoculars, a collection of coins, flat screen TVs, a stereo system and 300 rounds of custom loaded .243 ammo valued at $500.

The total value of stolen goods was estimated at over $53,000.

That first day’s investigation yielded no suspects and Lorenz told Alexander he didn’t know of anyone who would do this to him.

With so many unoccupied cabins throughout Northern Michigan that contained no valuables whatsoever in the winter, Alexander wondered how this gang of thieves stumbled upon this one.

EVIDENCE ADDS UP

The first break in the case came a month later, when another deputy, Ryan Swope, made a traffic stop after he noticed a suspicious man walking in the woods. The man looked like he was up to something.

When the man noticed Swope, the deputy said, the suspect ran back to the road and to his car, and Swope pulled him over.

Swope detained the man, Ryan Michael Plaga, 31, and his girlfriend, and called Alexander, because he knew Plaga from past encounters and thought he might be worth looking at as a suspect in the Lorenz break-in.

Plaga insisted he’d only stopped to relieve himself in the woods, but the deputy checked that out, and looked where he’d been, and couldn’t find any sign of that.

“I advised Plaga that his name had come up to me from other officers and that he was a possible suspect in a breaking and entering I had,” Alexander wrote in his police report. “Plaga stated he had done nothing.”

Alexander got permission to search the car, according to the report, and he found items that could be burglary tools -- a pair of wire cutters and a flashlight.

Lorenz would later identify the flashlight as coming from his house and the batteries inside it were checked for Lorenz’s fingerprints, to see if it could be proven the flashlight came from his house, but there were no prints.

Plaga still maintained he had nothing to do with the break-in and police had no evidence against him and they let him go.

Later in March, a busted-open gun safe was found dumped near a two-track in Roscommon County. It was the same road where Plaga lived.

Lorenz ID’d the safe as his from a photo and police went to Plaga’s home to search it. Plaga was in jail on drug charges at this point but his girlfriend, who was home, consented to a search, the officers said.

Police found nothing and investigators still had no evidence to connect Plaga to the break-in.

Despite the circumstantial evidence, the case was about to go cold.

DNA MATCH FOUND

And the case did go cold, until it got hot again.

In his police report, Dep. Alexander recorded the exact date and time, months later, when he received the news.

“On this date of 12-22-10 at approximately 1247 hours, I received an email from Nicole Graham, a forensic scientist with the Michigan State Police,” he wrote.

There had been a DNA match from the cigarette butt through CODIS, a police database of DNA profiles.

The cigarette belonged to Ryan Plaga. What’s more, the same DNA was also discovered on a straw found in a discarded cup of pop found at the scene of another breaking and entering.

Investigators now had some leverage to use against Plaga and deputies got a warrant for his arrest.

He was arrested on Dec. 27 in Houghton Lake at his place of employment, the Busy Bee Flea Market.

Deputies from Roscommon County drove Plaga to a gas station at the county line where they turned him over to Crawford County deputies at 4:48 p.m.

In Grayling, Plaga was put into an interview room, given a glass of water, and read his Miranda rights.

Every once in a while during the interview, a deputy escorted him outside so he could smoke.

He first denied involvement in the breakin, then admitted he “scoped” out the house but said he wasn’t involved.

He said he’d noticed some televisions and guns and that he had cut the wires out of the electric meter.

Plaga gave police a name of someone else who he said was involved, a man who had come to Roscommon from downstate to stay with him and his girlfriend – Michael Joseph Beaver.

TRUCK TO HAUL IT AWAY

Plaga said he was paid $300 for finding the break-in target, but police didn’t believe it.

“I told Plaga that I did not believe he was telling me the entire truth and that I believed he was there at the time of the actual breakin,” Alexander wrote.

As the day dragged on, however, Plaga became more forthcoming.

Later, while Plaga was eating dinner from a tray from the jail, he asked if he could talk off the record, according to the police report.

He admitted to being at the three cabins that were part of the other break-in investigation, where the straw from the cup of pop was found.

He described sort-of a three-little-piggies situation at those cabins because it took him a while to find the one that was just right for a break-in. Alexander wrote: “he looked at the first and observed that it had an alarm. Plaga stated that he had gone into the second one but ‘it had a piece of shit TV,’ and then onto the third where he found a nicer television set.”

“I told him, ‘You were at the (Lorenz) place on Old 144 weren’t you?” Alexander wrote.

