Teen's death raises concerns about security Officials promote watch program WEST COLUMBIA

September 22, 1993|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff Writer

The death of 15-year-old Tara Gladden and the discovery of her body a short distance from her Vantage Point home has heightened fears of crime among some Town Center residents and Columbia officials.

Village officials are attempting to form a Neighborhood Watch Program to deter crime, and the Columbia Council is considering taking a more active role in public safety issues in light of the Atholton High School student's death and other recent crimes.

"There certainly is more concern about security measures. The Gladden murder heightened anxiety," said Joe Burkert, a Water's Edge resident.

"There's a general concern about things going on in the neighborhood. That's why a Neighborhood Watch could be a good thing."

Howard County police found Tara's partially decomposed body Aug. 17 in a culvert near the intersection of Little Patuxent Parkway and Vantage Point Road, and are investigating the death as a homicide, but no charges have been filed.

The condition of the girl's body has made it difficult for medical officials to determine the cause of her death, however.

The State Medical Examiner's Office has not released autopsy results.

Last month, about 85 residents attended a Town Center meeting to discuss the investigation and public safety concerns with police.

"We were told by the Police Department that crime in Vantage Point is statistically lower than adjoining neighborhoods," said David Leatherwood, a Town Center village board member.

"But that's of little consequence in the aftermath of the tragedy.

Suzanne Waller, who represents Town Center on the 10-member Columbia Council, has urged the council to do more to curb crime, citing two other crimes reported during the last three weeks -- the rape of a 27-year-old woman, who was abducted late at night from the Long Reach Village Center, and the attempted robbery of a 79-year-old woman near the Owen Brown Village Center.

At the Sept. 8 Town Center board meeting, Cpl. Tara Ball was scheduled to explain the department's Neighborhood Watch Program, but only one resident attended.

"Time is very critical," said Ms. Ball. "Whatever the crisis is, it tends to subside."

Police officials also attended the community meeting on Aug. 25 to try to "alleviate unnecessary concerns and dispel rumors," said Ms. Ball.

The Vantage Point neighborhood has a low crime rate, partly because it is somewhat isolated and lacks easy access, she said.

Some residents caution against overreacting to a single incident.

"It doesn't represent a pattern," said resident William Falk. "We live in quite a safe place. That's what the police said and that's the way I feel.

"All neighborhoods could no doubt benefit from some form of Neighborhood Watch Program. You need to be vigilant, but I don't think you have to be paranoid."

Village officials seek participation in the program, in which neighbors would be vigilant for suspicious activity and representatives from homeowners associations would serve as liaisons with police, distribute crime prevention information and encourage residents to identify their belongings.

At the Aug. 25 meeting, residents expressed concern about the lack of lighting along the path linking Lake Kittamaqundi to Little Patuxent Parkway via Vantage House, a senior citizen complex, and the "overgrown nature" of pathway sections.

Several other incidents, including an attempted break-in in Vantage Point Aug. 30 and two break-ins and a car theft in the same neighborhood in June, also have prompted interest in a watch program.

Howard police say crime statistics don't show a significant rise or decline this year, with 29,541 reports of crime logged in Columbia from Jan. 1 to Sept. 15, 1992, as compared with 29,179 for the same period this year.

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