Brother of accused killer of Cherokee firefighter, wife also had troubled past

COBB COUNTY, Ga. — The brother of the suspect in the murder of a Cherokee County firefighter and his wife was no stranger to law enforcement prior to his death, when he was shot after stabbing an officer to death outside the Pentagon in August.

On Aug. 3, authorities said 27-year-old Austin William Lanz fatally ambushed officer George Gonzalez with a knife. The two men struggled for the knife and the officer’s gun before Lanz was shot and killed.

Officials don’t know why Lanz picked the Pentagon area for violence. Lanz had enlisted in the Marine Corps in October 2012 but was “administratively separated” less than a month later and never earned the title Marine, the Corps said.

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Lanz was arrested last April for a break-in at a neighbor’s home in Cobb County and drew police attention months earlier for a harassment campaign involving sexually explicit photos and messages, according to interviews and records obtained by The Associated Press.

He was recorded on video by the security system roaming the house for 13 minutes and turned on all the lights, which police said indicated that he’d been “searching through the residence for something or someone.” He left without taking anything, according to arrest reports and court filings.

Lanz was arrested and booked on charges of burglary and trespassing charges. When informed he was being charged, Lanz objected, saying, “but I didn’t take anything,” the arrest report said. He then made statements to a police officer about how planes had been flying over the neighborhood and tracking his cellphone.

While being processed at the county jail, Lanz, who was listed as 6 feet, 3 inches tall and roughly 190 pounds, is alleged to have attacked two sheriff’s deputies in the intake area without provocation, including one who sustained a chipped bone and torn ligament in her knee. After he was restrained, Lanz reportedly accused the officers of being “gay” for teaming up on him and asked to be uncuffed so he could fight them one-on-one.

A judge reduced his bond in May to $30,000 and released him, imposing some conditions, including that he not take illegal drugs, that he undergo a mental health evaluation and that he not possess a firearm. The charges against him are still listed as pending.

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A spokesperson for the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that Lanz had been held at the agency’s detention center but referred all other questions to the FBI.

“I wish there was a better way to address those mental health issues that people have,” said Phillip Brent, who shared a backyard fence with Lanz and describes repeated harassment directed at himself and his then-fiancee. “It feels like it was just a clear failure of our system to help someone out who needed that help.”

An attorney who represented Lanz in the Georgia cases didn’t immediately respond to messages seeking comment. Messages left with family members at Lanz’s home in Acworth were not immediately returned.

The April break-in was the culmination of a lengthy harassment campaign that involved sexually explicit and “vaguely threatening” messages that Lanz was caught on surveillance camera slipping into the mailbox of the neighboring home where Brent and his then-fiancee lived, Brent said.

The harassment briefly stopped after the police, presented with the video footage, confronted Lanz with a warning, Brent said.

But it later resumed, including in the form of a massive cardboard sign that was duct-taped on Brent’s front door and said, cryptically, on one side: “I’m done wondering for real” and “Wut is the point of that” on the other.

By the time of the break-in, Brent said, he was so unnerved that he was sleeping at his sister’s house. On April 24, around 4 a.m., he was alerted that the alarm company had reported a break-in at his home. He pulled up the surveillance system video camera on his phone, “and I was like, oh, it’s Austin.”

He said Lanz broke in through the back door with a sledgehammer, opened all the blinds and rummaged through his bed. Though it is not mentioned in the police report, Lanz was also carrying a handgun, Brent said.

“It was terrifying,” he said.

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Brent and his former fiancee, Eliza Wells, said they were frustrated with the criminal justice system, which they say failed to initially treat the harassment claims with appropriate seriousness and then permitted him to be out on bond.

Brent said he recently learned from a prosecutor that Lanz’s lawyer was seeking a bond modification that would permit Lanz to travel to the Washington, D.C., area to work with his father, who did not return messages seeking comment.

“It just causes me to wonder what could have been done differently to help Austin mentally and give him the actual tools and resources if he needed, instead of just letting him out on bail and allowing him to travel out of state, and that sort of stuff,” Wells said.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report