Plaga nodded. Plaga would eventually describe an arduous ordeal of hauling guns and valuables out of the Lorenz house. The gun safe was so large and heavy, Plaga said, he feared the sound of it crashing down the stairs would wake neighbors. He told the investigators he and Beaver soon realized they had so much loot they needed a truck to haul it all away and they called someone for help.

This is when Plaga implicated another accomplice, Damon Pamame, who Plaga said arrived in a Ford F-250 pickup truck to help haul away the gun safe and other spoils of the burglary. Plaga said Pamame was paid with a .38 caliber revolver and a rifle for his trouble.

Meanwhile, Alexander tried to convince Plaga that he should help police recover all of those weapons.

“I asked him if he was concerned about the weapons offenses and he said that he was because he knew he would be going to prison, and the weapons charges meant more,” Alexander wrote. “I told Plaga that I was more concerned about getting the weapons back than stacking charges on him.”

Alexander and his superior, Det./Sgt.

John McDonald, did what they could to convince Plaga they could help him if he cooperated.

“He nodded and Det/Sgt McDonald took him outside for another cigarette,” Alexander wrote.

‘THIS AIN’T GOING TO STICK’

Over the next months, as Beaver and Pamame were charged and as a trial date approached, Plaga spent a lot of time out of jail on bond, ostensibly working with Alexander and McDonald to get the guns back.

There were leads here and there – a residence in Mio, a storage locker in Roscommon, associates downstate – but little came of his efforts.

For their part, Beaver and Pamame pled not guilty and never admitted to police any role in the break-in.

It was Plaga’s word that landed them in jail, and it was Plaga’s testimony that would be the evidence that would send them to prison, according to police reports and court transcripts.

Plaga, who pled guilty to lesser home invasion and firearms charges in a deal with the prosecutor, was sentenced to six years to 22 years in prison.

Beaver and Pamame were found guilty in a jury trial and were sentenced in March. Beaver, 32, was sentenced to 12 1/2 to 30 years in prison for first-degree home invasion. Pamame, 40, was sentenced to two to 15 years for receiving and concealing stolen firearms.

Beaver, who was arrested in Ecorse last May by a state police fugitive team and the US Marshall Service, maintained he was innocent when he was interviewed by police.

Beaver told McDonald, according to a police report: “I don’t know shit, I’m not from around here.”

McDonald told Beaver what Plaga said and Beaver said he didn’t believe that Plaga had said any of it.

“Beaver stated this is what I know about (the) guns. I woke up and they were there with the guns. I did not take any guns or anything. I did not do this. This is wrong, I’ll swear on my kid’s grave.”

He said he was only up in the area for a couple of weeks. He was having trouble with his girlfriend, he told the investigator, and he came up to stay with Plaga for a bit.

“Beaver stated he is not a burglar, this shit ain’t going to stick,” McDonald wrote.

Beaver’s attorney, Norman Robiner, said his client had nothing to do with the breakins or weapons sales. In fact, he said Beaver and Pamame only met for the first time in a courtroom.

Robiner said Beaver was convicted entirely on the word of Plaga and Plaga’s girlfriend, who both received deals in exchange for their testimony. Robiner believes Plaga was trying to protect his girlfriend and others.

As for allegations the guns were sold or traded to Detroit-area gangs, Robiner said Beaver had been a member of a gang as a youth but he’s no longer involved.

Robiner said he is filing an appeal of Beaver’s conviction and will seek a new trial.

‘THEY ARE SEARCHING FOR GUNS’

Still, much of the focus of this case was on getting those guns back.

Alexander and McDonald believe guns left in unattended cabins over the winter are a public safety issue.

In the case of Lorenz, he took measures to secure them and his cabin was more like a permanent home than a seasonal retreat, they said, though Lorenz was in Arizona when the break-in occurred.

“He had those weapons secured in safes, which you don’t find commonly,” Alexander said. In many cases, weapons are left “under the bed, they’re in the closet, they’re in a dresser drawer.”

McDonald said because people commonly leave firearms in cabins when they are gone over the winter, it makes them targets for thieves.

“A lot of our B&Es up here, during the winter months, you’ll go in there as an investigator, you’ll see the mattresses moved, stuff is moved, stuff in the closets is pulled out, people are going in there, they are searching for guns,” McDonald said. “People who come up here, they’re going to leave their old shotgun up at the cabin.”

McDonald said people who leave guns in cabins should record the serial numbers of weapons to help police if they are stolen.

