County killing tally spikes

The homicide count in Harford County is the highest in nearly a decade - a spike that follows increases in violent crime in recent years in the county.

Seven deaths in the county in 2006 have been ruled homicides, and authorities were awaiting rulings from the state medical examiner on the cause of death of three women whose bodies were found over a 3 1/2 -month period in remote areas near Aberdeen.


If those deaths are determined to be homicides, the county's total would jump to 10 for the year, the highest figure since 1989, according to statistics from the Maryland State Police Uniform Crime Reporting Program. The number confirmed already is the highest for a year since nine homicides were recorded in 1998.

For years, violent crime in Harford County dropped even as its population soared. But violent crime - homicides, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults - has increased 36 percent in the past six years.


"I think it stands to reason that whenever you have growth, you'll have an increase in crime," said Harford County Sheriff L. Jesse Bane. "But if we don't do as much as we possibly can to try to stem that trend, after a while we'll be looking at some very serious problems."

Bane cautioned against placing too much emphasis on the homicide total, saying it was still relatively low. But he acknowledged that Harford's crime challenges have grown along with the county, and said agencies are working together to attack the problem, which emerged as a key issue in this year's election campaign.

Bane, a Democrat who was elected last month, said he is moving to increase community policing, a collaborative strategy that combines the resources of the police, local government and community members. He also hopes to soon begin mapping crime to identify trends.

The sheriff's office serves as the de facto police force in the county. Municipal police departments in Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace, along with the state police, also provide law enforcement.

For the past several months, Aberdeen's Police Department has been using an abbreviated version of the Comstat program, adapted from Baltimore's version, to compile crime statistics. City officials say they have also been aggressively cracking down on crime, often working outside a countywide task force that they believe has been too methodical.

"The sharing of information has got to get a whole lot better," said Aberdeen Mayor S. Fred Simmons, a Republican. "Any time you have an agency prioritizing another area's public safety, you've got a problem. The real good news with municipalities is that they can be quicker to act."

Drug busts

Simmons, who accompanies police on drug busts while wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a handgun, said the results have been promising. He plans to destroy several homes that were used by drug dealers and seized by the city and make the land available to Habitat for Humanity to build houses for the needy.


Replacing the homes will be "very symbolic not only for Aberdeen, but Harford County - it shows what you can do if you really concentrate on an area," Simmons said.

Most of the public's attention, however, has focused on Edgewood. The unincorporated area of about 23,000 people has been the epicenter of gang-related violence in the county, according to authorities. The 2004 killing of a cab driver in a gang initiation thrust the problem into the public consciousness.

On a sweltering night in July, just days after 20-year-old Kevin Harold Rowlette was shot in the face in broad daylight, about 100 friends and family gathered for a candlelight vigil.

Rowlette's father, Gerald Abdullah Hunter, a 52-year-old from Northeast Baltimore, said the Edgewood community was becoming increasingly rattled by violence.

"The atmosphere is changing out here," Hunter said.

Officials are encouraged by progress made there since Rowlette's killing. The sheriff's office and state police have deployed additional officers, and community groups have banded to promote the positive attributes of the area.


"Your government has been at work here in Edgewood for some time ... part of our larger plan for this community, a plan that will make Edgewood a great place to live, work and play," Republican County Executive David R. Craig said at an August news conference.

County Councilman Dion F. Guthrie, a Democrat who represents Edgewood, has been meeting with organizers from the Guardian Angels, a group of volunteers who patrol crime-troubled neighborhoods. The group, which began in New York City in 1979, is mostly known for its efforts in high-crime inner cities, with few suburban franchises. Guthrie said the Guardian Angels are needed to quash crime.

"You can either sit back and watch it grow or cut it off at its base," Guthrie said.

Howard County, which has a population similar to Harford's, has far fewer violent crimes. For the first half of 2006, Harford saw an increase in violent crime of 3.4 percent compared with the same period the previous year, while Howard experienced a 9 percent decline.

U.S. 40 corridor

Homicides this year in Harford County have mostly been restricted to the more densely populated corridor along U.S. 40. Among those was the killing of Lilliam Abramowicz Phelps, a 43-year-old Elkton woman whose body was found in a remote area in June. In October, Charles Eugene Burns was indicted on first-degree murder charges in her death.


Though prosecutors have not named him as a suspect in the killings of three other women found dead in remote areas around Aberdeen, they have said that they believe the killings were linked and could charge a suspect next month.

Bel Air, which had not had a homicide in more than 20 years, was also touched by deadly violence this year. In May, a 23-year-old man was fatally stabbed in the throat just steps away from the town's Main Street in an incident police say was sparked by road rage.

For all the policing initiatives, Bane said, some crimes are virtually unavoidable, pointing to a fatal stabbing this month in Joppatowne.

After drinking at a Baltimore-area bar on the evening of Dec. 14, Eveline Anna Maria Bergmann and her husband, Jeffrey Bergmann, got into an argument, and Eveline Bergmann grabbed a kitchen knife, stabbing her husband multiple times, according to charging documents.

"To believe we'll continue without homicides - especially crimes of passion like we saw in Joppatowne - is a pipe dream," Bane said. "Let's just hope we keep that down."