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Originally published Thursday, December 9, 2010 at 9:13 PM

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'Hyper-realistic' masks put new faces on crime

Expensive, realistic masks — the kind that are the hit of the Halloween costume party — increasingly are being used by criminals, authorities say.

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 — increasingly are 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 to mistakenly arrest an African-American man.

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

Authorities are starting to think the so-called Geezer Bandit, a Southern California bank robber believed for months to be an old man, might 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'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, 39, a former makeup artist. "We're very embarrassed this has happened."

Conrad Zdzierak, 30, a 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.

"We showed the picture to his own mother, and she thought it was him," Riordan said.

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.

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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.

He also 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 also was 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. Images in those videos resemble Slusser's "Elder" mask.

Authorities are investigating the possibility that the Geezer Bandit was 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 only 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," Foxworth said, "it's a reflection of how criminals are using technology to commit crimes. We have to stay one step ahead of them. That's certainly a challenge for us."

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. "It's like 'Mission: Impossible': You pull it over your head one time and that's it. It's like a 10-hour makeup job in 10 seconds."

He experimented until he found the right recipe for silicone that would seem like skin. A key discovery was that if the inside of the mask is smooth — even if the outside is bumpy with pores, a nose and other features — it will stretch over most faces and move with facial muscles.

Customers include Halloween revelers, theme parks and a few TV shows and horror movies, Slusser said.

Customers also include a few Hollywood celebrities who use the masks to fool paparazzi, but he declined to reveal their names.

The masks are time-consuming to make, and they're not cheap. Slusser's first effort to sell them through a Manhattan Halloween shop was a flop, simply because customers weren't willing to spend hundreds of dollars for a mask.

Slusser moved his sales operation online. The company projects $500,000 in sales this year and expects to turn a profit for the first time.

Lawbreakers always have tried to hide their identities, wearing hats, pulling bandannas or ski masks over their faces, or donning wigs. Slusser's masks pose additional challenges, but the larger issue remains human nature, said Riordan of the Springdale police force.

"It's not SPFXmasks or Rusty Slusser that's making these people commit crimes," Riordan said.

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