In the tiny town of Forest Heights, located on a hill in Prince George's County, Halloween used to mean turning the Town Hall into a "Monster Mansion." Children were invited in for tricks and treats while adults in costumes pretended to be scary hosts.
The tradition ended in the 1980s, but the Town Hall seems more haunted than ever these days. Screams of pain and howls of outrage echo from its meeting rooms as doors are slammed on those who enter. Even the town police are not safe. In September, a police lieutenant had a door slammed on him. "Ma'am, my arm, my arm," he cried, according to a police report.
Beware, little children: The adults in Monster Mansion aren't pretending anymore.
"People were aghast and going, 'What in the world . . . ?' " Myles Spires Jr., a Town Council member, told me recently. He said that on Oct. 19, he saw a door slam on the back of a former council member and knock her to the floor. "It was really shocking," he said.
The suspect? In each case, none other than Joyce Beck, the town's professional, attractive and often charming 56-year-old mayor, who was elected in May in a landslide.
When Police Chief Michael Eubank recently filed charges against Beck for allegedly assaulting Lt. William Waithe, the mayor turned off the charm, fired him the next day and took over his position as chief. To hear Eubank tell it, you'd think she had snatched his body as well.
"To make her point, she gets real close, within what I call your personal safety zone," he told me. "When you can feel someone's breath on you, they are too close. It can be intimidating. Once she gets you on the defensive like that, she raises her voice, and her facial expression changes. It becomes something of a snarl. That's when you see her canines, which shows her dominance."
I telephoned Mayor Beck at her home yesterday and left a message on her voice mail requesting a comment. But she did not call back. Beck has denied the allegations and turned down other media requests for interviews on the advice of her attorney.
For the record: I have met Beck and always found her to be pleasant. My 15-year-old son worked a summer youth job in the Forest Heights maintenance department, picking up roadside litter and repainting traffic lines on streets. He also spent a day going door-to-door in June distributing fliers from Beck's office warning residents that the government would shut down if the Town Council didn't hurry up and approve a budget -- a warning to him, as well, that he might not get paid. Now that was scary, but the budget was passed, and he got over it.
Forest Heights, a one-mile square near the District's southeastern border, was incorporated in 1949. With about 2,600 residents, the town is so small as to be virtually invisible to major media coverage. Through the years, it has been allowed to evolve into something of a Pandora's matchbox of petty political intrigue.
"We've had mayors who served 25 years or more who were icons in the town," Spires said. "Their power was such that no resident would question anything they did, and nobody outside the town cared. But times have changed. People expect elected officials to be accountable, especially where tax dollars and public safety are concerned."
Beck worked as an assistant to one of those town icons, former mayor Warren F. Adams. Her style of management, some say, reflects a desire for the same kind of power and control that Adams enjoyed during his quarter-century of service. Now, many in the town are out to get her, this daughter of Frankenstein, they'd have you believe. They want her exorcised from office and locked up for good.
"I'm a police officer, and nobody should be hitting a police officer," Waithe said. Unable to use a silver bullet, however, he must now bear the burden of proof -- which suddenly got a lot heavier.
A surveillance camera in the Town Hall lobby that might have captured both assaults has mysteriously disappeared. "Somebody removed the evidence," Spires said.
You can almost hear those skeletons in the closet cracking up.