It was 4 a.m. when Rodney Campbell, car theft victim and friend of car theft victims, heard the noises outside his Hillendale apartment.
"I saw two vehicles in the parking lot with their lights off," Campbell says. "Two guys got out and started trying to break into a neighbor's car. I called 911."
He says the youths ran, leaving their own cars behind, as Baltimore County police quickly responded. One youth was arrested, and one of the abandoned cars turned out to be stolen. Campbell has been to court twice as a witness, only to have the case postponed twice. He's frustrated.
And he's not alone.
DTC The parking lots on Dowling Circle and Debonair Court, at the Pelham Woods Apartments east of Loch Raven Boulevard, look like a showroom of anti-theft auto devices -- and for good reason. Unfortunately, most residents of the neighborhood, infected with rash of auto thefts, didn't buy a device until after their car was stolen or tampered with.
Wanda Cherry, 26, lost her red Toyota to thieves Feb. 26. The police got the car back after chasing it down Reisterstown Road two days later. The driver and passenger bailed out. Cherry had the broken door lock and steering column fixed and has had no more trouble since buying a steel bar device that hooks to the steering wheel so that thieves can't turn it.
"You'd think that moving out of the city, you'd think you'd do better," she says. Pelham Woods is just north of the city line.
County police statistics show that of the 23 cars stolen in the area in and around the Pelham Woods Apartments from January through August, 12 came from Dowling Circle and seven more from Debonair Court. Several hundred cars are parked there at night in sometimes dark lots.
Several residents say they have asked management for more lighting -- a cheap and efficient deterrent, police say -- but to no avail.
Towson police crime-prevention Officer John Reginaldi says city youths come to nearby county neighborhoods in groups of three or four, in one car, look for cars they want to drive and steal $$ them. It typically takes only a few minutes, unless the car is protected by a club-like device that locks to the steering wheel and makes it impossible to steer.
Reginaldi says such devices -- police recommend one called the Club -- are the best deterrent because they are easily seen and discourage thieves. They'll look for easier prey, he says.
Towson precinct crime analyst Officer Joe Backaus says the thieves like apartments because there are a lot of vehicles in often dark places where strangers coming and going don't stand out. The Hillendale area, in addition, is close to the city and "it's an easy out," Backaus says.
Although the apartment residents may think they are under siege by car thieves, the Towson precinct is a distant third in auto theft statistics in the county.
The Woodlawn precinct had 586 vehicles reported stolen in the first six months of 1991; Garrison precinct, covering nearby Owings Mills and Pikesville, was second with 473; and Towson was third at 381. Overall, more than 70 percent of stolen cars are recovered after joy riders abandon them or are caught.
That's small comfort to Darlene Jackson, who says her car was stolen, then recovered two weeks later with a broken window and ignition.
"I came out of the dealership with 'the Club,' " she says.
James Clark says his door lock still won't work right after a theft attempt. And Janet Bridges tells of the warning she didn't recognize.
"I couldn't figure out why the front door locks suddenly broke," she remembers thinking before her 1984 Mazda was stolen last May. After police recovered it -- sideswiped, with radio and clothes missing from inside and its ignition damaged -- the repair man told her that would-be thieves had damaged the locks during an earlier attempt.
She already had an anti-theft device, but just didn't bother to put it on one night when it was late and she had her arms full.
Patricia Davidson, a five-year resident of Pelham Woods, says her 11-month-old Chevy Cavalier Z-24 disappeared one morning 18 months ago while she was home sick. She got a call from the city impounding lot even before she knew the car was gone.
Two youths who had brought their own taped music for the cassette player and pillows to sit on to avoid broken window glass had wrecked the car on St. George's Road, near York Road and Cold Spring Lane.
"It's so doggone dark out here, it's too dark," Davidson says of her parking lot. She says she lost nearly $3,000 on the insurance settlement from her wrecked car. She, too, now has the Club.
Despite all the thefts, some people still feel unaffected.
Christine Dorer, Davidson's neighbor and a Pelham Woods resident for 18 years, says she has never had a problem and uses no anti-theft devices on her 1991 Plymouth Sundance.
"Chrysler makes their cars secure," she says. "I haven't had a lot of concern."
Baltimore County crime prevention Officer John Reginaldi of the Towson precinct advises car owners to take these steps to prevent car thefts:
* Park in well-lighted, heavily traveled areas.
* Lock your car and remove the keys.
* Replace flared lock buttons with tapered ones.
* Use a sturdy anti-theft device that provides visual, psychological and physical deterrence.
* Consider other anti-theft devices, such as an electrical kill-switch that makes your car impossible to start or an alarm system to deter intruders.