Creepy clown craze spreads, police aren't amused after 3 robberies

The creepy clown craze has spread to metro Detroit and in several instances has gone beyond creepy to criminal.

In any case, police aren't amused.

Two Detroit area police departments are investigating what could be related armed robberies at three stores within 90 minutes Tuesday night by a hooded gunman wearing a scary clown mark.

In another incident Tuesday night, police in Sterling Heights say a 7-year-old boy was approached about 6:45 p.m. on Normandy Street by a person, believed to be a male, dressed in a clown outfit, who grabbed the boy's arm and laid what was believed to be a plastic butter knife across it. The knife scratched the boy's arm and the clown ran away, Lt. James Belmonte said.

Then around 8:20 p.m., Belmonte said, police responded to Lowell and Boulder where two women said they were walking on the sidewalk when three males in clown masks and carrying baseball bats ran up behind them, yelled, screamed and hit a fence with the bats, terrifying them.

► Related: Clown hoax at MSU sets off scramble, Jim Harbaugh jokes

The copycat craze spreading across the country through social media is both frightening and titillating kids, while freaking out parents. Belmonte said the number of calls coming to police "is off the hook," with people asking what they should do and if they should keep their children home from school.

Troy School District sent a letter home to parents Tuesday in response to an incident near Athens High School in which a teenager in a clown costume frightened some girls walking home from school. After being alerted by police, the district sent a message out to parents at Costello, Larson and Athens — schools associated with the neighborhood behind the high school.

School officials said that after talking with police that they knew the identity of the young man, who they say lived nearby and did not pose a threat of physical danger to students. Police found him and he and his guardian are cooperating, agreeing not to engage in this behavior again. The letter stated the teen was not a student in Troy School District, but the school has a no trespass order and he is not allowed on any school property.

►Related: Serious or just a sick joke? What we know about creepy clown reports

"This was an isolated incident and there have been no further reports of any clown 'pranks,' despite what your older children may have seen on social media. I am sharing this now with the entire district so that parents of students at the other schools can be informed and well as have a conversation with their older students about the danger of copycat behavior," Kerry Birmingham, director of communications and strategic initiatives, wrote in the letter to parents.

"It may seem funny or harmless to teens but these costumes often include 'weapons' and can be very frightening to those approached. Unfortunately, communities around the country are seeing increased incidents of this nature and we would like to prevent any further disturbances here in Troy. I would also ask that you ask your children not to retweet or share erroneous information that may unnecessarily frighten others."

Belmonte said what someone may think is funny or humorous can "get out of hand, with somebody getting hurt."

Police in Brownstown Township and Ann Arbor are investigating whether the three armed robberies Tuesday night are related. In each incident, a person wearing a scary clown mask, a dark hoodie pulled up, and dark clothes robbed the business.

The first holdup occurred about 9:30 p.m. at a Walgreens at Telegraph and West Road in Brownstown Township where the robber approached a clerk with a handgun and demanded money from the register, getting $300 to $400, according to Deputy Police Chief Robert Matthews.

About an hour later, a similarly dressed robber ordered a clerk to the ground at gunpoint at a BP gas station at Washtenaw and U.S.-23 in Ann Arbor.  When the robber couldn't get into the cash drawer, he ordered the clerk to open the drawer and then back onto the ground before fleeing, Ann Arbor Police Detective Lt. Matthew Lige said.

Then 30 minutes later and just a few exits away, a man — believed to be the same robber — held up a Domino's Pizza at U.S.-23 and Plymouth Road, Lige said. The robber ordered three employees to the floor at gunpoint, then ordered one to get up and open the register.

Matthews said he believes the man in the clown mask is a professional armed robber.

Lige agreed, saying that he thinks the mask worn by the robber raises the fear level of victims, who are more likely to comply, and the confidence of the person committing the crime. In this case, he said, he believes the mask is playing a role in the crime, adding the suspect "is verbally aggressive, what he says, how he says it."

Matthews said while this has been the only incident involving a person in a clown mask reported in Brownstown Township, the craze presents an opportunity for people to commit crimes. There's not only concerns for the people in the clown garb, but also the person preyed upon.

"Are they going to defend within the parameters of the law," he said. "It could certainly spin out of control and someone could get hurt.

Detroit Police Chief James Craig addressed the creepy clown craze during an unrelated news conference Wednesday, saying "it's sweeping the nation."

"It's not a joke. It's not funny. It's creating fear in our neighborhoods," he said.

There have been reports of clowns in Clinton Township and Lake Orion in addition to other locales throughout Michigan.

Craig said Detroit police haven't seen the level of activity as other places and officers aren't going to arrest people just because they are wearing clown suits.

However, if someone calls reporting a clown making threatening gestures, Craig said, police will investigate. If it does rise to criminal activity, he said, "we'll take appropriate action."

(2016 © Detroit Free Press)


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