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Man, 53, killed in hit-and-run on Route 198

Most nights, Chelliah Johnson or a co-worker would pick up dinner at a Chinese restaurant across Route 198 from the Laurel motel where they worked the overnight shift. Sunday was Johnson's turn. About 9 p.m., he headed out on foot, a departure from his usual drive across the busy road from the Red Carpet Inn to the Chung King restaurant.

Anne Arundel County police are searching for two drivers suspected of racing through Laurel and killing him in what they described as one of the most gruesome hit-and-runs in recent memory.

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Johnson, who police said was trying to cross Route 198 at 8:58 p.m. Sunday, was thrown more than 225 feet.

Witnesses told police that they think two Acura Integras - one white or silver and one black or dark blue - were racing east on the six-lane road, where intersections and curb cuts lead to businesses and residential areas and where the speed limit is 40 mph.

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"We think they were participating in a speed contest," Lt. Joseph Jordan said of the suspects. "From information from a couple of witnesses, we think they were racing."

The accident shocked and saddened residents of Maryland City and Russett, who complain often of speeding on Route 198. They said they fear for their safety and that of their families.

At the Red Carpet Inn yesterday, co-workers remembered Johnson, 53, of Riverdale as a man who was proud of his two school-age sons and as a hard-working staff member. A U.S. citizen who emigrated from the Indian city of Kerala, Johnson had worked previously at a Hilton hotel in Washington.

His wife, Annamma, and sons, whose names were not available yesterday, cut short a Florida trip to return home upon learning of his death. Meanwhile, Johnson's co-workers took care of the family dog, Arjun, a German shepherd mix that Johnson had taken with him to work so that the dog wouldn't be lonely at home.

"He was a wonderful man, a very loving father and a real gentleman," said Naresh Vasandani, who was working with Johnson the night of his death.

About a half-hour before their 9:30 p.m. shift began, the two men ordered dinner from the Chinese restaurant across Route 198 at Maryland City Plaza. When Johnson offered to pick up the food, Vasandani said, he told his friend to take his car, but Johnson said he'd prefer to walk. Along the way, Johnson said, he would pick up cigarettes at a nearby gas station.

Vasandani said he started to worry about Johnson almost an hour later, when he failed to return to work. He called the restaurant to find out whether the food had been collected and was told that it had not.

At that point, he said, another co-worker told him about an accident out front. Vasandani, who said he had been vaguely aware of the commotion, ran outside to investigate. A police officer showed Johnson's driver's license to Vasandani. "I was completely shocked," said Vasandani.

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Police said it was unclear which car struck Johnson or whether he was struck by both. They said one or both would show extensive front-end damage likely to include a broken tinted headlight cover, a broken headlight or other damage that might include a broken windshield.

Residents who live near the site of the fatal hit-and-run, where three lanes of Route 198 were dotted with orange paint yesterday marking key points of the accident, said they have long considered the road in the growing area a pedestrian hazard.

The accident occurred just west of Red Clay Road, the first major intersection west of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. In the past 15 years, the strip has sprouted homes and stores, and, residents say, speeding traffic and drivers who ignore the rules of the road.

Tim Reyburn, president of the Russett Community Association, said many motorists show little consideration for pedestrians.

"People don't stop at stop signs. There is no lane discipline, no red light discipline. Then people will flip you off if you honk at them," he said.

Reyburn said he would like to see improved pedestrian crossings, noting that pedestrians need a midpoint haven that is better than the existing grassy median. He said he intends to raise the subject at a meeting next week with County Executive Janet S. Owens.

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Ray Smallwood, president of the Maryland City Civic Association, said his group favors a pedestrian bridge. He said Sunday's accident is likely to spur a renewed effort.

The State Highway Administration is designing a pedestrian "refuge" area, something with a concrete island to be constructed in the spring of 2005, said Dave Buck, an SHA spokesman.

Traffic in the area has increased as the Russett community has bloomed and stores, including large national retailers and individual shops, have sprung up.

SHA figures show that the average daily vehicle count on Route 198 just west of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway rose from 33,400 in 1990 to 41,475 last year.

Police ask anyone with information about the vehicles or the drivers' identities to call 410-222-8576.


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