At Landover Mall, shopkeepers and customers say, youths from the surrounding neighborhoods are often seen flashing large rolls of cash and buying stacks of expensive clothing and other merchandise.
"We see a lot of young kids with rolls of twenty- and fifty-dollar bills," said Tania Jones, manager of one of the mall's 145 stores. "These kids are not brain surgeons or doctors. Where do they get that money from?"
The apparently drug-related slayings Friday of five persons occurred in an apartment complex across the street from the shopping center. The killings were the latest in a number of incidents of violence in the Landover area, a densely populated community of garden apartments that happens to be one of Prince George's County's worst areas for open drug trafficking and related shootings, police say.
In the middle of all this is Landover Mall. Last week's slayings took place on adjacent Brightseat Road. And drug-related shootings have often been reported at the Glenarden Apartments down the street.
Some merchants say the mall is no better or worse than other shopping centers. While some shoppers may be scared away at night, the mall's businesses have stayed put. And shopkeepers say there seem to be plenty of youngsters with ready cash.
"I wouldn't characterize the mall itself as a drug area," said Cpl. Bruce Gentile, Prince George's County police spokesman. "It's not fair to bring the mall in on this because it has the misfortune of being in the neighborhood where there's a lot of drugs."
Yet Gentile said he has "no doubt" that drug money from the surrounding area finds its way into the mall's stores. "The kids have got to spend it someplace," he said, "and it's a nice mall."
For 15 years, Landover Mall has served a dual purpose -- as a regional mall serving a variety of residents living within a 15-mile radius, and as sort of a makeshift downtown for the hundreds of youths who live within walking distance, said general manager Stanley Jaffe.
Jaffe said the mall is not a center for drug transactions. The shopping center has a security staff of 26 people, a mall employee said.
The mall, anchored by Woodward & Lothrop, Garfinkel's, Hecht Co. and Sears, is visited by as many as 70,000 people on a busy Saturday, said Jaffe, who described it as "a middle-of-the-road shopping center." Like suburban malls anywhere, Landover Mall is packed on weekends with young people who use it as a place to meet friends.
In the past, however, Landover Mall has had to contend with rumors that it was an unsafe place to shop, especially after dark, because of the surrounding area. A well-publicized incident in 1984 involving three youths who said they were beaten by security guards there added to the troubled image.
Yesterday afternoon, as wet snow fell outside, the atmosphere in the shopping center was subdued -- a few customers milling around in ones and twos, smelling chocolate chip cookies baking at The Cookie Jar, with mall music
jangling in the background.
Kevin Austin, 19, and Nat Johnson, 21, who said they live in the area and are out of work, have been hanging out at Landover Mall for 10 years, they said.
"People flash it around here," said Austin as he ate a slice of pizza. "They flash $300, $400. You see it all the time, showing off."
"This guy we know, the other night, he was holding, like, $500," Johnson said. "He said he was working an honest job. We said, 'Uh-huh, yeah.'"
At Journey's, a store selling athletic shoes, clerk Richard Hankerson said he is accustomed to seeing young people come in with wads of cash.
"Fourteen years old and up," said Hankerson, who is 20. "One dude came in and bought six pairs of Troop shoes at one time. And they cost $79 a pair and up."
But one shopkeeper, who said he has worked at a dozen area malls, said Landover Mall is no worse than any other. "Sure, it gets a bad rap," said Rasheed Abdurrahman, manager of Georgetown Leather Design. "During the daytime, you have a mixture of people -- office types, everybody. At night, it's predominantly black because the neighborhood is predominantly black -- and any place that's predominantly black is going to get a bad rap."
Staff writer Veronica T. Jennings contributed to this report.