Killing in Towson puts new spotlight on security at mall

A 58-year-old man was fatally shot in parking garage

February 20, 2005|By Phillip McGowan and Josh Mitchell | Phillip McGowan and Josh Mitchell,SUN STAFF

Returning with a shopping bag in hand to the parking garage of the Towson Town Center yesterday, Heidi Huber had not heard about the shooting death just the night before, just one level below.

But the 30-year-old Baltimore woman knew of two robberies within the past few months at the garage, and that has been enough to make her at least a little nervous about venturing there.

"The enclosed parking lot," she said, "lends itself to feeling a little more ominous."

The shooting death of William Bassett, the dean of faculty at St. Paul's School in Brooklandville, brought renewed attention to safety issues at one of Baltimore County's retail anchors and prime gathering spots. It was the second killing at the Towson mall since 2002.

Bassett, 58, was found dead about 8 p.m. Friday on level C5 of the garage on the mall's south side, near the entrance to Nordstrom. Police said yesterday that they had no motive or suspects in the killing, and no witnesses.

A walk-through of the garage yesterday revealed call boxes near stairwells on each level but no security cameras. Off-duty Baltimore County police officers patrol inside the mall, where there's a police substation.

David Levenberg, vice president of security and loss prevention for the mall's Chicago-based parent company, General Growth Properties, declined to comment specifically on Towson Town Center's security measures. But he said the company performed a review of security practices at all of the malls acquired last year from Columbia-based Rouse Co., a list that includes Towson Town Center.

He said the company uses surveillance cameras at many of its properties as part of a $70-million-a-year investment in security and does not hesitate to install them when appropriate. He added: "Sometimes when things happen, people tend to focus on what's not there. Cameras, we found, are certainly useful in many circumstances. However they are not an end-all, be-all.

"If your deployment, your vehicle patrol, your manpower is sufficient, there may not be a need for any electronics beyond what you have."

A company spokesman, David Keating, said yesterday, "We do review our public safety measures after incidents such as these."

Representatives from Nordstrom have spoken with Towson mall officials regarding security in recent months, especially over the holidays, and found mall management "responsive," said Nordstrom spokesman Deniz Anders. The department store chain takes additional, internal security measures at its stores, Anders said, but "given the serious incident [Friday] night, we are again assessing our measures."

Police view the shooting as "an unusual crime for the area," said Officer Shawn Vinson, a Baltimore County police spokesman. They have no plans to increase their presence at the mall.

"We've seen thefts and robberies, but I don't think any more than other big shopping areas," Vinson said. "It's a lot of people in the same place, and any time you have a large number of people who leave their cars for several hours, the people who like to commit crimes will go there."

Yesterday, the upscale stores at the mall drew a crowd whose cars filled each of the seven decks in the parking garage where Bassett was killed.

General Growth Properties took control of the 968,000-square-foot Towson Town Center as part of its $12.6 billion acquisition of the Rouse Co. in November.

The mall was originally built as a strip shopping center in 1959 on Dulaney Valley Road between Joppa Road and Fairmount Avenue. It was enclosed in 1973, then remodeled again in 1981. A $150 million renovation in 1991 added 130 stores. Rouse purchased the mall as part of a $2.5 billion, seven-mall acquisition in 1998.

General Growth Properties owns and operates 209 shopping centers in 44 states.

Among the incidents reported by police at Towson Town Center in recent years:

On Aug. 30, 2002, Kevin Taylor, 17, of Baltimore was stabbed during a fight at the mall. He died a day later.

On Oct. 22, 2003, three men, one with a knife, robbed a 20-year-old woman of $60 in a garage stairwell.

On Nov. 13, 2004, a man struck a 26-year-old woman in the face several times and stole her purse, which held $35 and credit cards, in the garage.

Last Sunday, three men stopped a shopper in the garage and asked him for a cigarette and bus fare money, and proceeded to rob him of $300. The victim was treated for minor injuries at Sinai Hospital.

Many shopping centers have installed call boxes, panic buttons and security cameras in parking garages, said Malachy Kavanagh, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers in New York.

William Brill, an Annapolis security expert, said patrols play a key role in deterring crime at malls, and they should pass through a garage at least every 20 minutes, with flashing lights.

National statistics on crime at shopping malls are hard to come by, even though security was the focus of a summit last week in Phoenix of the International Council of Shopping Centers and the National Retail Federation.

"Shopping centers do not want to publicize crimes at their locations because ... customers could go to a different shopping center," said Richard C. Hollinger, a professor of criminology at the University of Florida who led a study in the 1990s that found that assaults at shopping centers were drastically on the rise.

At Hunt Valley's new open-air Towne Centre last week, some shoppers said they avoid Towson Town Center because of the garages. Yesterday, Conrad Poniatowski, president of the Dulaney Valley Improvement Association, said he knows of shoppers who prefer malls without garages because they feel safer when they can see farther.

"It's a shame," he said, "because it's a great mall, once you get inside."

Sun staff writers Laura Barnhardt and Jason Song contributed to this article.

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