Somewhere near the Galleria, in someone’s backyard, a hole big enough to fit several swimming pools has been carved out of soft, clay-packed soil.
Along the bottom, 20 feet below the surface, sits a steel tube 50 feet long and 10 feet wide, a waterproof cylinder weighing in at around 80,000 pounds—larger than your average city bus and more than three times as heavy. Someday soon the yard will be filled back up with dirt, at which point you’ll be able, if you dare, to enter the tube from above ground by cautiously descending a narrow staircase cloaked in shadow. At stairs’ end, you’ll find yourself hunched inside a claustrophobic antechamber which serves as the tube’s mudroom, as well as its decontamination area, an entry point where guests might relieve themselves of soiled clothing during, say, a chemical attack.
Crime in Houston is declining. So why are home security firms doing gangbusters? We go behind the scenes with our partners at Newsfix.
Venture onward and you’ll arrive at a solid steel blast door designed to withstand a flurry of bullets or a plume of noxious gas. Swing open the heavy portal and you won’t find a military facility but the banal contents of a miniature suburban home—wood floors, carpets, a dinette set, flat-screen TV, and a comfy sofa on which to enjoy it. Head a little further back and you’ll find sleeping quarters for 10 and enough storage space to keep the tube dwellers fed for months, perhaps years, as well as a bathroom, kitchen, command center, and, of course, an escape hatch.
For $150,000, Ron Hubbard—a Port O’Connor native who subscribes to the notion that the US dollar is on the verge of collapse and civil unrest is an economic calamity away—will build just such an underground bunker for you. In fact, he may have already built one for your neighbor.
“The Houston area is turning out to be my best market in the United States,” twanged Hubbard, whose Atlas Survival Shelters are based on a surprisingly simple safe room built for President Kennedy on Florida’s Peanut Island during the early 1960s. “The people who get these bunkers are absolutely secret,” he told me. “They don’t even tell their friends they have them. You’ll never get a customer to talk.”
For the most part, Hubbard was right. Journalistic overtures did not elicit an enthusiastic response from bunker builders. But interviews with a few of the city’s home security merchants, as well as local experts, seemed to confirm what Hubbard already knew: For several years Houston has been in the throes of a frenzy of domicile defense, with many homeowners throughout the region spending five figures or more to turn their suburban abodes into veritable fortresses, employing elaborate and perhaps dangerous methods in the process. Meanwhile, for companies that sell panic rooms, freeze-dried food, weapons, secret passageways, safes, spy equipment, and booby traps, business is booming, especially in and around the Bayou City.
The exact number of extreme Houston home defenders is difficult to calculate. Their identities are such closely guarded secrets, the security companies themselves don’t always know their customers’ identities or locations, as many prefer to communicate via an intermediary. And when they are discovered, phone calls and e-mails are not returned. Interviews, even those promising anonymity, are canceled at the last second.
“After talking to my wife, I’ve decided not to move forward with the interview,” explained a gruff-sounding man who’d recently hired a local custom homebuilder to construct a safe room in his new Brookshire home. “If people out here find out what we’ve been building, I’m putting my family’s safety at risk. Do not contact me again.”
Attempts to speak with local purchasers of the Burglar Blaster—a sort of do-it-yourself booby trap that releases enough pepper spray to cover 2,000 square feet when a trip wire or infrared motion sensor is activated—were also unsuccessful. John Adrain, the Heracles Research Corporation’s Dallas-based owner, said the Burglar Blaster and his BedBunker—a gun safe capable of storing up to 60 rifles under a queen-size bed—are among his hottest-selling products already in place in homes across Houston.
Ditto the $20,000 Fort Knox vault room, a Porta-Potty–size walk-in vault that has been in high demand for several years, especially in Houston, according to Safes R Us owner Eric Bristol, whose store is located off the East Freeway. He noted that a single room weighs 20,000 pounds and is encased in harder concrete than the type used to construct highways. Walk inside, swing the 1,300-pound door shut, and you might find that feelings of impenetrability are hard to separate from feelings of panic.
“My daughter can’t be in here more than a few seconds before feeling claustrophobic,” Bristol said, pulling a lever and sealing the tiny room during a visit to the Safes R Us showroom. “But I’ve sold hundreds of these things over the last few years because people are worried about rising crime, and they know that you’d need a tank to break open one of these babies.”
