December 12, 2010 in Nation/World

Realistic facial likenesses mask wearers’ intentions

Company owner unhappy criminals using products
Sharon Bernstein Los Angeles Times
 

LOS ANGELES – They’re not just for Halloween anymore.

Expensive, realistic masks – the kind that are the hit of the costume party – are increasingly being used out of season, and not always for laughs.

A white bank robber in Ohio recently used a “hyper-realistic” mask manufactured by a small Van Nuys, Calif., company to disguise himself as a black man, prompting police there to mistakenly arrest an African-American man for the crimes.

In October, a 20-year-old Chinese man who wanted asylum in Canada used one of the same company’s masks to transform himself into an elderly white man and slip past airport security in Hong Kong.

Authorities are even starting to think that the so-called Geezer Bandit, a Southern California bank robber believed for months to be an old man, might actually be a younger guy wearing one of the disguises made by SPFXMasks.

News coverage of the incidents has pumped up demand for the masks, which run from $600 to $1,200, according to company owner Rusty Slusser.

But he says he’s not happy about it.

“We’re proud of the fact that our masks look real, but I’m not proud of the way they were used,” said Slusser, a 39-year-old former makeup artist. “We’re very embarrassed this has happened. We were shocked that this happened.”

Conrad Zdzierak, a 30-year-old Polish immigrant, used one of Slusser’s masks to disguise himself as a black man during a series of Ohio robberies last spring. The costume was so good that six of seven bank tellers wrongly identified an African-American man as the culprit in a photo lineup, said Detective Keenan Riordan, who investigated the case for the Springdale, Ohio, Police Department.

The man remained in jail until Zdzierak’s girlfriend tipped police off after finding money and a mask in his hotel room. Zdzierak pleaded guilty last week to six robbery counts.

Police found two of Slusser’s masks in Zdzierak’s safe – one of a young black man called “The Player,” and another of an old white man called “The Elder.” A search of his computer revealed videos of the robber modeling the old-man mask and trying to speak like an elderly person.

It also showed that he had sent e-mails to Slusser under a fake name, claiming to be a movie producer who wanted to know how the African-American mask would look on a white man and whether the matching hands would tear in a fight, Riordan said.

Riordan was also intrigued to find that Zdzierak had saved copies of news stories about Southern California’s Geezer Bandit, so named because surveillance video from bank teller windows appears to depict an elderly man.

The images in those videos resemble Slusser’s “Elder” mask.

Authorities are investigating the possibility that the Geezer Bandit was actually wearing a disguise, said FBI Special Agent Darrell Foxworth, whose office is investigating the robberies in San Diego, Riverside and Kern counties.

The use of lifelike masks to commit crimes is just the latest example of crooks adopting new technology, Foxworth said.

In one New York case last year, thieves stole a car with a GPS device and used the navigation system to find the victim’s home, where they stole a second car.

“Whether we’re talking about this kind of mask or using the computer, it’s a reflection of how criminals are using technology to commit crimes,” he said.

Slusser opened SPFXMasks in 2003. His six-person crew uses silicone that looks and feels like flesh, down to the pores. Each strand of hair – and it’s human hair – is sewn on individually. Artists methodically paint the masks to create realistic skin tones.

“I wanted to make something that looks so real that when you go out for Halloween no one can tell,” Slusser said.


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