Alarm Company’s Carelessness Costs Customer Her Life
The customer of a prominent security company was murdered along with her boyfriend by a stalker while they slept in an upstairs bedroom. An investigation found the provider recklessly breached its responsibilities by failing to design, install and test a system that was supposed to be customized for early detection of an intruder. Details of what went awry are examined.
A bloodthirsty man invaded a small-town Minnesota home in 2006 and took the lives of his former girlfriend and her companion. The details that explain how the murderer was able to accomplish the break-in and move through the house undetected would ultimately persuade a nationally-based alarm company to settle out of court years later for an undisclosed sum, thought to be many millions of dollars.
In hopes of gaining early detection of her stalker’s presence should he attempt a home invasion, the victim had recently purchased a customized security system worth several thousand dollars. It included an inside siren, an outside siren, motion detection, panic alarm, two keypad sounders, an outside strobe light, perimeter system and more, all of which would activate at the same time, once the system detected an intruder.
Or it should have performed as such, as was explained to the 38-year-old woman by an alarm company salesman. When the attacker did come for her, the system failed catastrophically. An investigation on behalf of the women’s estate, led by forensic alarm industry expert and president of Teaneck, N.J.-based IDS Research and Development Inc., Jeffrey Zwirn, determined the company recklessly breached its duties to its customer. Zwirn is a long-time, ongoing SSI contributor (see “Security Science”).
The name of the victim and the alarm company involved remain anonymous throughout this article. The victim will be referred to by the fictitious name of “Jane.”
Zwirn’s investigation found that if the security company had designed, installed and programmed the security system as it had promised and according to industry standards and manufacturers’ installation and programming specifications, in all likelihood Jane and her companion would be alive today. This case is a wake-up call that reinforces implementing best practices and minimizing liability exposure.
VoIP Modem Critical to Faulty Phone Line Monitoring
The security system at Jane’s residence had been in place for more than a month when her killer arrived at the home in the early morning hours of Sept. 22. Along with the murder weapon, a .22-caliber pistol, the perpetrator carried with him a pair of wire cutters. His initial act before attempting to gain entry to the home was to cut the exposed outside telephone lines.
“It was foreseeable he would cut the phone lines as the first method of breaking into the house. It was detectable and preventable,” Zwirn says.
Yet despite the clear and present danger posed by the perpetrator, who two months previously attacked Jane with a butcher knife and was out on parole, the outside phone lines were never monitored. The alarm system would not set off an audible warning to the keypads in Jane’s house, including in her bedroom where she was asleep, or the premise’s sirens.
The alarm company had installed a control panel and a cellular radio backup that were both capable of monitoring telephone lines in the event the lines were cut. However, Jane’s home was equipped with a voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) phone service modem that was not accounted for in the system design.
In essence, the modem fooled the cellular backup into believing the phone line was still operational.
“If you cut a phone line on a VoIP modem, voltage is still pumping into the house. While the alarm company unplugged the RJ31X jack, the problem is with the jack plugged in the modem was pumping voltage inside, hence cutting the phone lines will not lose voltage to the radio,” says Zwirn
Nor did the installer ever complete the connection of the cellular backup unit to the control panel or enable the telephone line fault monitor that was built into the control panel. In fact, according to court documents, the installing technician testified he previously had never installed or activated a line fault monitor feature. Furthermore, he did not give Jane any indication there was no telephone line fault monitor on the system.
The control panel was mounted in the basement of the home on the same wall where the outside telephone lines entered the premises. Zwirn discovered there were extra unused wires running from inside the basement to the outside Network Interface Device (NID), which would be the critical detection point for where the killer first cut the outside telephone lines leading into the home.
Providing for an immediate alarm activation when the telephone lines were cut could have been quickly and technically accomplished by connecting a pair of the spare existing wires that were running from inside the basement, in close proximity to where the control panel was located, to the outside phone NID, and then programming it as a 24-hour instant zone of the security system.
Alternatively, this could have also been easily and quickly accomplished by running another two-conductor cable from the control panel to the outside NID and connecting it to a 24-hour instant audible zone of the security system, Zwirn explains.
Importantly, the installation procedure of detecting the telephone lines being cut would not have required any additional measures by the alarm company, since the wiring to be connected was pre-existing. Also, the control panel could have been easily programmed to accomplish the critical task of being able to provide early warning detection when the phone lines were cut.
“Under this set of facts, the radio could not send the signal because it never saw the loss of phone line voltage. That was the first problem,” Zwirn says. “You need to comply with the equipment manufacturer’s specifications and to the extent you can’t comply with them because of what the site conditions present, you need to institute other methodologies that can trigger the radio and warn the customer.”
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