Although their ranks are not exactly homogeneous, security companies say home defense consumers are overwhelmingly Anglo, suburban, and middle-aged, ranging from upper-middle-class to super-wealthy, and with political views that tend to fall on the conservative side of the political spectrum. If they have any sort of unifying ethos, it is an unwavering belief in the virtues of self-reliance.
“These are people who tend to distrust the efficiency and reliability of government at any level,” said Roger Eckstine, a local security and weapons expert and author of The Shooter’s Bible Guide to Home Defense from Skyhorse Publishing. “When shit hits the fan and three men are trying to kick down their front door, they aren’t the type of people who are going to wait for the police to arrive to protect their families. They are going to be ready.”
Being ready can mean shelling out thousands of dollars to fortify one’s home. Some home defenders finance projects with years’ worth of savings, but many can afford to spend sizeable chunks of money and treat home security like it’s an ongoing hobby. Such is the case with Steve Humble’s customers. His company—Creative Home Engineering—specializes in creating hidden doors and secret passageways leading to concealed rooms. Although the company is headquartered in Arizona, Humble said he gets steady business from Houstonians, probably 70 percent of whom seek him out for security purposes as opposed to purely aesthetic ones.
“A secret door can be a very practical thing if you have security concerns,” he said.
Peace of mind does not come cheap. A secret bookcase passageway straight out of a vintage murder mystery will run you about $6,500. A special mirror that unlocks a nearby door—when touched with a magnet in just the right spot—will run you about a third as much. But other projects, especially those that involve biometric security access or higher levels of security, often inspired by Hollywood films, are far more expensive. And spending thousands for home security is not unreasonable, said Humble, especially when, like some of his customers, your home is worth $20 or $30 million.
“We had a client in Houston not too long ago who was building a very elaborate and beautiful new home with four stories,” he recalled. “He wanted an elevator in the home, but he didn’t want it to be visible, so we made four secret passageways for him—one on each level.”
Humble noted in passing that he would be sending a fancy display case with a secret door to Houston later that day.
The one thing that seems to unite purchasers of complicated and expensive security systems is a near-constant fear of home invasion, a sense of imminent danger that sets them apart from the general population. Which brings us to Brian Hoffner.
“Most people don’t think about home invasions until it’s too late,” said Hoffner, a law enforcement veteran whom Houston families often hire when they want to train for a home invasion. “Age 14 is the standard age for defensive training, which includes firearms, but family defense training and training with knives can start much earlier.”
Hoffner teaches his clients about common home invasion scenarios. Often, for instance, multiple attackers in ski masks will bash open a front door in the early-morning hours with weapons drawn. Drug dealers are usually the targets of those attacks, but families who run small businesses and have large amounts of cash on hand, or are part of immigrant communities that are wary of using banks, are also vulnerable.
“They’re organized, practiced, and ruthless,” said Eckstine of such assailants. “And the scary thing is that they want you to be there so you can help them open the safe, and they’ll do whatever it takes to compel you to do so.”
The perception exists, among home defenders and security companies alike, that crime is on the rise in Houston, and by some measurements it is. Over the past year thefts are up 8.3 percent, robberies 5.4 percent, and auto thefts 4 percent.
But violent crime in Houston has continued to decline for decades, just as it has nationally, even during the recent recession. In America, the odds of being murdered or robbed are less than half what they were when violent crimes peaked in the early 1990s. In Houston, home invasions, defined as incidents involving individuals who use force or threats of force when taking property from a home, are also in decline, according to the Houston Police Department.
There were 430 home invasions reported in Houston in 2013, a 12.4 percent decrease from 2012’s total of 491. There were 66 home invasions during the first two months of 2014, putting the city on track for even fewer than last year.
University of Houston lecturer Luis Salinas is a sociologist who studies the way crime is portrayed in the media. He’s also a member of a running group whose diverse membership includes everyone from blue-collar types to oil executives. Several years ago, while training for marathons, he began to overhear more and more runners from various economic backgrounds say they wanted to buy handguns in response to what they believed had been a dramatic increase in local crime.
