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Military precision of Florida slaying is worrisome, analysts say

Of seven suspects now in custody, some had 'prior military background.' The case points to criminals' growing adoption of police and military tactics.

This 2005 picture shows Byrd and Melanie Billings at their home in Beulah, Fla.

Karena Cawthonn/The Pensacola News Journal/AP/File

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Fast, methodical, deadly.

Law-enforcement officers have compared the July 9 murder of a wealthy Florida couple known for their charity toward children with a "military operation," a gripping reminder, experts say, that paramilitary tactics can be turned toward civilian destruction.

Saying the incident described "the worst in man," Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan announced Tuesday that police had apprehended the seven main perpetrators – a group of day laborers and auto detailers.

"A couple of individuals with prior military background" were involved, Sheriff Morgan confirmed. "It was a very well-planned and -executed operation." Robbery was the primary motive, and a safe was stolen from the home, officials said. No further information was available about the suspects' military connections at time of writing.

The speed and method of the attack, which involved two teams – some dressed in ninja-like garb – entering the house from two fronts had all the hallmarks of a SWAT-style intrusion usually seen in drug raids or war zones, say some criminologists. According to surveillance videos from outside the house, the charge and retreat lasted no more than four minutes.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has long worried about military tactics seeping into general culture. Then, earlier this year, the US Department of Homeland Security issued a report about right-wing extremism that cited concern about veterans being recruited by white supremacist organizations in preparation for a national race war. The report was criticized by veterans groups and some conservative politicians as being unpatriotic.

The planning and the large number of perpetrators make this case highly unusual, says Gary Kleck, a criminology professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Unlike most robberies, which are crimes of opportunity, these attackers seemed to expect a confrontation, which carries huge physical and legal risks, including the death penalty, if caught.


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