In Bethesda homicide case, concern shifts from street crime to workplace violence

Robert McCartney
Columnist March 19, 2011

In one sense, the dramatic turnaround in the Bethesda yoga clothing store homicide case Friday brought enormous relief to a community that prides itself on offering both vibrant, urban street life and a secure, suburban atmosphere.

Now it appears there was no need to worry that two brutal criminals were at large after beating and raping two women — the one who was killed and a co-worker — just steps away from crowds of shoppers and diners March 11. Police say the co-worker was the killer, that the rapes didn’t happen and that she made up the story of two masked male intruders.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

“People can breathe again and feel their community is safe, as it has been for decades,” said Montgomery County Council Vice President Roger Berliner (D), whose district includes Bethesda.

However, for many residents the police chief’s new explanation was just as disturbing as the old one – and perhaps even more so. They were shocked by the reminder that people can be at risk in their workplace, even an individual like victim Jayna T. Murray, 30, who was universally described as a warm, energetic personality.

“That’s even sicker than what they first thought. To think that you had been working alongside someone and had that happen,” said Barbara Newhouse of Bethesda, who spoke to me outside the Lululemon Athletica store where the killing happened.

“It’s scary on a whole new level. It’s sad on a whole new level,” said Glenda Nelson of Rockville, who became friends with Murray after they met in a Johns Hopkins University communications class.

“It tells us something about what’s going on in society,” Nelson said. “It’s almost easier to be afraid of the boogeyman.”

So, assuming the police are correct, the lesson from the Lululemon case is still that you’re not safe. Only the nature of the threat has changed.

In fact, the historical record tends to support concern about workplace violence. A disgruntled worker at Suburban Hospital has been charged with killing his boss on New Year’s Day in the only other homicide in Bethesda this year. The last slaying in the downtown district, in 1989, occurred when an employee killed colleagues in a bank office.

It’s been fascinating watching Bethesda respond to the Lululemon killing. I know Bethesda well. I was raised there and live there now. From my youth, I remember blocks of seedy repair shops and an ugly concrete plant, now transformed into a lively commercial area with 185 restaurants, 510 retailers and new upscale condos.

The Lululemon case initially aroused so much anxiety in part because it might confirm Bethesda’s biggest fear, that its gradual urbanization would inevitably be accompanied by a rise in crime.

Although the heavy foot traffic along tree-lined streets is a plus for businesses and residents alike, it also risks attracting a bad element. The combination of Metro access (on the Red Line), luxury stores and crowds of well-heeled patrons could make the area a target for criminals.

The close-knit Bethesda business and civic community goes to great lengths to quash any signs of creeping urban danger. When homeless people arrive in the area, they are quickly identified and invited to move to a shelter or accept other help. Police patrolling by car, bicycle or foot get tips about suspicious activity from businesses and red-shirted “ambassadors” of the nonprofit Bethesda Urban Partnership.

There’s a special effort to remove graffiti within 24 hours of its appearance. “Those are the first signs of urban decay. You don’t want to leave that stuff up,” Dave Dabney, executive director of the partnership, said.

When graffiti is among your biggest headaches, it’s natural that a brutal killing would trigger a powerful reaction. Businesses added private guards, urged employees to take extra precautions and made plans to install new security cameras and alarms.

“What made this case significant was the impact it had on the community,” Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger said.

Maybe now the businesses will add training for managers to spot troubled employees. Alison Kauffman, who lives in Bethesda and works at Nieman Marcus in Tysons Corner, said: “I feel a little better for my own safety, except it makes me question who do I work with.”

Barry’s targets respond

Following my column Thursday based on an interview with D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), two D.C. Council members phoned to reject Barry’s comments about them.

Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) said there is “no basis in fact” and it is “totally unfair” for Barry to say he was undermining Mayor Vincent Gray (D). He said that he’d spoken to Gray about Barry’s comments and that the mayor said he didn’t feel Graham had attacked him.

Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) said Barry was wrong to say she originally sided with a group of council members critical of Gray but was now moving away from them. Barry “in no way speaks for me,” Bowser said. “I remain on the same team I’ve always been on — the one focused on Ward 4, continued progress, and a resident-centered, ethical government.”

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