When Bill Connell was transferred from Annapolis to the Bailey, Banks & Biddle jewelry store in Landover Mall, "I was nervous about it," he recalled. "My first couple of days here I was waiting for someone to break in with a gun or shoot me or something."
In fact, he said recently, standing by a jewelry display case under the store's glittering crystal chandelier, there has been only one "incident" in his four months as manager -- and that was "grab-and-run" shoplifting, not an armed holdup.
Still, the only security guard at Bailey, Banks & Biddle's seven Washington area stores is stationed at Landover Mall. And Connell's initial worries illustrate an image problem that has dogged the mall for years and that has been compounded in recent days by allegations that three youths were beaten by mall guards after being arrested Nov. 23.
Mall officials deny that any of the youths were beaten after being taken into custody and say that any injuries were the result of resisting arrest.
While mall officials tout Landover's strengths, a number of mall employes, customers and police officers say the shopping center's troubled reputation accurately reflects life at Landover, which like most malls, is a magnet for young people who browse around the shopping center and hang out in groups.
"Generally there is a problem up there," said Prince George's County police detective Gary Johnson of the Seat Pleasant district, whose territory includes the mall. "Basically it's where a lot of teen-agers go and hang out and loiter," said Johnson, who cited shoplifting and purse-snatching incidents there, as well as one episode in which a mall guard "had a stolen .45 shoved in his face and the trigger pulled." Johnson said the gun was not loaded.
"We had five leather pants ripped off here once -- chains, hangers and everything -- $110 leather pants," said a cashier at the Jeans West clothing store, one of 145 stores and restaurants in the 1.2 million-square-foot mall. "I'd like to know how they did that."
"I make sure I'm walked to my car -- not just at night, but anytime," said a sales clerk at Raleigh's department store.
Richard Thomas, who works at a restaurant in the mall, said Landover is a hangout for street gangs from nearby towns -- one called "C.I.X." from Palmer Park, and another named "Gangster Chronicles" from Seat Pleasant.
"They come here on weekends," he said. "You just see a large gang of boys, walking through the mall. . . .All of them just walk in a store, grab stuff and walk out. I've seen it happen quite a few times." With two sales clerks in a store, he said, "You have 30 guys run in there, and they can do what they want."
Mall officials say that whatever problems Landover experiences are no different from those of any other metropolitan area mall.
"It's a very successful mall," said Arthur Fuccillo, general counsel of the Lerner Corp., which owns Landover Mall as well as the 118-store White Flint Mall and 75-store Wheaton Plaza in Montgomery County, and the 144-store Tysons Corner shopping center in Fairfax. "It does very well and it's well received by the general public."
While Landover is not a "high fashion" mall like White Flint, he said, it was not designed that way, but rather aimed at a "wide variety" of shoppers.
As for crime, he said, "In the 12 years that the mall's been open there have been very few incidents at Landover Mall, less than other malls in this area and around the country." Fuccillo declined to provide specific crime figures, and George Stern, chief of mall security, refused to comment.
"We think Landover is the best mall in the area," said Regina Schatz, manager of Landover Hallmark Corner and president of the Mall Merchants Association, which has been circulating a petition of support for the mall guards. "Every mall has it," Schatz said of the problem of "troublemakers." "Landover doesn't have any more than anyone else." Merchants generally agree that the mall is on a rebound from its situation several years ago, when the vacancy rate was about 5 percent compared with the current 2 percent; when the indoor fountains were shut off, and when maintenance was shoddy -- a surprising situation, observers note, at a mall owned by the Lerner Corp. Its owner Theodore N. Lerner is reputed to tour each mall monthly, firing off post-inspection letters to tenants whose housekeeping is not up to standards.
"I think a few years back it was slipping somewhat," Schatz conceded, "but we've been on a heavy program of complete renovations."
In the past year, said Geno Smith, manager of a women's clothing store, "The mall's a lot cleaner, they've opened newer shops, more contemporary shops," and pressures from guards have reduced the number of teen-agers who use the mall as a meeting place.
"Now there's more than just kids -- there's mothers with kids," he said. "The mall has turned into a shopping center."