Not again: Harford grapples with gun violence for third time in three years

It was just 11 months ago that Pastor Tiffany Patterson offered prayers and solace to a community shaken by a workplace shooting a couple of miles from her Edgewood church.

Last week, she found herself retracing those sad steps, opening the doors of a second church she heads, in Aberdeen, to provide comfort as yet another group of employees were killed by a co-worker.

“It’s one of those moments where you say, ‘Not again,’ ” Patterson said, “because you never wish that upon a community.”

It has been a troubling several years in Harford County, the lightly populated, once largely rural expanse northeast of Baltimore. In the past three years, the otherwise low-crime county has been rocked by three shattering episodes of gun violence: The Feb. 10, 2016, killing of two Harford sheriff deputies in Abingdon; the Oct. 18, 2017, shootings at Advanced Granite Solutions in Edgewood in which three employees were killed and two wounded; and Thursday’s attack at the Rite Aid distribution center in Perryman that left four dead and three injured.

The string of devastating incidents has prompted some soul-searching among longtime residents who struggle to explain why such violence would befall a county where the number of homicides in a year only recently crept above single digits — in 2016, there were 10; in 2017, 11.

That terrible February day in 2016 feels like a turning point to some. David Brian Evans, a one-time resident of the area with a history of abusing his wife and children, returned and was spotted at a Panera restaurant. He fatally shot the two deputies who responded to the shopping center, Patrick Dailey and Mark Logsdon, and was himself killed by return fire.

“We lost our innocence that day,” said Harford County Executive Barry Glassman. “It really changed us forever. That incident was so violent. Losing two of our deputies changed the fabric of the community.”

On Thursday, three employees at the Rite Aid center were killed on the job: Sunday Aguda, a 45-year-old Nigerian man living in Dundalk; Brindra Giri, 41, a Nepalese woman who recently moved to Baltimore County; and Hayleen Reyes, a 21-year-old woman who moved from the Dominican Republic to Baltimore five months ago.

Police said they were shot by a temporary worker, Snochia Moseley, 26, who also wounded three other employees before killing herself.

Glassman, who was born in Havre de Grace, said he feels the county remains safe and its community ties strong. The county’s rural character remains preserved in 50,000 acres of farmland — Glassman himself lives on a sheep farm in Darlington and has been known to show his animals at the state fair. And the small towns and communities that dot the landscape remain tight-knit.

“Most of our business people help coach sport teams,” Glassman said – or serve in the PTA or help care for the county’s parks.

“We're the kind of community where most folks are involved in something,” Glassman said. “I think that’s what makes us pretty resilient.”

He mentioned Melissa Lehew, a woman who was facing her own troubles but drowned in a flood this month trying to save someone else.

“As much bad as we have going on in the community and some of the ills, I'm reassured every day when I see these acts by our Harford County citizens,” Glassman said. “There is still good there.”

And yet last week’s shooting at the Rite Aid center, located in a sprawling warehouse and manufacturing park near Aberdeen, speaks to a change in Harford’s economic landscape, and some would say a certain way of life.

The county has grown steadily since the 1960s, when Interstate 95 carved its way north from Baltimore. The population of the once overwhelmingly rural area ticked up steadily as the county became a bedroom community for Baltimore. The growth continued, and today Harford is a county of 250,000 with an economy based around the highway that promised jobs to people like the three victims killed Thursday.

State Sen. Robert Cassilly recalled watching as a child as bulldozers preparing the way for the new road cut his family’s farm in two. The family moved into Bel Air, and his father took a job at Aberdeen Proving Ground, which after a national reorganization of military bases has become a hub for high-tech Army research.

Cassilly, whose younger brother sits in the House of Delegates and whose older brother is retiring this year as the county’s state’s attorney, said the growth has been a great thing for Harford. He mentioned Advanced Granite Solutions, where a gunman killed three of his co-workers last year, as the kind of specialized business that’s been able to thrive in the area, giving people a chance to live out the American dream.

“I just wish it didn’t have the potential to turn sour on us,” he said.

Beyond their proximity, the three incidents seem to have little to link them. Cassilly said if the problem was in a particular neighborhood or with graduates of a particular high school it might be easier to diagnose a problem and take action.

“It can be demoralizing, but it is a good community,” Cassilly said. “These don’t reflect a local problem [so much as] reflect a societal problem in general.”

