2 holdups unnerve West Friendship Highway access makes escape easy


Two bank robberies in two weeks might be just a drop in the bucket for more urban areas, but recent holdups have sent a chill through West Friendship.

Merchants and residents in the crossroads community admit they're jumpy and frustrated.

"There's been an increase in everyone's suspicion," said Dr. Larry Silverberg, who operates his family practice at the West Friendship Shopping Center in the 12800 block of Frederick Road, where a Commercial and Farmers Bank was robbed Oct. 5.

On Monday, a Maryland National Bank across Route 32 in the 12600 block of Frederick Road also was robbed. Store owners said the event was made more disturbing by the state police helicopter and police K-9 unit that searched the area shortly after the robbery.

County police think the two robberies may be related, but no arrests have been made.

"We don't get much [crime] out there," said Detective Pete Wright. "It's quiet for the most part."

The area is marked by winding country roads, cornfields, barns, farms and large homes. Proximity to routes 32 and 144 and Interstate 70 makes the area attractive to criminals.

"It's a shame," said Lou Pleet, owner of Com-Pleet Video. "All of a sudden, it seems like crime is picking up. And in this area, [criminals] can get on I-70 and they're long gone."

Police say that for each eight-hour shift, there are four patrol cars assigned to the western part of Howard County, which includes Lisbon, Clarksville, Marriottsville and West Friendship. The far-flung rural area generates the fewest service calls in the county.

In contrast, densely populated Columbia, which accounts for 51 percent of the annual 86,000 service calls handled by county police, requires 13 patrol cars on each shift.

"You worry," said March Girod, owner of Trophies and Plaques Unlimited. "Someone can come in and get out before the police react and before any of us know what's going on."

Mr. Girod's shop is next to the Maryland National Bank that was robbed. He was working Monday when a bank customer he knows ran into his store, saying that nobody was in the bank. At the same time, Mr. Girod said he heard pounding on the wall as bank employees tried to alert him after the robber ordered them into a back room.

Just across Route 32 at the 12-store West Friendship Shopping Center, it's business as usual, except for the armed security guard who greets customers at the Commercial and Farmers Bank.

Store merchants operating near the bank are still talking about the rifle-toting masked man who hurried out of the bank with a bag of money on Oct. 5.

"I thought this was a safe area. That's why I came here," said Il Jee, owner of Bay Food Market and Deli. "Now, nowhere is safe."

"Maybe it's the economy, too," suggested Mr. Pleet, the video store owner. "Everything is so bad. This place used to be peaceful and quiet."

Mary Lou Greffen, who runs Gemini Flowers and Gifts with her twin sister, said crime, particularly overnight break-ins, has hurt her store four times in seven years.

"I'm not afraid," Ms. Greffen said. "I refuse to live my life in fear. I just won't do that."

While burglaries are not unusual in the area, police say the two bank robberies don't indicate a trend.

"I don't think two crimes determine a major crime pattern," said Sgt. Gary Gardner, county police spokesman. "When something like this happens, it wakes people up. It just brings to light the reality that crime happens everywhere."

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