GUNS ‘LOST TO DETROIT’

Most of the guns were never recovered and investigators believe they were either sold to or traded for drugs with Detroit area gangs.

Of at least 19 guns that were stolen from the Lorenz house, only six were recovered, two revolvers and four long guns, Alexander said.

“That was a part that we worked hard for, just the return of these weapons,” Alexander said.

That’s why Alexander and McDonald worked with Plaga to find the guns, even though they didn’t trust him. “Once those guns were sold down in Detroit, they were gone,” Alexander said.

Because Pamame and Beaver would not cooperate, and because Plaga’s cooperation was selective and self-serving, the connections to Detroit-area gangs in the case are murky.

Alexander said Plaga and Beaver each had connections to inner-city Detroit gangs though he said he didn’t know the name of the gang. He said Plaga was involved with a Hispanic gang and Beaver was involved with a gang that was that gang’s rival and that’s how the two knew each other.

The investigators said Pamame was involved with a Detroit-area motorcycle gang called the Highwaymen, a dangerous outfit largely sidelined in recent years after federal investigations “Just from experience, you know, (I understand) that they would take (the guns) down and that’s currency, I mean, they don’t care,” Alexander said. “To them it’s give the gun for a hundred bucks or trade it for the dope. The guns are lost now to Detroit until they’re used for a murder or a violent crime, or they’re confiscated by law enforcement.”

Alexander doesn’t think much of the defendants after working the case for so long. Dealing with Plaga and trying to get the weapons back was a tribulation, he said.

“You know, everyone of them is a career criminal, every single one of them, from the day that they could walk, they were stealing and lying, just working ways to get around through the system,” Alexander said. “I mean, dealing with this, it was like a pack of wolves, just turning on each other and backbiting. Disgusting. Just disgusting.”

‘SNITCHES GET STITCHES’

Alexander said he thinks Plaga, in prison, will attempt to spin what he did so he doesn’t get branded a snitch.

“I think that Plaga wanted to get down there (to prison) and Plaga’s going to spin it somehow that Beaver was the rat, you know, they’re both going to be doing that,” Alexander said. “He’ll try to spin it to his people. ... It won’t ever end.”

Plaga might have more to worry about from Pamame, because of his connections to the Highwaymen.

Pamame’s girlfriend, Mary Vann, a suspect in the case who has been charged but who has fled to Tennesee, made a scene during the trial when she testified for the defense.

She apparently showed the jury what she thought of Plaga by revealing a tattoo on her arm that read, “Snitches Get Stitches.”

In court, Alexander said Vann pulled up her sleeve and showed the tattoo in a fairly dramatic moment of courtroom testimony.

She said: “’You want to see it? You want to see it? Just look right here,’” Alexander said, quoting Vann. “Honestly, if I was going to be scared of anybody, Mary Vann and Pamame are” it.

Based on her testimony at the trial, Alexander sought and received a warrant for her arrest on charges of receiving and concealing stolen property.

Vann was charged and while out on bond fled the state. McDonald said she will be picked up on the felony warrant if she is ever spotted in Michigan again.

HOW THEY FOUND THE CABIN

Perhaps the biggest mystery of the case, even more than what happened to the guns, is how these guys knew to go after the Lorenz cabin in the first place.

Did they just get lucky? Did they have inside information? Certainly, when they struck the Lorenz cabin, they found the proverbial needle in a haystack.

“It’s extremely hard to believe that they just picked that house, out of so many others that are in the county,” Alexander said. “If you look at the outside of that residence, it’s nothing special. I guess to me, if I was going to break into something, I’d be going along the river to the big houses, you know, the ones that look like they would hold more value to them. This was just a cabin.”

Alexander and McDonald said they will probably never know how the house was selected.

One connection that leads them to believe the cabin might have been targeted is the possibility that Plaga or one of the others knew Lorenz’s former son-in-law, a criminal who had been married to Lorenz’s daughter.

Plaga had previously been to prison and could have met the son-in-law there, the investigators said. There was testimony in court that Pamame had inside information.

But that’s just a theory, and the ex-son-in-law, David Bowling, is no longer available to say one way or another.

In January of 2011, Bowling was caught in the act of breaking into a house with his brother in Livonia.

He and his brother had been under police surveillance, and when police confronted him there was a shoot-out. Bowling was killed and he killed a Livonia Police officer.

Bowling’s brother, Terry Bowling, 50, was sentenced to 100 to 150 years in prison for the death of Livonia Police Officer Larry Nehasil.

 
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