“I said, ‘You know, that’s actually not true,’” Salinas recalled saying. “And people looked at me like I was crazy.” And it wasn’t just his running friends. When the managers of Salinas’s apartment complex replaced a brick fence with a wooden one, residents protested despite living in an almost crime-free neighborhood.
“The fence was in the middle of the complex and it was somewhat decorative,” Salinas said. “My neighbors were all worried about the barbarians at the gate, like there were people waiting to come bounding over as soon as they got the chance. It was absurd.”
Salinas pointed to a recent study that showed how little correlation there is between one’s fear of crime and the likelihood of being victimized. It turns out that those most afraid of crime—older, wealthy, white women—are the ones least likely to be affected by it. Meanwhile, young, poor, black males—those most likely to be crime victims—are the least afraid. The explanation, according to Salinas, is that a person fears crime in direct proportion to the value of the material assets he possesses (and stands to lose if victimized).
An ATF agent who spoke on condition of anonymity traced the fear of crime elsewhere: to a misreading of Houston’s home invasions. Most of them, she said, take place within the city’s drug culture—dealers preying on dealers.
“Because we’re close to the border, very often these attacks are linked to cartels, as opposed to you went to the Galleria and maxed out your credit card and someone followed you home,” the agent said. “These are not typical home invasions.”
And yet, as Salinas pointed out, local news programs often cover all home invasions with the same inflamed sense of urgency.
“People see crime on TV, and they focus on it, and they worry that the perpetrator is coming after them next,” he said, “regardless of the probability of that actually happening.”
Roger Eckstine believes that most people are woefully unprepared for the possibility of crime. A former New Yorker, Eckstine came of age in the 1970s, one of the grittier periods in the city’s recent history. (He was briefly a cab driver but quit, having been robbed at knifepoint by his very first fare as well as his last one two years later.) And while he has now lived in Houston for two decades, Eckstine’s fear of mean streets is alive and well.
“When I was living in New York in the ’70s, there were prostitutes working in my hallway and when we’d ask my next-door neighbor to turn down his music, he’d get angry and bang on our door with a butcher knife,” he remembered. “Everybody I knew growing up has been a victim of violent crime.”
Eckstine did not become interested in weapons and home security until moving to Houston. “After meeting so many people and being around so much violence, I think I’m able to sense danger before it happens,” said Eckstine. “I know how criminals think because I have the same sort of resolve, but I have the fear of God and they don’t.”
In his Shooter’s Bible, Eckstine helps readers prepare for a violent criminal assault. Some of the tips are fairly mundane, such as how to select a home security system or a firearm. Others are more creative, such as how to turn your living room recliner into a tactical barrier during a gunfight or how to turn a can of kidney beans into an improvised weapon.
“A can of soup or beans is heavy, hard, and has relatively sharp edges,” Eckstine writes, referring to a diagram. “Note the finger over the top to apply downward force.”
He believes that a homeowner should always use the “home field advantage” when confronted by a criminal on his own turf. To gain that, he says, you need extensive knowledge of your home’s “terrain”—everything from where best to hide weapons, to which angles in the home’s layout provide the best means for ambushing an invader or defending against an attack.
On a recent weekday morning Eckstine agreed to walk me through the security measures in place at his home in a gated northwest Houston suburb. When I arrived at the door, he greeted me in a khaki hunting outfit lined with pockets, told me I was being videotaped by multiple cameras, and refused to disclose where they were located.
In his early 60s with a friendly demeanor, a shock of white hair, and a strong chin, Eckstine bears a vague resemblance to Jay Leno—if Leno walked around in a safari outfit with a large knife protruding from his pocket. Within moments of stepping into his home, it became clear that I was at Eckstine’s mercy. In fact, I had already bombed his first test by failing to notice that his vehicle’s license plate was covered in duct tape, a sure sign that somebody is up to no good, and a piece of intel that he mentions repeatedly in his book. I did notice the cache of weapons laid out on Eckstine’s dining room table, a small arsenal of high-powered shotguns and smaller-caliber weaponry.
“This one is badass,” he said, picking up a rifle and striking a defensive pose while carefully sidestepping an antique harp that sits on the floor in front of a framed photo of his children posing with the same instrument.
