BY ETHAN LILLARD
PEN CITY CURRENT
BONAPARTE – Area law enforcement officers have a new friend in the skies.
In what is sure to go down as one of the quirkiest crime stories of the year, a Bonaparte man took matters into his own hands to solve a string of burglaries that resulted in him helping recover more than $5,000 of his own personal belongings, including a stolen firearm.
Owning three airplanes and knowing what kind of vehicle the suspect was driving, Dave Buford took to the air and assisted the Lee County Sheriff’s department with the arrest of a 16-year-old juvenile suspect Wednesday.
Buford, with a second aerial assist and ground support from friends and family, isolated the suspect and then called in the calvary to clean it up.
“It was fantastic,” Lee County Sheriff’s Department Detective Chad Donaldson said.
“I couldn’t have asked for better directions. Ultimately, it ended up with us being able to take him into custody without incident (and) without anyone getting hurt. I don’t think the suspect had any idea that he was being surveilled from the air by this individual. It definitely helped bring this to a safe conclusion.”
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While Buford isn’t a super hero, his actions did mirror those of one of DC Comics’ most well known characters in Bruce Wayne, A.K.A, Batman.
Much like Batman, Buford collected his intel from allies around the area, communicated with police and took to the sky.
“The citizens are sick and tired of having crimes perpetrated against them and they are willing to work with law enforcement,” Donaldson said.
“We have citizens out there that are the victims of crimes that have resources and are willing to use those resources in efforts to help law enforcement apprehend and prosecute people that are committing these crimes.”
One of the craziest aspects of the story is not only the use of a plane by a citizen to help track the suspect, but the fact Buford just started flying two years ago.
When most men hit a midlife crisis, they buy a motorcycle. When Buford turned 50, he told his wife he was going to start taking flying lessons and buy an airplane.
“You’ve got a better view (than on a motorcycle),” Buford said. “When I turned 50 I thought, ‘I’m going to fly a plane.’ I talked to my wife and told her I’m going to buy a plane and start taking lessons and get my license. It just kind of snowballed from there.”
Buford runs his own business, allowing him to collect the three airplanes, but it also may have been the reason he was the target of the theft.
Tuesday when Buford got back to his shop, he could tell somebody had been through one of his work trucks. That’s when he discovered someone had stolen a handgun, ammo, a grade laser and other tools at a value of more than $5,000.
From there Buford called the Van Buren County Sheriffs office. Officers came to the scene of the crime to investigate and tried to find prints and establish a timeline. That’s when the tire tracks that would later lead Buford to the suspect were discovered.
“We drove around my shop and that’s when we saw the tracks,” Buford said. “We saw the tracks were 53 inches center to center, we could tell it was a smaller vehicle … when they pulled away and the two tracks went to four, we could see one of the paths was really narrow because of a spare tire/donut. As it tracked around, we could tell it was on the rear.
“At that point in time we knew somewhat what we were dealing with. I rallied the troops and had about eight people out driving around and looking for a car/little truck with a donut on it.”
Buford put out a $1,000 bounty for anyone that tracked down the suspect.
“I got a call from a neighbor that’s a friend of ours,” he said. “(My neighbor) said, ‘I think I’ve got your guy.’ He said the guy was at his place and was going through his garage. The homeowner heard a noise and went out there and asked what he was doing.”
The suspect claimed he was at the residence because he had a flat tire and was looking for a jack. Not wanting to spook the suspect, Buford’s friend obliged and helped put another donut on, keeping the vehicle more identifiable. Buford’s neighbor called him back and let him know the situation.
Buford called the police to provide them with an update and a description of the suspect. At that point they had a good feeling of who it was. The following day Buford received a picture message from a friend. His friend noticed that in the photo he saw, the gun and clips looked a lot like Buford’s.
That’s when Buford again contacted the Van Buren Sheriff’s department and also reached out to the Lee County Sheriffs office as well. Knowing there was a chance the suspect may try to ditch or get money from the stolen goods, Buford also went to pawn shops and gave out the list of items stolen.
With a lead on who the suspect was, authorities went to a nearby family members’ home, but had no success.
That’s when Buford decided he was going to take matters into his own hands. After the police left the family members’ home, the suspect later returned.
“I flew down and spotted the car at the residence that we had suspected him to be at,” Buford said. “I circled around and called Chad. Then the car moved around and he ended up getting away.”
Not to be deterred from his mission, Buford called his nephew, Tyler Buford, for an extra set of eyes in the sky.
“We went grid flying, just trying to cover everywhere, and we spotted him again,” Buford said.
“I dropped down to get a good look at the car to make sure it was the right one, sure enough it was. I called Chad back again and we kept following him and circling until the police could get there.”
The vehicle ended up pulling into a different residence, but with Buford still on his tail, the police were able to track down the suspect and bring him into custody.
“We watched them take him down,” Buford said with a grin. “Then Chad called me and said it was him and that my gun was in the car.”
After the arrest, Donaldson was asked if he had ever seen anything like this in his nearly 20 years in law enforcement.
“Never,” he said. “Obviously we’ve had citizen assistance, (but Buford) was very good at what he did. Obviously he did some things that are just a little different than what we do. We work under the confines of the laws and things of that nature, so we had to reign him in just a little bit because we have to think of safety concerns and things of that nature.”
With Buford putting in so much time and effort and proving to have above average investigation skills, Donaldson was asked about the potential of Buford joining the task force.
“Mr. Buford is definitely one of those individuals with some training and some direction, he’d be excellent doing the type of job we do,” Donaldson said.
Buford didn’t disagree.
“I’d like to assist law enforcement,” he said. “If the law enforcement needs assistance, I’d be more than happy to help.”
Now when tri-state area riffraff think about committing a crime, maybe next time they will look to the sky and see a symbol in the clouds, or whatever Buford decides his superhero logo should be.
“I’m very grateful for law enforcement, but nobody handles your business like you do,” he said. “I just wanted to think outside the box and use my resources around me to do what we needed to do because it’s all about nailing the bad guy.”