Crime at Hickory Ridge Wawa store angers nearby residents Corporate officials refuse demand to shorten hours WEST COLUMBIA

September 30, 1992|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

If you ask Jane Parrish, the last straw was the shotgun blast that shattered a quiet August night and a front window at the Wawa Food Market on Hickory Ridge Road.

"The store has been sort of a hangout for teens for about two or three years. There had been problems, but not like this. Things just exploded in August," said Ms. Parrish, the Hickory Ridge village manager.

While no one was injured in the shooting, Hickory Ridge residents were alarmed and responded with their own barrage, said Ms. Parrish.

Some community residents have been demanding that Wawa corporate officials close the store after midnight.

Their argument: Such a change would halt gatherings by teens and others on the property, which Howard County police say produced about 50 crime reports and other worrisome incidents between Jan. 1 and Aug. 19.

Company officials said last week they don't plan to go so far as cutting back hours because they do a significant business between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m.

But they have hired off-duty police officers for security patrols on weekend nights and the company had two pay phones outside the store removed.

Wawa also is looking into adding new outside lighting.

"In the long term, these measures will be effective. Once the word is out that we have better security, the store should no longer be experiencing these problems," said Mike Eichinger, Wawa's area marketing manager for Maryland, Delaware and southern Pennsylvania.

While some of the other 75 Wawa Food Market stores in Mr. Eichinger's region have experienced minor problems with parking lot gatherings, none has experienced the amount and intensity of crime that the Hickory Ridge store has seen, Mr. Eichinger said.

For example, Wawa's other store in Columbia, in Oakland Mills Village, has had very few problems, Mr. Eichinger said.

"It's a fairly unique case. We're not really sure why it got the way it did at the Hickory Ridge store," he said.

But Howard Police Officer Karen Shinham, a crime prevention expert who has assisted Wawa officials and Hickory Ridge residents, speculates that the outdoor pay phones were a contributing factor in making the store a gathering point at night for groups of teens and others.

"You drive around Columbia today and you are hard pressed to find an outdoor pay phone. They are notoriously used by drug dealers to run business and they tend to

become gathering points for kids," she said.

Officer Shinham says that the removal of the pay phones at the Hickory Ridge Wawa has dramatically cut down on teens and others gathering on store grounds.

"It's made a major difference at the store," she said. "The phones were a key factor contributing to the crime problem there."

Police statistics demonstrate that the crime problem was significant at the store.

Between Jan. 1 and Aug. 19 (the day after the store window was shot out), police logged these crime reports at the store: four robberies, three assaults, five thefts, 10 fights, 24 disorderly conduct incidents, and three liquor violations. Police also received 11 reports of suspi

cious people on store grounds, Officer Shinham said.

Many of the incidents generated complaints to company officials and police.

But it was the still-unsolved shooting and the Aug. 23 arrests of three men and a 16-year-old boy on weapons charges after they were found with a loaded shotgun, an AK-47 assault weapon and a bayonet that stirred Hickory Ridge residents to demand action.

"That incident had the potential for everything going wrong," said Lt. Wayne Livesay of the county police special operations division.

Undercover officers had been staking out the store at night Thursdays through Sundays in an

effort to crack down on criminal activity and loitering.

The officers also had information that two rival groups of youths had been known to frequent the store, Lieutenant Livesay said.

While Lieutenant Livesay said he also believes the removal of the pay phones and the addition of off-duty police will help reduce crime at the store, Ms. Parrish says village residents aren't convinced.

"Some people are very skeptical about what Wawa tells us. There are some that want to organize a boycott of the store until it cuts its hours at night. They're worried about what's going to happen next at the store."

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