As Howard County police continued to search yesterday for suspects in Monday's fatal shooting of two young men along a bike path in Columbia, many residents voiced concerns that the killings--the first in Columbia this year--are the most dramatic evidence yet of deeper problems in the planned community.
"I am horrified and outraged. It's just unbelievable that it happened on a bike path in my community. My son, when he was in high school, used that path every day," said Bill Gray, head of Harness Oakland Mills Energy (HOME), an anti-crime community group in the neighborhood where the double homicide occurred. "I've been concerned for a while that these urban problems are creeping into our community."
Johnathan Barney, 19, and Davon Mayfield, 18, both of Columbia, were found dead Monday afternoon near the Tor Apartments, across from Columbia Mall in the Oakland Mills village of Columbia, police said. Howard County police yesterday had no suspects or motive in the shooting. A "quantity of suspected drugs" was found near where the men were shot, said a police spokesman. Investigators believe the men did not kill each other because no guns were found at the crime scene. Investigators also said yesterday that they are close to ruling out robbery as a motive.
"We're pursuing many leads," said Sgt. John Superson, a Howard County police spokesman. "We're looking to see if the victims were known to the shooter or if it was more an ambush."
Fliers advertising a community meeting tomorrow about the slayings were passed out in Oakland Mills yesterday. Police patrols of the area were beefed up. Community leaders reassured nervous residents that precautions were being taken.
Oakland Mills was a recent candidate for a Maryland "hot spot" designation, in which extra police and prosecutors are sent to high-crime areas. It was not approved, however; nearby Harper's Choice was selected instead.
In the first half of this year, Oakland Mills had the highest number of reported drug violations of the 10 villages that make up Columbia, according to Howard County police statistics. Harper's Choice had the second-highest number, followed closely by Long Reach, which also has been named a hot spot.
The shooting took place on a tree-shrouded bike path that, according to Oakland Mills residents, functions as a meeting place for young people from in and outside Columbia. Some said drugs are dealt there.
According to police, Barney was shot dead on the path, while Mayfield managed to struggle about 70 feet before collapsing in the parking lot of the Tor Apartments. Onlookers covered him with jackets as paramedics, alerted by neighbors who heard gunshots, raced to the scene.
Steve Schuble, regional manager for the Tor Apartments, said he has long received complaints about the bike path area.
"That area back there should be removed," he said. "We've talked about it to Howard County before. It's become a loitering area. We've had complaints about graffiti and beer bottles there."
Schuble noted that the lights in the parking lot area had recently been upgraded from 30-watt bulbs to 100 watts as a safety precaution. A Royal Farms grocery store and Exxon gas station near the shooting scene had recently closed. An official reason for the closing was never offered, though residents suspect loiterers and drug dealers drove the businesses out.
Howard County Council member C. Vernon Gray (D-East Columbia) sent a memo to the police department and County Executive James N. Robey (D) several months ago urging them to establish a satellite police office in the boarded-up stores. He said yesterday that he now expects them to consider the idea seriously.
Last month, the Columbia Council adopted a measure that allows it to declare certain parts of the community off-limits from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., and council members said yesterday they will consider applying the rule to the bike path. However, Earl Jones, council representative from Oakland Mills, said he was inclined to keep the path as is.
"If we closed the bike path, it would be capitulating," he said. "Columbia is known for its open spaces and pathways. We shouldn't have to give that up."
Coincidentally, the results from a recent survey on attitudes toward crime in Oakland Mills were tabulated this week.
"People are saying they're afraid to go out at night," said Oakland Mills Village Manager Erin Peacock. "But we need to be out. If the community is a presence in public spaces, it will be a deterrent to crime."
Staff writer Jackie Spinner and research editor Margot Williams contributed to this report.