Dusty Norrell just wanted to buy his fiancée a new SUV to start their married lives together, but it almost got them both killed.
Norrell and his fiancé, Courtney Cummings, drove up to Austell, Ga., on Monday to look into a 2013 Toyota 4Runner they’d found on Craigslist, a popular buyers’ and sellers’ website. But there was no 4Runner. Instead, there were two masked gunmen waiting to take Norrell’s hard-earned $22,000 at gunpoint.
Norrell, 29, insists he is no novice on Craigslist. He’s completed “hundreds” of transactions both buying and selling merchandise, but he wasn’t prepared for the men he and his 25-year-old fiancee would run into that morning in suburban Atlanta.
“I was lured by professionals who were more than convincing,” Norrell said. “I mean detail upon detail of convincing me.”
It all started Sunday morning at RuthAnn’s, where the couple were having breakfast and talking over their future. They’d decided to upgrade Cummings’ 2004 Toyota 4Runner, which has over 200,000 miles on it. Norrell said he’d come across a 2013 model near Atlanta that had only 25,000 miles and was priced well below market value.
The Kelley Blue Book value on such a car is over $30,000, so $22,000 was a bargain. In fact, too good to be true, as it turned out.
At first, Norrell had trouble contacting the seller, ostensibly an elderly man in the outer suburbs west of Atlanta. He tried texting at first, but got no response. After an hour or two, he tried again and the seller texted back.
“Sorry, I’ve been in church. Yes, I still have it.”
So Norrell called and spoke with someone who sounded like “an elderly gentleman,” Norrell said.
“He told me he graduated from theology school, was a deacon at his church and they’d had some kind of rehearsal program for Easter, and that’s why they didn’t get out of church until late that afternoon,” Norrell said.
The seller told Norrell that he’d had over 65 missed calls about the SUV and that he was going to sell it to the first buyer who showed up with the money. And no checks, the man said.
The couple got directions to a house in Austell and set out Monday morning.
“All the way up there I spoke to him on the phone,” Norrell said. “He even put his wife on the phone. She sounded like an elderly woman as well. (Cummings) spoke with him and everything seemed legit. As a matter of fact, I’ve still got text messages in my phone. I sent him pictures of my family. His wife texted back and said, ‘Congratulations, they’re beautiful, they’re precious.’ I mean, in full detail.
Norrell got the address, punched it into his GPS and he and Cummings set off north.
“I kept in touch with him all the way,” Norrell said. “I sent him pictures, ‘We’re passing this road sign,’ ‘We’re turning onto 285.’ When we got to the neighborhood where the house was, we pulled in slow, looking for the mailbox number. There wasn’t one.”
The neighborhood was upscale, Norrell said. People were out in their yards and driveways in front of what he estimated were probably $300,000 homes. They drove up and back the cul-de-sac and stopped.
“So we go all the way back to the entrance and I called the guy. He didn’t answer. But I got a text that said, ‘In the bathroom. Give me a minute.’
“That’s fine. We sit there a few minutes and he called back and said, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ I told him, ‘Sir, there’s no 3215 house number there.’ He said, ‘Oh yes there is. I’m down at the end in a brown house.’”
So Norrell and Cummings turned around and drove back into the neighborhood.
“As we’re going through, we passed by a silver Volkswagen Passat. As we passed by this car, I’m talking to the man on the phone. ‘Yeah, we’re up here on the right. Come on up. I’ll come out there and meet you.’”
As they passed the Passat, Norrell said out of his peripheral vision, he noticed it was pulling into a driveway.
“Didn’t think much of it at the time because I was still looking for the gentleman with the car I’m supposed to be buying,” Norrell said. “And like I said, this is a nice neighborhood.”
Norrell stopped and got out.
“Next thing you know, the car we passed came back. In a split second, all I heard was the car rev up and slam on its brakes. I looked and there was a gunman wearing all black with a bandana over his face running at me. (Cummings) was screaming, ‘No, no, no, no,’ and I was just ducking.”
The gunman was screaming, “Where’s it at? Where’s it at,’ and I was screaming, ‘Take, take it!’
Cummings, meanwhile, was dealing with her own gunman, who had pulled open the car door, jammed a pistol into her belly and was screaming obscenities at her as he rifled through the console between the front seats.
At that point, Norrell told the gunman that the money was in the glove box.
And then they were gone.
“I swear it didn’t happen in more than 12 seconds,” Cummings said. “We didn’t see any kinds of signs until after. Once we realized something was up, it was too late. It was already happening.”
The young couple phoned police, who came out and took a report. They also told Norrell and Cummings to consider themselves lucky, because others hadn’t gotten off so lightly.
Almost the exact same thing had happened twice before recently in the same west Atlanta area, Norrell said.
“Same exact car. Same exact old man and old woman. The same story about they had to back the car into the garage because people were hounding them about,” Norell said.
Austell police said the thieves apparently scope out houses where people are out of town or are on the road a lot to use as venues for their crime.
Investigators also told them that three Mondays before, a similar setup ended with one victim drawing his own weapon on the thieves and getting killed in the process.
“That guy was killed,” Norrell said. “He was carrying and pulled out his gun and shot back. But the two gunmen shot him and killed him.”
“Over $800 for a drone,” Cummings said.
Back at home in Crawford, Ala., Norrell and Cummings are back at work, she as a hair stylist and he as a contractor. They’re getting help and support from friends and family and still planning their September wedding. Cummings’ employer and co-workers at Sydney’s Shoppe of Beauty and Boutique in Phenix City have set up a GoFundMe site to help soften the financial blow to the young couple.
As for Norrell, he hasn’t given up completely on Craigslist, but this week has certainly changed the way he’s willing to do business.
“I’ve done a lot of deals on Craigslist, but I’ve never been put in a position like this, obviously,” Norrell said. “I always felt that if I was, I would be able to tell it pretty quickly. But everything got by me on this.”
In the future, if he does more such deals, he’ll be more in control of the surroundings.
“I’ve got a truck that my mother bought on Craigslist right now,” Norrell said. “I changed the ad immediately after all this happened to ‘Will only meet a potential buyer at a police station, for mine and your safety.’
“If they don’t want to come to the police station, I won’t meet with them.”