“Is it loaded?” I asked, growing increasingly nervous until I noticed Eckstine’s geriatric father-in-law sitting calmly in the next room reading a newspaper.
“Always assume a gun is loaded,” Eckstine responded, eyeing the sight.
Moments later, while walking me through the correct way to answer the front door, he slid his hand into a random bag hanging on a coat rack, pulling out a large black handgun, fully loaded.
“I like to leave this in here in case I get close to the door and realize that there’s a threat on the front porch,” he explained, before retreating to another room to shine a laser sight on my chest. A moment later we switched places so he could demonstrate how an intruder can be thwarted through proper use of a home’s natural angles. I found myself thinking that there was no way an intruder would make it beyond Eckstine’s welcome mat without being eliminated. Impossible.
We spent the rest of the morning trolling the parking lot of a nearby shopping center in his pickup, canvassing a grocery store and spying on drivers in an ATM line. To the untrained observer, each location seemed the epitome of suburban banality, a kind of thoroughgoing dullness that leaves one almost craving a violent interruption. But where I saw banality, Eckstine saw deviant possibility, explaining in grim detail how easy it would be to follow a young woman from the ATM or carjack an unsuspecting shopper in the parking lot.
“Crime is all around us,” he said confidently, pointing out that both banks in the shopping center had already been robbed. “You just have to know how to see it, and most people don’t.”
Our last stop on Eckstine’s tour was the front porch of a quaint red-brick home at the end of a winding road in his same northwest Houston subdivision. There, we were met by a soft-spoken retiree and friend of Eckstine’s who politely invited me inside but bluntly refused to tell me his name. The man explained that he has a patent pending on a motion-security system that uses cameras in conjunction with a piercing beep to alert a homeowner when anyone comes within 40 feet of his home. When this happens, a camera attached to floodlights kicks on, relaying images from outside to monitors inside the home.
“I’m not paranoid, just careful,” said the man, leading me to an improvised bunker he’d built in a closet in the family den. “Plus, I’m retired so I have the time to do it.” The coffin-size room was packed with equipment, including a hunting bow and a loaded .38 pistol resting on a shelf. The door had been outfitted with a reinforced doorframe, a lock that operated from the inside, and a wide-angle peephole allowing the closet’s occupant to scan the entire room during an emergency—in essence, a poor man’s safe room. He could have installed a steel door instead of a lightweight wooden one, he told me, but this had been intentional.
“I’ve told my wife and my daughter that if anyone sets foot in this room, shoot through the door,” he said. “If they’ve gotten this close, it’s dangerous.”
A fear of crime is hardly the only thing behind the home-defense movement. In many ways, such a fear is part of a larger one: that the country is spinning out of control.
“Things are not as good as they were in 2006,” said Jason Umbower, whose Memorial company, Big Texas Containers, sells shipping containers and safe rooms and counts Houston among its top markets. “I do have many customers that express their concern about society and the economy being under such stress. . . . People are starting to get kinda kooky.”
Some of Umbower’s customers convert closets into safe rooms, while others, like one recent couple, feel that the threat of violence outweighs the need for concealment.
“They wanted it right at the edge of their bed, a four-foot-wide by six-foot-long box right next to the television,” Umbower said. “You look at the room and you see this giant steel vault in a master bedroom, but it sure does keep peace of mind to a lot of folks.”
Safes R Us owner Eric Bristol says that for many Houstonians the fear starts where Mexico begins.
“With this many people coming over the border, you don’t know who is here and what they’re capable of doing,” he theorized. “Customers are worried about crime, and they’re worried that the police can’t keep up with this many criminals.”
Evidence does not necessarily support the idea that violence is flooding over the border; a 2013 Congressional Quarterly report named El Paso as the safest large city in the nation, despite the fact that neighboring Juarez is plagued by crime. But that’s not to say there aren’t potential nightmares right here at home.
Ron Hubbard, the man building a bunker near the Galleria, is busy these days installing multiple underground shelters inside the loop as well as in Conroe, Friendswood, Sealy, and Humble—even as he sets up a life-size bunker display in an Army surplus store off the Sam Houston Tollway—has a different take on the forces driving the security craze, particularly in Texas.
