BY BILL BROWN
TAKOMA PARK, JAN. 11: It happened this morning. It happened Monday morning, It happened Dec. 20. It happened Nov. 30 and Oct. 26. And 10 more times since Jan. 2012.
It’s been the same again and again. A woman is pumping gas, or is inside the gas station, a car pulls up, a young man hops out and opens the victim’s car door. He snatches the woman’s purse from the seat, jumps back in his car, and zooms away.
Four times in 2012 it was the car itself that was stolen.
In 2011 a victim was stabbed multiple times in an attempted car theft. After he was chased and cornered, the attacker assaulted a police officer who was trying to arrest him. Another officer shot him to stop the assault.
There have been a dozen or more thefts from automobiles, and 2-4 auto thefts every year since 2010 at three Takoma Park gas stations. All are on New Hampshire Avenue. The two stations where the mosts incidents have occurred are side-by-side, the Sunonco station at 6360 New Hampshire Ave., and the W-Express Gas station at 6400 New Hampshire Ave.
The third, where the 2011 stabbing took place, is the Sunoco gas station at 6907 New Hampshire, at the intersection of Rte. 410 (East-West Highway).
Sunoco gas station at 6907 New Hampshire Ave. at intersection with Rte. 410.
Quick and easy
The reason for the high rate of thefts at these station is their quick and easy access to the District of Columbia, half a block south of the side-by-side gas stations. By law, Takoma Park police cannot pursue a thief into the District unless a felony has been committed.
“In one case we actually observed the vehicle come from DC, make a turn into the gas station, steal a purse and flee into DC. The entire event took less than 20 or 30 seconds.” said Takoma Park’s new police chief Alan M. Goldberg.
The thefts from cars usually happen on weekdays from 7 to 9AM. The thieves are almost always “very young,” says Takoma Park Police crime analyst Andrew Gucciardo. Perhaps, he theorizes, the crimes are extracurricular activities on the way to school.
Rush-hour morning traffic is not a hindrance to the thieves, says Gucciardo, in fact it aids them because they can blend into it.
The thieves drive stolen cars, usually high-end vehicles, says the crime analyst. And the cars they steal from the gas stations are also high-end.
The W-Express Gas (formerly Texaco) station at 6400 New Hampshire Ave.
Former police chief Ronal Ricucci issued a message last May addressing the issue. The police force, he said “has taken a strong approach to combating these types of incidents,” deploying plainclothes and uniformed officer details, media coverage, community advisory notifications, social network announcements, and shared information with other agencies. City police detectives even made and posted a safety video on Youtube.
The police work with the gas station management as well. Management installed video surveillance cameras and posted signs and flyers at the pumps. These alert customers to lock their vehicles, remove keys and not leave items on the seat in plain view.
Sunoco station at 6350 New Hampshire Ave.
Locked doors did not hinder the thief this morning at the 6360 New Hampshire Ave. Sunoco station. Surveillance video shows him trying all the doors, said Gucciardo, then smashing a window to snatch a purse from the seat. Police have images of the suspect from surveillance cameras.
Takoma Park police had the two side-by-side stations under surveillance in February 2011 when three young men, one of them a juvenile, were observed speeding out of the W-Express Gas station in a stolen car. A patrol car tried to stop them at the District line, but the suspects evaded it. Auto theft being a felony, city police could pursue into the District. Officers chased the suspects for about 5 miles until the stolen car crashed into a dump truck on 31st St. NE, and the suspects were apprehended.
In the Dec. 2011 stabbing incident at the Sunoco farther up the road at 6907 New Hampshire Ave., the suspect tried to steal a Porche. The car’s owner, a male, refused to turn the keys over and was stabbed several times. The suspect fled in his own car, Takoma Park police pursued, catching up when the suspect’s car crashed into other cars and overturned in Prince George’s County. The suspect was confronted by a Takoma Park officer. She tasered him, but it had no effect. He assaulted her, not stopping when ordered to by another officer. The other officer shot him.
The suspect, Keston David Lewis -19, Of Odenton, MD died. The stabbing victim was in critical condition, but survived. Cpl Keith Largent, the officer who shot Lewis, was placed on administrative leave. He was exonerated by a Prince George’s County grand jury a year later.
Sunoco gas station at 6907 New Hampshire Ave. at intersection (on right) with Rte. 410.
Victims and thieves
90% of the victims are not from Takoma Park. They tend to be commuters passing through the city. New Hampshire Avenue is a 6 lane corridor into Washington, DC, a favored route for commuters in Prince George’s and “lower” Montgomery County. All of these theft-from-auto victims are female. A purse is always the target.
Many of the perpetrators come from the same neighborhoods in S.E. Washington, DC and nearby Prince George’s County. Police believe they are an informal group that teaches the criminal method to newcomers. The stolen cars are usually dumped in these neighborhoods.
The thieves follow a pattern. They steal a car and quickly drive in a loop, stopping at gas stations along the way to snatch what they can. The loop goes from SE along the DC/MD border, into Prince George’s County and past Takoma Park’s New Hampshire Ave. gas stations, then back to SE. They move quickly to finish their run before the stolen auto and theft reports can get out.
About 10 suspects a year are arrested for these gas station crimes, says crime analyst Gucciardo. “However, because the majority of the suspects are juveniles they rarely receive jail time for the misdemeanor thefts.”
Unfortunately, the District and Prince George’s County police do not prioritize these theft-from-auto crimes as much as the city police do. They are a larger percentage of Takoma Park crime than those other, larger jurisdictions’.
Misdemeanors they may be, but Takoma Park Police are worried about the potential for violence in these crimes.
Takoma Park police are reluctant to describe exactly what actions they are taking against these crimes. They do say they make periodic checks and other measures. They’ve studied the crimes and the criminals so they have a sense of their culture and patterns. They’ve made progress in the last three years in the working with the gas station owners, who were non-communicative at first. The new surveillance cameras are a result of that progress. Also, police no longer have to go collect the camera imagery from the stations, the stations send it via internet right away, speeding up the time police can release images for identification purposes.