The terror comes in an instant. Just ask Mitch Sherman of Columbia.
On a routine stop at an Exxon station at a busy intersection in Washington on Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Sherman became one more than 300 victims this year of a worrisome new crime in the Baltimore-Washington area -- car-jacking.
Mr. Sherman, a Xerox employee and a father of two, found himself looking down the barrel of "a very large handgun" as he pumped $6 worth of gas into his Nissan Maxima. His assailants were two men sitting on a curb at the station when he pulled in.
"Give me the keys to your car and keep on pumping," one of the men ordered Mr. Sherman, 43. When he was finished fueling the car, one man snapped, "You start walking and don't look back."
He thought of Pam Basu, the Howard County chemist who was confronted the day before by two men who stole her BMW and then dragged her to her death after she became entangled in a seat belt shoulder harness.
"I was just totally shocked. Here I was in the middle of the day at a busy intersection being robbed of my car. I kept thinking about what had happened Tuesday to Mrs. Basu. It was the most
frightening thing that's ever happened to me."
The crime is so new that most area police agencies have only recently begun to separate records on armed car thefts. But a check with police auto theft and robbery units shows at least 310 car-jackings in the region this year. More frightening is the number who have been killed this year for their cars.
Police say Dr. Basu was one of at least seven people killed in armed car thefts in the Baltimore-Washington area this year.
Those deaths include J. Schuyler Alland, a Baltimore resident and Laurel businessman shot to death by someone stealing his BMW; a Bethesda psychology professor slain during the robbery of her car; and a Gaithersburg restaurant owner killed for his car in Washington.
While Dr. Basu's death has focused attention on the problem, police say there isn't much that motorists can do to protect themselves.
"This is a crime where virtually everyone could be a potential victim," said Detective Thomas Martin, a Howard County Police Department armed robbery specialist. The element of surprise is a big part of the attack, he said.
Police say car-jackings usually occur at night, often in front of people's homes or in shopping area parking lots. Some recent victims who have experienced what police say are fairly typical armed thefts include:
* A Columbia man and his children who found themselves facing three armed men, one with an Uzi-type weapon, in March as they were getting into their Nissan Pathfinder at the Owen Brown Village Center.
* A Timonium man who was robbed of his Toyota Supra at about 6 p.m. Sept. 1 as he filled up at a York Road service station in Timonium. The victim told police that a man walked up to him, asked if the car was his, then showed a handgun and demanded the keys.
* A Glen Burnie who man reported that his car was stolen Aug. 31 in a mall parking lot after an assailant threatened him with a gun.
* A Garrison woman who told police she was confronted by an armed man in the early evening of Jan. 15 as she was getting out of her car in front of her apartment. The woman said a man walked up behind her, placed what she felt was a gun to her back, then pushed her to the ground. The assailant grabbed her car keys, then he and another man hopped in her car and sped off.
Investigators in some large cities have found some armed car thefts were the work of gangs aiming to sell luxury cars out-of-state or overseas. That does not seem to be the case in the Baltimore-Washington area, area police say.
In Detroit, where police were logging up to 74 armed auto theft reports a week last summer, about 23 a week are now reported. The Detroit police chief formed a special task force in August 1991 to investigate the crime. The task force identified several small groups that were responsible for the robberies. Using informants, stakeouts and undercover operations, detectives made more than 300 arrests in the robberies, Sgt. Christopher Buck said.
In New York, where 139,977 cars were stolen in 1991, 2,087 of them involved armed attacks, police statistics show. Both of those figures are down from 1990 statistics, which police believe is in part because of several aggressive investigations that busted two organized auto theft rings, said Lt. Robert Martin of the city's auto crime division.
"Auto theft gangs prefer the cars to be in super perfect condition. That's why they'll use a gun to rob the driver of the car. There's no smashing a window or popping a steering wheel," Lieutenant Martin said. And for a luxury auto that can mean $20,000 to $30,000, he said.
So far, most local car-jackings appear to be random, rather than the work of professional car thieves, police say. The cars are often stolen for joy rides or to be used in a getaway and are quickly abandoned by thieves, police say.
Area police agencies are beginning to compile unsettling statistics.