Plant poachers plaguing north-central Baltimore County ruined John Koelbel's homecoming from a four-month National Guard call-up, and he is ticked off.
The Green Beret sergeant was so pleased at the way his wife, Carol, decorated the landscaped entrance to their Hampton home with flags and streamers that he snapped nearly a whole roll of film.
But the shots at the end of the roll are quite different; they show holes where thieves dug up and trucked away 16 year-old trees and shrubs worth nearly $1,000. They left the flags and streamers.
Mr. Koelbel, an auctioneer, was surprised to learn that he was the latest of 18 victims who have lost nearly $10,000 worth of plantings to thieves since late March in the northand central parts of Baltimore County.
Several Japanese red maple trees, which can cost several hundred dollars apiece, were listed among the loot.
"We always have a few complaints in the spring and fall, but nothing like this," said E. Jay Miller, the county police spokesman.
The new McDonald's at York and Cranbrook roads has been hit threetimes, losing more than 100 shrubs and bushes valued at nearly $4,000. The rhododendron rustlers ripped off 90 shrubs and trees in two raids March 20 and 25, then returned May 8 for 13 azalea bushes.
The new St. Mary's Orthodox Church on Shawan Road lost plants worth $1,350 in three forays, according to the Rev. George F. Romley, the pastor.
From Hereford to Hampton, thethieves have struck at churches, businesses, homes and even common plantings such as at the entrance to the new Ashland development.
No other parts of Baltimore County or surrounding subdivisions have been been victimized by the current wave of vegetation vandalism, which is part of a nationwide trend of plantthefts.
In Chicago last spring, thieves not only stole plants -- they even rolled up sod and stole whole lawns.
New York's Central Park Conservatory Garden was taken for more than 100 plants, and a community garden on Riverside Drive lost three dozen expensive plants.
People have tried to counter with fences, alarms, chains and even foul-smelling chemicals to protect their plants, but the thieves seem to keep right on pulling and digging.
Police at Cockeysville have no suspects in the case of the purloinedplants. The Baltimore County victims, like the out-of-staters, said the heists looked like the work of professionals because only the best plants were taken.
For example, Mr. Koelbel said, the thieves, who left muddy truck and shoe prints in his driveway, stole an Alberta spruce and a weeping blue cedar, but left one of each tree.
"They picked the expensive ones," Mr. Koelbel said. "The two they left were sickly trees I'm trying to nurse. They're that good that they can pick out the best to steal."
"They were very selective," agreed Father Romley. "They took the best azaleas and hollies; the less expensive stuff was left."
The St. Mary's Church shrubs were stolen soon after they were planted. "I have a feeling they watched the planting so they could pull them up without a shovel," Father Romley said.
The church is fairly isolated on Shawan Road, but it is well lighted at night, he said.
The only clues to the thieves so far are the tracks they left at the Koelbel home and a description of two scruffy-looking men in a two-tone blue Camaro who were spotted parked near Seminary Avenue and Westellen Road the day before the theft by both a neighbor andthe local security patrol.
Lt. Lawrence R. Suther, assistant precinct commander at Cockeysville, said the thefts are spread across the large district. There is a lot of scattered new development, and the sites are vulnerable, he said.
The theft of large numbers of plants leads to suspicion that they are being stolen for resale, while the theft of a single tree "makes me think it is for personal landscaping," he said.
"It used to be they'd steal anything that wasn't nailed down," Lt. Suther said. "But it's really something when you have to take precautions to protect your plants."