Residents say someone is clowning around in the Stevens Forest Apartments in East Columbia, but they don't think he's funny.
Howard County police say they're working to separate fact from fiction in a series of sightings of a man -- with a face painted white, baggy clown pants, big red shoes and green hair -- who is scaring children.
So far, there have been no reports of the clown touching children.
While the sightings may be true, this story parallels a sporadic and unfounded rumor that has cropped up around the country.
Stevens Forest residents insist this clown is the real thing.
"I'm not crazy. My vision is good," said Barbara Burgess, 51.
"If I didn't see it myself, I'd doubt it, too."
She said she first saw the clown July 2, after she heard a ruckus and went to see why a group of children was screaming.
"It was that clown," she said. "It's got to be some type of sick person up to no good."
Monday, the management of the apartment complex in the 5800 block of Stevens Forest Road placed a notice on every apartment door warning about a stranger on the property who tries to attract children.
"It's scary," said Maisha Ruff, an administrative assistant for the apartment development.
She has not seen the clown, but says, "We're taking it seriously."
Police said they are investigating. "When people call us, we take them at their word for what they're saying," said Sgt. Karen Burnett, head of the Howard County Police Department's Crime Prevention Section.
Residents say the man, like the fabled Pied Piper, has been seen leading children , chasing them around the development or spying on them from behind trees while they play.
Many adults said they didn't believe the children's stories about the clown until they saw the clown themselves. When they tried to approach him, they said, the menacing figure ran away, making them even more suspicious.
Three adults called police:
* July 5, a resident told an officer of seeing the clown standing near a mailbox about 9 p.m., but the "suspicious subject" was gone by the time police arrived, according to a police report.
* Two days later, a resident told of seeing a clown dressed in a green wig, loose pants and red shoes in the wooded area behind a Stevens Forest building at 5:45 p.m. The clown reportedly ran away when the resident spotted him.
That same resident told an officer that children claimed the clown cursed at them the day earlier.
* Later that evening, about 9:19 p.m., Ms. Burgess told police she saw a person with much the same build and mannerisms lurking around the apartment complex -- this time, dressed in a witch's costume.
Stevens Forest residents describe the clown as a black male, about 6 feet tall and weighing about 200 pounds. "And he's fast, real fast," said Gene Lajuerre, 27.
Mr. Lajuerre said he was parking his car at 11:30 p.m. July 1 when he saw the clown crouching beside a building.
"I had heard about him, so I got my bat and walked over there and he ran," Mr. Lajuerre said.
The theories surrounding the clown story vary. Some residents think he's someone from the neighborhood.
Some say he could be a professional clown with a bad sense of humor.
Others suggest he's an outsider trying to gain the children's trust and may harm them later.
"Who knows what he'd do?" said William Scott, 37, who said he watched children follow the clown last week.
Mr. Scott said he first thought the clown was for a birthday party, but stopped the children after they told him they had no idea where the clown came from.
Police said they do not recall any similar sightings in the past.
"This is a bizarre situation," said Sgt. Steven Keller, a Howard County police spokesman. "Would the subject's intention be to entertain or to entice the kids?"
In interviews with residents this week, no one said the clown harmed any child. And police have no reports of kidnappings or assaults from the area in recent weeks.
Children gave mixed descriptions of the clown figure. Some said he looked funny, others said they're afraid to encounter him.
"I hate him," said Andre Gadson, 12, who said the clown popped out from behind a tree and chased him Tuesday morning while he headed to a Royal Farms store for milk.
Child specialists say such stories often can be imagined by children, who are easily influenced by their peers' fears.
Stories bear checking
But the clown sightings should not be dismissed until police are certain there is no danger, said Dr. Jerry Wiener, a child psychiatrist at George Washington University.
"It's very unusual for adults to make the reports, too," he said.
"Not that adults can't also make errors or assumptions, but you wouldn't expect the same degree of hysteria as with children."
About a year ago, on June 3, hysteria swept through Southeast Washington after a girl told police a clown in a white van tried to lure her with candy.
Similar calls flooded police lines, and most of the stories proved untrue.
Residents in nearby apartment communities -- including Tor, Oakland Meadows and Dorsey's Forge -- have not reported seeing a clown, although some of them have heard the stories from friends in Stevens Forest Apartments.
"You don't know what to think," said Jennifer Branham, 20, of Stevens Forest.
"He could be anybody."