“Ask yourself this,” said the 52-year-old. “What would happen if the dollar crashed, and you had 50 million people on government assistance, and they don’t get their paychecks? They’re going to loot, they’re going to smash the glass and take everything out of every aisle at H-E-B, Walmart, and Kroger.”
At that point, Hubbard believes, angry hordes of welfare recipients will turn on the rest of the public and there won’t be enough police and military to enforce order. Faced with such a situation, which he terms “Katrina on a national scale,” only the most prepared among us will survive.
“I hope I never have to use my bunker,” he said. “I also hope I never need my life insurance, but I still have it.”
After much back and forth, Hubbard agreed to let me come to Victoria a few days later and tour his demo safe room—a model bunker, if you will, that he shows to potential customers. He refused to reveal the exact location beforehand, telling me only to go to a Dairy Queen parking lot in a nearby town and await further instructions. Several hours later, I found myself at the entrance of a vast swath of private property with its own landing strip deep in the Texas countryside. The light was fading and a thick fog was beginning to settle on the rolling brown scrubland by the time we arrived at the bunker, its location at the top of small hill concealed by tall grasses and shrubbery, its entrance strewn with copper shell casings.
Hubbard, unshaven and very excitable, wearing jeans, a long-sleeve hunting shirt, and a camouflage hat, asked me to help him carry a WWII-era machine gun to the entrance to demonstrate how the bunker’s hatch can be defended during an attack. He was friendly but intense, his conversation darting from guns to bunkers to Obamacare in a single sentence. In the distance live gunfire and periodic explosive bursts could be heard drifting over a nearby tree line.
“You hear that one?” Hubbard exclaimed excitedly. “Holy shit!”
When I asked him about the source of the explosions I received a vague and confusing answer. I didn’t pry further.
After the bunker tour, he offered to give me a ride back to my car via the scenic route. Together, we hopped in his truck and took off down a winding back road toward the pops of exploding weaponry. The fog had grown even thicker, and as the gunfire grew louder, it occurred to Hubbard that we may be driving directly into the line of fire, wherever it was. I ducked down slightly as he stopped the truck on a muddy back road and pulled out his cell phone. What we were hearing, he said, was coming from an Uzi, an AR-15, and an AK-47. The people pulling the triggers would remain a mystery.
“I’m heading your way from the bunker,” he said into the phone. “Hold your fire. I don’t want to get shot! Don’t shoot this way. I heard the fuckin’ explosion and the machine gun!”
I felt the truck creep forward and nervously asked Hubbard if the coast was clear.
“Yeah, they’re pointed the other way now,” he said, perfectly calm with no hint of fear or acknowledgment that we almost, possibly, maybe, could’ve been killed.
I steered the conversation toward the customers Hubbard had refused to put me in touch with. Who are they, I asked. What kind of Houstonian places a city bus–size bunker in his backyard? First off, he warned, do not label these people radicals. These are not militia types; these people are professionals.
“Keep in mind you’ve got to drop a couple of hundred thousand dollars to build a bunker, right?” he said. “And people don’t get that money if they’re idiots. They’re educated, they’re doing the math, and they’re like ‘things don’t look good,’ and right now they’re sensing it in droves.”
And what about that Galleria-area homeowner? Is that how he feels, too? Hubbard nodded.
“He’s worried about the collapse of the US government and chaos, and he wants a place to hide his family,” he said plainly.
As for Hubbard, he’s planning to set up a “prepper community” somewhere between Houston and Austin, where guests will spend the weekend riding four-wheelers, shooting guns, and sleeping underground.
I wouldn’t believe Hubbard, except that everything else he’s told me seems to have checked out. As he drops me at my car a few minutes later he offers that one of the main reasons people are going underground is because of the man running our country into a ditch.
“In his heart he’s not a true American and a true Christian and he shouldn’t even be president,” he says of the Commander-in-Chief. “But Obama is just carrying out orders from George Soros and everyone else who want to make our country a socialist welfare state.”
“Do your customers feel the same way?” I ask.
“Oh god, yes!” Hubbard responds. “But Obama is popular with a lot of people … unless you’re a Republican.” There is a brief pause.
“But so was Hitler unless you were Jewish.”
