For three decades, Myrtle and William Wright enjoyed a tranquil life along Bird River Road in eastern Baltimore County's countryside.
But then came the midnight riders.
In what police strongly suspect is retaliation against residents who successfully fought a proposed NASCAR speedway near their homes, vandals have made death threats, destroyed lawns and wrecked mailboxes along the peaceful two-lane road bordering White Marsh and Middle River.
In one incident, vandals killed a family's pet rabbit and stole 10 others from an outdoor pen. On another night, someone threw two dead cats on the front lawn of a Bird River Road resident with small children.
And some neighbors, who say the troublemakers frequented the nearby Bird River Inn, have armed themselves with shotguns in self-defense.
"When residents break out weapons to deal with a problem, you're nearing a crisis," said Essex police commander Capt. Jim Johnson. "There is an uneasy truce there right now, and we're monitoring the situation closely."
Police have stepped up patrols, and the county liquor board is working with the bar owner, Marguerite L. Rennie, and with residents to lessen tension.
Relations have been strained in the wake of the Middle River Racing Association's failed three-year effort to build a $100 million speedway on the A. V. Williams tract, 1,100 acres of woods behind Bird River Road.
The group dropped its plan in January, after opposition to the proposal among county residents and officials. It has since found a site in Anne Arundel County, where the project appears to be moving forward.
Residents blame bar
But the raceway hasn't been the only sore spot in the community. At a recent county liquor board hearing, anger spilled out against Bird River Inn and what residents say are rowdy patrons.
"It all stems from those kids getting served at that bar down the road," said Billy Schultz, father of three young daughters, who discovered the dead cats and said he must spend $600 to replace his lawn, dug up by vandals' cars.
While liquor board Chairman Philip R. Lehye Jr. agrees that some young Bird River Inn customers "caused problems, the raceway defeat was the genesis of the problems over there. It's very scary, the situation over there, and our inspectors will be working closely with the police," he said.
Rennie, owner of the bar for six years, told the liquor board she was unaware her customers were causing trouble but promised to watch for underage drinkers and noise on her parking lot.
"Everyone thought that I was upset that the speedway wasn't built on the Williams property, which is next door to me," Rennie said. "It would have meant more business, but I'm not sending customers into the community to harass people. We have a quiet little bar with a 76-year-old barmaid."
Many remain convinced that the speedway battle lies behind the vandalism.
"All of this is definitely linked to the speedway. The people getting hit the hardest were the most vocal in opposition to the raceway," Johnson said.
William Wright, a retired steelworker, opposed the project from the start. His spacious back yard -- home to hummingbirds and other wildlife amid century-old red oaks -- backs the Williams property, and he feared pollution, noise and traffic jams.
After the announcement that the project was moving to Anne Arundel County, Wright and his neighbors -- many of whom enjoy NASCAR racing but did not want a huge track near their homes -- sighed with relief. But their peace didn't last long.
'Frightened to death'
According to a list presented to the liquor board by Wright that included license tag numbers, vandals struck his home 16 times between Feb. 17 and March 27.
They destroyed six of his mailboxes, tore up his lawn several times with vehicles, designed a swastika on his lawn with weedkiller, placed nails under his car's tires and stood outside his home at 2 a.m. March 24 and yelled obscenities and death threats.
His backyard shed was burglarized and $1,500 worth of tools stolen.
"When they were outside that morning, I was frightened to death," said Myrtle Wright. "I'm still a nervous wreck."
Adam Paul, president of White Marsh Community Association, formed a coalition of neighborhood groups and, with Wright and others, helped defeat the raceway proposal. Three of his mailboxes have been crushed by vehicles.
He is convinced there is a link between those incidents and unruly Bird River Inn patrons. "The vandals were bent on destruction -- and they operated out of that bar," said Paul, a former county police captain.
Sandra Burleson, a raceway opponent who lives across the road from the tavern, said she has seen loud, unruly young men at the bar and on its parking lot, mostly late at night or early in the morning.
On March 24, Burleson found her pet rabbit dead among empty beer cans, its neck wrenched, and the other rabbits gone from an outdoor pen. On another night, vandals shattered her outdoor light with a pool cue, which was left behind on her lawn.
"The young customers at the Bird River Inn are behind all this," Burleson said. "They gun their engines, squeal tires at 1 or 2 in the morning. Like most people in my community, I opposed the raceway, had signs on my lawn, and I've paid for it."
The bar's owner rejects claims that her establishment is a magnet for a disorderly clientele. "We have the Mills Brothers and Sinatra on the jukebox, so obviously we aren't trying to draw young crowds," Rennie said.
Bar owner denies fault
"I had no knowledge of these acts of vandalism, and I doubt most of it," Rennie said. "There are a few customers with broken mufflers, but what am I supposed to do, buy them new ones?"
Rennie also discounted a rumor at the liquor board hearing last week that she was going to convert her bar into a lounge with women dancers.
She says she will continue to help ease relations in the neighborhood by working with police and liquor board inspectors.
Johnson said regular police patrols will be beefed up. Community Action Team officers will monitor the area and continue talking with residents and bar customers.
Wright, one of several residents who has armed himself, hopes tension has been relieved.
"But after all that's happened to us and our neighbors," Wright said, "you don't know what's going to come next. We've been tormented."
That's why, he said, he keeps his weapon by his bedside.
Pub Date: 5/03/98