They lost thousands of dollars in silver, jewels and furs, but the residents of the Montgomery County community of Sumner say they got something precious in return: They have emerged from a six-month crime wave with new friends and a sense of community they never had before.
Although residents admit it sounds sentimental, even corny, they insist that life has changed in the neighborhood. "There's definitely some good coming out of this rash of burglaries," said Mary DeOreo, a private investigator who lives on Rockmere Drive. "People are getting to know their neighbors."
Vicki Lewis, a former television reporter who lives on Randall Lane with her lawyer husband and three small children, agreed. "It does galvanize people," she said. "Crime is one of the few things that does that very fast." She said that people are now meeting their neighbors. "It's an entree to talk . . . " she added. "It's terribly selfish to say that, but real good comes out of it."
Since the crime wave began in September, residents for the first time have appointed 38 block captains and held dozens of block meetings. The Sumner Citizens Association has been revived, the neighborhood's first newsletter is due out at the end of the month and committees are being formed to examine traffic problems, neighborhood appearance and volunteer programs.
Although Sumner is not so well-to-do as nearby Westmoreland Hills, it is an affluent area made up of mostly two-story homes, laid out on winding and hilly streets between Massachusetts Avenue and Sangamore Road. Its residents include many lawyers, State Department and embassy employes and high-ranking military retirees.
Saturday night, the phones in the neighborhood were abuzz with news that police had shot and captured a burglary suspect on Nahant Street. One man quickly spray-painted "Congratulations" on a sheet and hung it in front of his house for the benefit of undercover police who had stalked Sumner for several weeks in search of the burglar.
Police said they shot James Othel Winn, 38, of Southeast Washington, when he tried to pull a gun on two officers who approached him. Winn, who is in fair condition at Suburban Hospital, has been charged with one burglary and is a suspect in 37 Sumner break-ins, according to the police.
Police, who are still watching the neighborhood, will not give details about the burglaries in Sumner, which they said are still under investigation. But Capt. Michael Blasher said the residents' "concern and cooperation" was extremely valuable to police.
While relieved that a suspect has been captured, Sumner residents said they hope it will not mean the end of their new-found neighborliness. Before the burglaries, residents said, Sumner was typical of thousands of suburban communities: People kept pretty much to themselves.
One woman, who lost her fur coat in a burglary just before Christmas, said, "There's no community, per se. There's no community hall. Not everybody goes to the same church. The children go to different schools."
The burglaries changed that, the woman said, for a very simple reason: "Everyone's protecting one another."
A lot of people credit Lewis with mobilizing the neighborhood. Her effort began after Nov. 2, when three houses on Randall Lane were broken into, and jewelry and silver were stolen.
After checking with police and learning of other break-ins, Lewis decided to alert her neighbors that a burglar was on the loose. She sent copies of crime reports to Sumner residents and started working to form a neighborhood watch program.
As the burglaries continued, momentum grew. The community bought two electric engraving pens, and borrowed a third, and began passing them around to mark their goods. A size 14 drill bit was passed from house to house as residents put bolts on the doors and windows.
"It's amazing how small-townish it gets all of a sudden," Lewis said. People started telling neighbors when they were leaving town, she said, and when somebody was late coming home, neighbors would take in the newspapers and laundry.
"If anyone's alarm would go off, you got 100 calls," Lewis said. "Before, we were just a little more lackadaisical."