Another murder rampage that will stain a community

January 13, 2011

They are holding their breath each morning before opening up the paper, turning on the TV or clicking on their e-mail.

"Not another one, not another one," all of Prince George's County is thinking each morning.

Then shoulders sag, heads shake.

Yes, another one.

There have been 13 homicides in Prince George's the first 13 days of the year.

While the nation is focusing on the horrific rampage that left six people dead in Arizona, our own community is stunned that 13 funerals are being planned, one right after the other.

In Arizona, we are picking apart the inner life of one suspected killer. In Prince George's, police working back-to-back, 24-hour shifts are looking for at least 12. (There's a chance the two people who had their mouths sealed with duct tape were targeted by the same killer.)

It's a staggering death toll for a county that has been surfing the Washington region's crime-decline trend for the past few years.

"Just last year, we had a 30-year low," said a heartsick Arthur Turner, a community activist who has spent decades building up the county's profile and business portfolio.

"With the flip of a calendar, it changed. What happened?" he asked, bemoaning the stunning U-turn his county has taken.

January was once busy for cops. In 2005, the county had 18 homicides in the first month. But that's changed. Last January, there were five killings for the entire month, and such low levels of deadly violence are what residents have come to expect, rightfully so.

The police department is reeling and overwhelmed. In the past two days, it received an infusion of dozens of federal agents from the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said Maj. Andy Ellis, commander of the Prince George's County Police Department and a 21-year veteran of the force.

They've been shifting around officers and flooding problem neighborhoods with patrols.

"Heavens. This is certainly an anomaly. Nobody here in the police department can remember a stretch like this," Ellis told me.

He's been trying to reassure folks that those who died, for the most part, had risky lives. Most of the victims had criminal records. Drugs, guns, prostitution. They were involved in fights. Even the University of Maryland college student killed Tuesday was caught up in a drug-related robbery, police said.

There are no 9-year-old student council members in this bunch.

And that should be slightly comforting to the folks whose kids go to gymnastics at the amazing Prince George's Sports and Learning Complex, or shop for madras lentils or Thai noodles at the new Wegmans or play golf on the course near their colonial-style homes.

The crimes mostly happened in communities inside the Beltway, where crime is more common. So if 13 people had been killed over 31 days, it might not be so newsworthy.

But that's not the point, said Chuck Pugh, a retired federal executive who pumped gas at the brand new Costco this week.

"That would mean we are accepting violence as part of the culture," he said. Not happening.

Facebook and Twitter are on fire with people worried about the violence, asking for prayers and calling on the violence to stop.

"It's a stain on us, on our community," said Turner, who worries that such a bloody spasm of violence may point to deeper issues that are seeping into the bedroom community.

"The victims are victimizing us. The activities that led to their death, hurt us. They did dirty deeds. And in dying, their death leaves a stain on everyone who lives, works, plays and stays in Prince George's County."

That anger was much of what I heard in the fancier parts of Prince George's this week, where residents who make as much as those living in Bethesda still have few restaurants to eat at and no upscale department stores to shop in.

Just this fall, the county celebrated a huge coup when a Wegmans grocery store opened in a new shopping center that also has the Costco and the usual cast of big-box retailers.

Montgomery County wanted the much beloved and coveted grocery store on its turf for years. But PG got it first, and for once, its story of being one of the wealthiest African American suburbs in America was told, and it was victorious.

And that's why this is such a difficult tragedy to talk about. No one wants to let these 13 souls go unnoticed. But to have a homicide count that sounds like a 1980s throwback to the crack war deaths hits a nerve.

"It's embarrassing. It's shameful. It's hurting," Turner said.

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things.
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