The Harford County Sheriff's Office is cracking down again on illegal activity in the so-called "adult bookstores" in Harford County — an effort which resulted in the arrest of a Towson priest — while considering how it might be able to shut them down for repeated violations, the county state's attorney says.
"We are looking into the possibility" of shutting them down, State's Attorney Joseph Cassilly said Tuesday. "If you keep breaking the law and don't seem to be able to control the fact that you have an establishment people keep coming to break the law, if you can't control it, it seems the government has the responsibility to do something."
That's music to the ears of John Paff, chairman of the Bush River Community Council, which has received a number of citizen complaints about activities at Bush River Books & Video. The complaints prompted increased spot checks by police.
"It's been something that's been going on for awhile, needed to be looked into for awhile," Paff said. "We're happy they're finally making some progress and at the very least listening to the concerns of the community."
The latest crackdown, which resulted in the arrest of a Towson priest and several others, stemmed from community complaints about increased lewd activity.
At one of their meetings, members of the Bush River Community Council complained about what they said was increased activity at Bush River Books and Video, at 3909 Pulaski Highway in Abingdon, in particular. Capt. Christopher Swain, captain of the Harford County Sheriff's Office Southern Precinct, regularly attends community council meetings in his area.
Responding to those complaints, sheriff's deputies began random spot checks in early December at Bush River Books & Video as well as other "adult bookstores" in the Route 40 area.
"If we see a violation… We are not out to make arrests, but if we see a violation, we are going to charge people," Monica Worrell, public information specialist for the sheriff's office, said.
Throughout the year, the sheriff's office checks all the "adult bookstores." When deputies stepped up patrols at Bush River Books & Video in December, they started checking the other establishments as well, Worrell said. In going through sheriff's office data, Worrell said no reports have been written following spot checks at other stores, which means they don't have to keep going back to them.
"We'll keep coming back more frequently until there's not a problem anymore. Of course, that just makes sense," Swain said. "When we stop having problems, we'll will spend less time in there just because we don't need to."
During a spot check of Bush River the evenings of Jan. 7 and 8, Wade Thomas Richardson, 68, of Columbia, and Thomas Gregory Soukup, 57, of Newark, Del., were arrested and charged with indecent exposure and disorderly conduct.
During one of their checks in mid-January, deputies noticed holes in the walls between the video viewing booths, a violation of the Harford County Code pertaining to "adult bookstores," which says: "A person who owns or operates an adult bookstore that includes a viewing booth or an adult theater… Shall ensure that each viewing booth is separated from others by a solid wall or other solid partition. "
Charges of violations of several parts of the Harford County Code are pending against the business. A person found guilty of the misdemeanor can be sentenced to a fine not exceeding $1,000 or imprisonment not exceeding six months or both. Each day a violation continues is a separate offense.
It was also during one of these spot checks that deputies arrested Mark Stewart Bullock, 47, a priest at Immaculate Conception parish in Towson, who was found naked from the waist down, sitting on a couch in a theater inside the business. Patrons at the front of the building could see him.
Bullock, ordained in 2006, is no longer allowed to celebrate Mass, administer sacraments, wear clerical clothing or live at the rectory, according to the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
Deputies have not been back to Bush River Books & Video since Bullock's arrest.
Shutting them down
Most of the complaints about the bookstores are from parents, who have to drive past the three stores in their area and worry about what to tell their children about why, what is essentially a bookstore, has so many cars in front of it and so many people going in and out, Paff said.
There's also been a big push to develop that area of Harford County, he said, to make it look good and bring business to that stretch of highway.
"With the grandfather clause that allows them to be there, it really deters other businesses, especially upscale businesses, from opening, and really deters the revitalization process in that area," Paff said.
Members of the Bush River Community Council "appreciate" the crackdown on the illegal practices, but ultimately would like to see the establishments penalized or shut down, if they repeatedly violate the law, Paff said.
"[We realize] that there are an unlimited number of customers and that the arrests will only deter a few patrons. [We] would like to see the owners of these businesses penalized for allowing criminal activity to take place in their establishments. Businesses with repeat offenses should be penalized," Paff wrote in an email.
"We're going to look into that," Cassilly said.
The state's attorney said he talked to Harford County Sheriff Jesse Bane Monday, and his agency has started going through the history of what has transpired at this bookstore in particular.
"And then we'll look into what we can do with it," Cassilly said.
One possibility, he said, is a law passed several years ago that deals with real property law, and what actions community organizations or possibly government attorneys can take against places that fail to clean up their acts.
"We need to re-read that and see what we can look at from the standpoint of the history of the place and what we can put together," Cassilly said. "And we're considering something there. Until we figure out exactly what we have to prove, we don't know exactly what the next step is."
The county has tried to shut down "adult bookstores" in the past without much success, running into First Amendment and other issues.
Sometimes it becomes necessary for government to step in.
"If the owners say, we can't help it people drive here from Baltimore just to break the law at our bookstore and we can't figure out, we can't control it on our premises, then someone else has to step in and control it," Cassilly said.