Last summer, Darenda Weaver was one of those people who never thought about crime. A part-time student, she lived on a tidy street a block off the Westheimer strip in a two-story fourplex just rundown enough to look like off-campus housing. To the carousel of artists, musicians, and students who came and went each weekend, it was known as the Hawthorne House, a place where you could always crash after a show or last call at Poison Girl. For Weaver, the sound of muffled voices and footsteps in the other rooms never raised an alarm. She was used to being roused by the sound of random comings and goings in the early morning hours and usually went right back to sleep.
“Everyone would come there to party,” she remembered. “Bands would crash with us, and it was like everyone was always welcome. It was a fun place.”
The moment Weaver began to worry about crime was the moment when three men burst into the bedroom where she was sleeping with her boyfriend and pressed a gun against her head. She’d never touched a firearm before or considered the possibility of being killed by one.
“I remember how hard it felt,” she said, recalling the long, steely barrel against her skin. “And the way he pressed harder when he would shout instructions at me.”
She knows the men pistol-whipped her boyfriend, leaving his face covered in blood, and that a female roommate was pressed against the wall with a gun to her head, forced to beg for her life. She knows too that three men, their faces hidden behind bandannas, barked demands as they huddled around her.
For the first few moments, Weaver’s mind struggled to wrap itself around the situation. Was this a joke of some sort? A dream inspired by the Breaking Bad episode she’d watched before bed?
But the characters were too vivid and subtly drawn to be imaginary. There was the tall one with muscular arms, direct and forceful and seemingly in control of the entire operation. Weaver tried appealing to his eyes, which looked almost reasonable. There was the quiet, slender one who said little and dutifully followed orders, and the short aggressive one who pushed the gun to her head. She doesn’t remember anything about a fourth man, who was posted outside the door with a flashlight, other than that he threatened to cut up her dog with a knife.
“They seemed comfortable, like they’d done it before,” Weaver said. “If they had anxiety I couldn’t tell.”
Over the next half hour the men ransacked the apartment, taking computers, cell phones, other electronics, and a few hundred dollars in cash. When they couldn’t find drugs or more cash, they grew frustrated. Without warning, they took off her boyfriend’s pants and stuck her roommate’s head in between his legs. They groped Weaver’s body too, which was covered only by a skimpy nightgown. She waited to be raped, considering the idea of mentally detaching from her body as a means of survival, when suddenly the men shifted gears. They decided to tie up her roommates with computer cords.
“I just thought I was going to die,” she said. “I was ready to die. I just felt really bad for my family, but I was calm.”
Instead of shooting them, the attackers warned their victims not to make a sound as they slipped out the door, disappearing as quickly as they’d arrived. Afraid to move or scream, Weaver and her roommates waited for nearly half an hour before untying themselves and running around the corner to call police.
When I met Weaver she was wearing a tight-fitting vintage dress and heels, and her bright blonde hair was cut short in a bob, an homage to Twiggy, her ’60s-era muse. Weaver’s style is loud and brash, but there is an undercurrent of anxiety these days that fidgets just beneath the surface. Though it has now been seven months since her attack, she continues to find it difficult to sleep at night. She ended her relationship with her boyfriend, quit her job at a Westheimer boutique, dropped her classes at Houston Community College, and moved back in with her parents. For now, she sleeps on a couch in their living room.
You could argue that Weaver would never have been traumatized if she’d followed the advice of Houston’s home defense gurus. If she’d just moved out to the suburbs, built a steel bunker with hidden cameras, and installed mirrors that unlocked secret doors, maybe she wouldn’t have come so close to being raped. If she’d distrusted her neighbors enough to prepare for invasion, she might now have the courage to live peaceably among them, rather than fearfully sitting vigil on her parent’s couch.
But Weaver’s instinct is not to weapon up, not to conceal 60 rifles in a queen-size bed or store an entire arsenal in a vault in her bedroom. She doesn’t want to learn how to better wield a can of kidney beans. But why not, I wondered? Wouldn’t a gun have made a difference?
She shook her head without a hint of doubt.
“What if you’d tried to fight back?” I asked.
“I’d be dead right now,” Weaver said. “We’re alive because we didn’t fight back.”