On a recent day on Main Street in Bel Air, the county seat, it seems impossible for many of those strolling past the shops, cafes and offices to get far without waving, calling out or stopping to chat with a passer-by.

“Everybody’s so friendly here,” said Erica Kline, who was having lunch at Sean Bolan’s Irish Pub, where she used to bartend.

The Bel Air native is 26 years old — “same as her,” Kline says, referring to Moseley.

“It was a very scary day for me,” said Kline, who now works at a liquor store. Her father works at the nearby Clorox facility, and a good friend works at the Rite Aid center. Kline spent several desperate hours after hearing the news trying to reach them, finally learning they were safe later in the day.

The recent spasms of violence seem so out of character for the county that she’s lived in almost her entire life — she tried out Orlando for a time, but moved back after getting homesick.

“I don’t know why it’s been brought to Harford,” she said. “I hate that it’s happening here.”

Kline and others note that the shooters were not from the county, small comfort perhaps, and yet something that helps to explain what Harford Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler says is simply inexplicable.

“What makes a person capable of taking a weapon and using it against unarmed defenseless people is senseless,” Gahler said. “We’re never going to understand it.”

On Friday, he stressed that the county remains a safe place, which crime statistics generally confirm. In the last decade, rates of violent crime in Harford have fallen steeply, according to state data. The robbery rate was cut in half and serious assaults fell by more than a third.

But, as elsewhere in the country, Harford has struggled with drugs, particularly opioids. The number of heroin overdose deaths jumped from 32 in 2012 to 93 last year.

Cassilly said the growing number of deaths hasn’t been tied to rising crime.

“It’s not some guy who’s living under a bridge somewhere,” Cassilly said of the overdose victims. “These are families that you know. It cuts across all of society.”

David Mitchell, 63, and Stacey Jenkins, 50, can attest to that; they said they recently lost a son to overdose. The retired Bel Air couple — Mitchell used to run a popular hot dog cart at the courthouse — were enjoying a pleasant spell on a bench Friday on Main Street.

But between the drugs and the spate of workplace shootings that have troubled their hometown, they are especially looking forward to their annual stay in Florida this winter.

“I’m always looking over my shoulder,” Jenkins ​​said. “It seems like we’re becoming more like Baltimore City.”

Susan McComas, a Harford delegate, walks by with campaign signs and joins the couple on the bench. She too sees an influx of newcomers to the county that perhaps come for the jobs but lack family or community connections.

“It’s all about relationships,” McComas said. “You’re having people come in, say from the city or elsewhere and getting jobs, but they’re disconnected from the community. If they have problems, they might not know where to go.”

With mental health invariably raised in connection with mass shootings, Glassman said the county is trying to address that — with a 24/7 behavioral health crisis center for treatment and referrals, for example, and by encouraging friends and family members to spot warning signs of a loved one’s mental illness.

The shootings have Glassman slightly opening what is a usually locked door in this mostly conservative county: the prospect of tightening gun laws, at least in the case of those with mental illness.

“I’m a Republican representing a Republican county, so I’ve always supported the Second Amendment,” Glassman said. “But I do think folks should have background checks, and if you have a history of violence, a history of mental illness, I think good licensing laws should pick that up. You can’t just turn a blind eye to it.”

On Thursday morning, Glassman was in his office in Bel Air when he saw police cars racing down the street. He turned on his police radio, and soon learned there was another workplace shooting in his county.

“Your heart sinks,” he said.

In small, inter-connected communities, bad news ripples fast.

Word began to reach Luke Erickson, a pastor at Mountain Christian Church, through text messages, emails and phone calls. The church is deeply embedded along the I-95 corridor, with several campuses, some 6,000 regular Sunday worshipers and a community center in Edgewood that provides after-school programs and help for people struggling with unemployment and addiction.

And it is where the viewings were held for the deputies killed in 2016.

Erickson spent Thursday praying anxiously for members of his staff and congregation who have relatives that work at the Rite Aid warehouse. His thoughts also turned to the shooting last year and the one before.

“Anything that had moved to the back of the mind because enough time had passed before is right now back at the front,” Erickson said.

“It does feel somewhat of a repeat,” he said. “And it's a very sad repeat.”

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jean_marbella

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
37°