In September 2017, Juli Snyder and her girlfriend made a trip to Stepping Stone Falls, a park in Flint, Mich. The pair were snapping photos and enjoying the idyllic scenery when something unusual caught Snyder’s eye.
A group of people had surrounded her car and were photographing it, Snyder told WNEM. They wore police-like gear, carried handcuffs, and even had a vehicle outfitted with red and blue flashing lights. According to Snyder, they identified themselves as police and accused the pair of trespassing on Genesee County state land.
“A woman that detained me had a Kevlar vest on,” Snyder said. “She had a gun belt and everything. She asked for my identification. She then handcuffed myself and my girlfriend.”
The women were eventually released, but Snyder said they were warned that they would be put on a “criminal watch list.”
Although she didn’t know it at the time, Snyder had encountered people authorities say have been posing as law enforcement officials and patrolling the county for nearly three years.
In addition to detaining people, the impostors responded to 911 calls and were sometimes even the first to arrive at crime scenes, Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton told MLive.com.
“On some occasions, the real police would ask them to perform tasks at the scene, not realizing they were impostors,” Leyton said.
Three members of this group have given up their police attire for jailhouse jumpsuits and are facing felony charges for impersonating a peace officer and unlawful imprisonment, Leyton said.
“To me, this is serious stuff,” he said. “You can’t run around pretending to be law enforcement. I don’t know what these people were thinking.”
Emily Nicole Burrison and Jeffrey Lee Jones were arraigned on charges Thursday, according to court documents. A third man, Auston Rose, was also charged, documents said.
Their elaborate scheme began to unravel last year when someone called to complain about being mistreated by park rangers in Stepping Stone Falls park, Genesee County Parks Chief Ranger Kevin Shanlian told MLive.com.
Shanlian launched an investigation only to learn that the rangers were fake. The group referred to itself as Genesee County Fire and EMS Media-Genesee County Task Force Blight Agency, he said.
“They were out here seven days a week, all night long, for over two-and-a-half years, and I don’t really know what motivated them to be out here doing what they were doing,” Shanlian told WEYI.
“Actual police agencies had been interacting with this group and all thought some other agency in the county had authorized them to be out and gave them authority,” he added.
Leyton said authorities believe the impostors intended to help out, but an exact motive has yet to be determined.
“The only thing that we were able to determine is that they thought they were doing good Samaritan work and helping the police and doing a good turn for the community, but you cannot impersonate a police officer. That’s a crime,” he said.
Matthew L. Norwood, Jones’s attorney, told MLive.com that the group didn’t have “any evil intent.”
Jones, Norwood added, “wanted to help improve the community.”
“He was someone who went around his neighborhood and picked up garbage and mowed vacant lots,” Norwood said. “He found like-minded people. I think that some of the people took things too far.”
Burrison’s attorney Armene Kaye told MLive.com that she is confident her client “will be vindicated when the full story comes out.”
However, Leyton said he has taken a “harsh view” of the group’s actions.
“I’ve charged them harshly, and we will deal with them in the criminal justice system,” he told WNEM.
Authorities say the group has more members beyond the three arrested and that they are still working to identify them, according to WNEM. Court documents list five other co-defendants, but charges have not been filed yet.
Leyton stressed that people should continue to help the police and be good citizens, but told WEYI that impersonating authorities and making arrests is taking things a step too far.
“Law enforcement has it tough enough these days to do the real difficult work, and when some clown like this comes along, it just makes it all that much more difficult,” he said.
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