The stranger pounding on Richard Harmon's back door in Jessup that Saturday evening cried and trembled. The young woman told Harmon how she'd been attacked at the post office right across the street by six youths who threw her on the ground and stole her car.
Neither Harmon nor the woman knew that less than an hour earlier, police say, these young men forced open the door of a brick dormitory and fled the unfenced grounds of Cedar Knoll, a District of Columbia youth detention center in Laurel, about two miles south of Harmon's home.
That was Feb. 8. The U.S. Park Police say five of the eight youths who ran off that day have been recaptured, and the woman's 1988 Chevy Beretta was recovered in Washington.
On Feb. 15 and 17, six more youths escaped, prompting Washington Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly to replace Cedar Knoll's two top administrators and call for a review of management and security procedures at the 34-year-old institution.
Residents of the Anne Arundel County communities closest to Cedar Knoll -- Jessup and Maryland City -- say it's about time Washington wakes up to what they view as a clear danger -- a minimum-security centerhousing more serious offenders than it was designed to hold.
"It's getting in the papers now, but it's nothing that hasn't been happening for years," said Ray Smallwood, president of the Maryland City Civic Association.
"We're concerned and we're frustrated," said Melanie Gutjahr, vice president of the Jessup Improvement Association.
Although residents have lived for years among seven state prisons --including an institution for the criminally insane just over the line in Howard County -- Gutjahr said the recent spate of Cedar Knoll escapes sent a wave of fear through her neighborhood.
Anne Arundel County Police Maj. William H. Donoho, patrol commander for the westernand southern districts, said that aside from the assault and car theft on Feb. 8, he could not link any local crimes to Cedar Knoll escapes. But, he said, "I think we'd be pretty naive to think that didn't occur. Just common sense tells you people on the run like that have the capacity to do whatever they want to do."
Larry Brown, spokesman for the D.C. Department of Human Services, said that 43 youths haveescaped from the grounds of Cedar Knoll since Jan. 1, 1990. During that time, another 49 fled the custody of Cedar Knoll staff members while on outside jobs or school assignments, and 85 more did not returnfrom unsupervised home visits or special leave.
A 16-year-old boywho went AWOL from a school assignment in Washington in Sept. 26 wascharged last month with the robbery and killing of a Capitol Heightsstore clerk on Feb. 26.
Brown said that 176 boys between 14 and 20 years old are now held at Cedar Knoll, some after being convicted as juvenile offenders, some while awaiting trial. In Washington, they are considered juveniles until they turn 21. The inmates are supervised by 82 staff officers, with social workers, teachers, therapists and medical staff.
The reason it's been difficult to prevent escapesfrom Cedar Knoll, Brown said, is that there is no fence around the perimeter of the 22-acre campus.
"It's easy to just walk away," he said. He said one maximum-security building at Cedar Knoll is enclosed by a fence topped with barbed wire, but it accommodates only about 25 inmates.
Brown said the cost of installing a fence was estimated a few years ago at $1 million. Congress set aside $190,000 in 1990 to improve security, but the money was never spent and Brown said it's not enough to secure the place.
The minimum security was less ofa problem when Cedar Knoll opened in 1958. Since the 1960s, however,boys have been sent to Cedar Knoll for more serious offenses.
A Cedar Knoll staff member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that about three-quarters of the boys are sent to Cedar Knoll for drug charges, primarily possession with intent to sell. Most of the rest are in for burglary and car theft; some are there for assault. Those sent to Cedar Knoll on gun charges or more violent offenses are held in the maximum-security building until there is room for them at Oak Hill, the crowded maximum-security juvenile prison next door.
Decades ago, the staff member said, a gun charge would be rare, as Cedar Knoll was populated primarily by juveniles who were declared "uncontrollable" or were constantly absent from school.
Brown stopped shortof characterizing the youngsters there now as more violent. But, he said, "You understand, the society is different. Drugs weren't as prevalent" in the early years of Cedar Knoll.
The staff member was not as circumspect.
"They were a different breed than they are today," the staff member said. "The crimes are more serious. They don't give a damn about you. They have no respect whatsoever. . . . They carenothing about life. All they care about is getting even."