Robberies prompt pleas for security

Businesses pressing for renovations to Owen Brown center


November 07, 1999|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

At Columbia's Owen Brown Village Center, vacant shops and deserted sidewalks have driven off all but the most determined shoppers. And two armed robberies within a week have left store owners wondering whether the center, long overdue for renovations, is safe.

Safety is not a new issue at the village center on Cradlerock Way -- shop and restaurant owners there have worried about crime for the past few years. But the robbery Oct. 27 of a Mobil gas station and a holdup Monday at Jerry's Subs and Pizza -- combined with frequent street robberies -- have prompted some business owners and village leaders to press the center's owner for more security. They also want a firm date for the start of renovations.

Steve Heintzelman, owner of Sonoma's restaurant, said he plans to meet with representatives from GFS Realty -- the shopping center's owner -- this week to talk about the need for increased security, as well as their plans for the village center.

Heintzelman said he has always worried about crime in the area, so much so that he and his staff have offered to walk customers to their cars after dark since the restaurant opened 2 1/2 years ago.

"You don't worry about anything, including crime, until it happens," he said. "Unfortunately, it happens all the time."

According to police statistics, calls for service at the Owen Brown center have increased from 501 during the first half of last year to 527 during the first half of this year. Robberies, thefts, assaults, destruction of property and disorderly conduct calls are the most frequent.

And there were more robbery calls in the first six months of this year, 12, than were reported in all of 1998, when there were 11.

Robbery is not a problem unique to Owen Brown. Throughout the county, robberies have surged -- as much as 63 percent in the first half of this year. There were 124 robberies from January through June this year, up from 76 in the same period last year.

Seven months ago, Howard County police Chief Wayne Livesay put together a robbery unit -- a team of detectives focused only on solving street and commercial robberies. Though most suburban police departments have had this type of investigative unit for years, Howard police relied on nine detectives responsible for investigating violent crimes.

Sgt. Karen Shinham, who supervises four detectives, leads the robbery unit. Police made 32 arrests in Howard robberies during the first half of last year, compared with 54 during the first half of this year. Most of those arrests were made shortly after the new unit began work.

Though Shinham is pleased with the results, she is also cautious.

"There is no quick fix to this," she said, noting that police alone can't solve crime. She said it is important that when shoppers see something suspicious, they report it to police immediately.

Shinham said detectives are unsure whether the gas station and sub shop robberies were committed by the same man.

Lael Schneider-Firestone, 18, a clerk at the sub shop, was working alone about 3 p.m. Monday when he walked out the back door to put trash in large, green bins that are a few paces from the building. As he turned to go back inside, he said he felt something pressed against his back.

Although he never saw a gun, Schneider-Firestone assumed that the robber had one and followed his orders.

"I went to the cash register and he lifted up the drawer to take out all the $20s under it," he said. "He said, `Count to 10, and don't turn around until you hear the door closing.' "

Schneider-Firestone thinks that the robber was hiding behind the trash bins, which are enclosed by a brick wall on three sides.

In the gas station robbery, the gunman entered the station through a rear restroom door and pointed a handgun at the attendant. Though the descriptions of the robbers in both cases are similar, not enough is known to determine whether the same person is involved.

Gas station owner Kevin Headlee said he is concerned about being robbed again.

"Columbia is changing," he said. "It's not a crime-free suburban haven that it is portrayed to be. If you want to get an idea of what crime is like, come through the village center around midnight. There are all kinds of kids hanging around, I don't want to say gangs, but there are groups of them just wandering around."

That is one reason employees at Sonoma's don't mind walking customers to their cars. Aric Swezy, a Sonoma's bartender, said he was waiting in line at the Giant grocery store about 2: 30 a.m. Oct. 28 -- only a few hours after the gas station robbery -- when he heard a woman scream "rape."

He and a co-worker ran to the parking lot, where they found a distraught woman and saw two men who had robbed her running away.

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