Carjackings give Md. drivers a new passenger: fear

September 16, 1992|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Staff Writer

Is nowhere safe?

Many Marylanders are asking themselves that question in the wake of recent carjackings around the state, the most brutal of which left a Howard County woman dead on a suburban street just miles from her home.

The shock waves have sent people to gun shops for Mace, to car-alarm companies for estimates and to their psychologists for advice. People are rethinking their beliefs and their driving habits, and enrolling in safety courses. Precautions aside, they wonder: Could it happen to me?

"I pull up to someone at a stop sign and think, 'Are they going to not like the kind of music I'm playing and pull out a gun on me?' " says Kim Carusi, 24, of Columbia. "It's terrifying."

The incident that prompted such concern occurred last week when Pam Basu, a chemist, was dragged to her death after two men commandeered her BMW with her 22-month-old daughter in it.

There have been more than 300 carjackings -- and eight related deaths -- this year in Maryland and Washington, according to police auto theft and robbery units in the area. Those numbers prompted the Maryland State Police recently to begin listing carjacking under a separate crime category.

"The shell of your car is like the inside of your home. It's your sanctuary. [People] now feel like that potentially can be violated," says state police Tfc. James Emerick of the crime-prevention unit in Westminster.

Criminologist Lawrence Sherman says Dr. Basu's death -- and other recent carjackings -- have captured so much attention because of their similarity to acts of terrorism.

"This destroys our basic assumptions about daily life. You assume you can get up in the morning, take your child to school and go to work without being murdered. But when crimes strike in the heart of the middle class with terroristic force, it causes people to be more fright- ened. . . . And it makes America a very scary place to live," says the professor at the University of Maryland College Park.

George Maria feels that fear.

At a recent Orioles game, he and his Columbia neighbors found themselves discussing what once seemed unthinkable: buying a handgun.

"You think you're living in Oz," says the 35-year-old father of two. "I grew up in Prince George's County. I moved here for the family safety and the schools. Now it seems like crime follows you."

At B & N Park Circle Auto Radio Alarm Co. in Northwest Baltimore, owner Jerry Baitch recently talked to a Mercedes-Benz owner about installing a car alarm. "He also said was going to start carrying a gun. He said it jokingly, but I think that's what's going to happen. That's all people are talking about now," Mr. Baitch says.

Although carjackings have been the topic of conversation at gun shops in Pasadena, Annapolis and Parkville, the crimes have generated more sales of Mace than of firearms.

Bob's Coin and Gun Inc. recently recorded near-record sales of pepper Mace. Bob Meck, who owns the Annapolis store, usually sells a dozen cans in a week. Last week, he sold three times that many.

"People were grabbing handfuls of the thing," he says. "Women are really running scared. They're buying them for the whole family."

Such fears also might translate into a bigger market for sophisticated alarm systems. At Harry's Car Radio & TV, a Reisterstown store that sells auto alarms, people have shown interest in a timed ignition device, says co-owner David Nelson. Once a switch is flipped, the ignition will stall in several minutes.

lTC "It's because of this lady killed in Savage," he says. "People are definitely spooked."

Police officials encourage preventive safety measures but warn against overreacting to the recent crimes. They are particularly concerned about people buying weapons they might not learn how to use properly. "We don't want people to do Dodge City types of things," Trooper Emerick says.

In large and small ways, though, people's habits and beliefs appear to be changing.

Claire Pacifico, a mother of two who lives in Laurel, thought she was opposed to the death penalty until last week. "Now I find myself thinking that these men deserve it. This has stretched my tolerance to the limit, and it bothers me to feel that way," she

says.

Sharon Breidenbach, a secretary in Westminster, has stopped putting on lipstick and eating lunch in her car so that she can be more attentive behind the wheel.

Ms. Carusi is among the cautious ones. She carries Mace, locks her car doors immediately and now often runs rather than walks to her car at night. Still, the director of the WeeCare Children's Center in Columbia thinks she could easily be a target.

"You used to feel safe in your car. If someone came up to you, at least you could get away fast. . . . But guns are faster," she says.

The carjackings also have changed the way she envisions auto thefts. Before, she thought cars were stolen by tool-wielding criminals in the middle of the night.

"You can get killed for your car now," she says. "Before it was just missing when you woke up in the morning."

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