When Deborah Waddington and her son swung into their Vienna driveway late one evening, returning from a weekend trip, Waddington was relieved to see the lights on in the house.But moments after she got out of her car, her relief dissipated.
"My son called from the doorway, and said I better come quickly," Waddington recalled last week. "I knew immediately what had happened."
All the drawers in the house had been pulled out and overturned. A silver spoon collection was missing, along with Waddington's wedding ring and some Navajo and African jewelry. None of the stolen items was insured and none has been recovered.
In the town of Vienna, where the 18,000 residents take pride in their close-knit community, residents and city officials say burglaries have almost doubled since last year. Although the actual number of burglaries is small compared with Vienna's larger neighbors, some residents say "burglary paranoia" -- a feeling that one's every move is being watched -- has become as much a fact of life in their 4-square-mile area as the commuter traffic that clogs Rte. 123.
"If the burglaries were germs, the health department would be in here tomorrow, declaring an epidemic," Waddington said. "I feel so helpless. What am I supposed to do? Every timeI go out, am I going to have to back my car up on the lawn at 4 a.m. and pack my car, or wear all my clothes under a coat so no one will know I'm leaving?"
By September 1979, Vienna officials, had recorded 68 burglaries for the year. By the end of this September, that number had increased to 121, with each incident averaging more than $800 in stolen goods. Police officials say the increase is indicative of statistics throughout the metropolitan area where, according to officials, a burglary occurs every 12 1/2 minutes and more than $22 million worth of property has been stolen since 1978.
"We have one hell of a problem, but it is no worse than any other area," said Vienna police chief Vernon Jones. "However, that information does little good in consoling a person who has been hit."
In particular, residents of northwest Vienna, including the Malcolm-Windover area, complain that burglaries have become so commonplace that people are no longer reporting all of them. Police say only four burglaries were reported in Malcolm-windover neighborhood in October, and 29 were reported for the entire town. Residents of Malcolm-Windover, however, insist that at least two or three homes are burglarized every week.
Jerome Covel, a dentist who lives and works in northwest Vienna, says his home and office are burglarized or vandalized about once every three months. Last week, he said, a $400 generator was stolen from his barn; earlier, a $1,300 lawn mower was taken and in August, 40 gold crowns were stolen from his office.
"These things happen so frequently that I don't bother to report them anymore," Covel said. "I just tape or nail up whatever has been broken."
Police say several factors have added to the surge in burglaries in the Washington area: the increase in value of gold and silver articles, in precious metal buyers who set up in motel rooms and then quickly leave town, in persons who steal to support costly drug habits and in the professionalism of burglary rings.
Police chief Jones said he believes two groups of neighborhood teen-agers are responsible for the majority of burglaries in northwest Vienna. He said warrants have been issued for their arrest but so far police have been unable to find any of the suspects.
"They might as well leave their autograph on the window still, the pattern is so familiar, but no one seems to know where they are," Jones said.
Some residents complain that inadequate police patrols contribute to the problem. Police, however, say they are doing everything possible with their 27 officers -- a police stake-out has been set up in the business area and officers have been assigned to patrol residential areas. Police argue that more severe sentences are needed to deter burglars.
"The pathetic part of it is that the punishment is so minimal," Jones said.
"The risk is low, and with the gold-buyers set up, where else can a kid make $2,000 or $3,000 for a day's work?"
Vienna recently approved an ordinance requiring all itinerant dealers in precious metals to pay a $500-a-day license fee, but Jones believes regional legislation is needed to control illegal operations.
Alexandria has approved legislation requiring dealers to keep precious metal items for 15 days before selling or melting them, and to keep detailed records of the sellers. A similar law in the District is being challened in court.
"It just never ends," said Vienna policeman Joe Traveras. "The one thing I have learned over the years is that you'll never stop the flow of thieving. We may be able to slow it, but there always will be other people to take the place of those caught."