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Smithsburg officials say town still safe

Police Chief George Knight says string of crimes was a coincidence

September 05, 2011|By DAN DEARTH | dan.dearth@herald-mail.com
  • With the exception of the shooting death almost four years ago of police Officer Christopher Nicholson, the worst crimes that hit Smithsburg are occasional reports of vandalism and petty theft. But that changed Aug. 14, when police responded to a home invasion on Henrietta Street and burglaries over the next two days at a nearby supermarket and a pharmacy.
By Yvette May, Staff Photographer

With the exception of the shooting death almost four years ago of police Officer Christopher Nicholson, the worst crimes that hit Smithsburg are occasional reports of vandalism and petty theft.

But that changed Aug. 14, when police responded to a home invasion on Henrietta Street and burglaries over the next two days at a nearby supermarket and a pharmacy.

Police Chief George Knight said he believed it was a coincidence that those crimes occurred within three days of each other.

"Smithsburg is a relatively quiet community," Knight said. "We have no more crime per capita than any other city. That's why people like to live in the Smithsburg area."

Knight pointed out that the robberies of the Food Lion supermarket and the Home Care Pharmacy were outside the town's limits. He said it was the vigilance of Smithsburg police Officer Matthew Hudson, who noticed a broken window at the pharmacy, that helped catch the three people at the scene.

"He just didn't drive by it, he took action," Knight said. "In emergency situations, we respond outside the town limits to aid the sheriff's office and state police."

He said he believed those involved were trying to get drugs or money to buy drugs.

"I believe the rash of incidents we've had are related to ... the proliferation of the abuse of prescription medication and the use of other drugs, such as alcohol, marijuana and heroin," Knight said. "I think here's a direct correlation between all of those things and the incidents we've had."

The first of those incidents occurred on the night of Aug. 14, when two men, armed with a shotgun and a knife, barged into a home in the unit block of Henrietta Street.

According to court documents, one of the two occupants of the home managed to escape and ran to a neighbor to get help.

The home invaders fled. Later that night, two people were charged.

Smithsburg residents Jesse Cole Lombardi, 18, of 60 S. Main St., and Victor Wolfe McCormick, 19, of 12906 Bradbury Ave., were charged with 17 offenses each in connection with the break-in, including two counts each of armed robbery, robbery, and first-degree assault.

The the Aug. 15 robbery of the Food Lion along Jefferson Boulevard is still an open case, Maryland State Police said on Aug. 26.

Meanwhile, three people were charged in connection with the Aug. 16 robbery of the Smithsburg Pharmacy at 22933 Jefferson Blvd.

Brittany Sweitzer, 24, of Hagerstown, and Smithsburg residents Michael Mann and Brett Toms, both 20, were charged with one count each of second-degree burglary, fourth-degree burglary, fourth-degree burglary/tools, conspiracy to commit burglary and malicious destruction of property.



Town still safe

Smithsburg Mayor Mildred "Mickey" Myers said she didn't believe crime has spiraled out of control despite an increase in the town's population from about 500 residents in the late 1980s to roughly 3,000 today.

"Smithsburg is just as safe. I have no fear walking down the street," said Myers, who lives less than a block from the site of the home invasion. "Once this is taken care of, I think things will go back to our normal way of living. I intend to do that right now."

Myers, like Knight, said she believed the crimes were drug related.

"What we have here in Smithsburg is no different from any other place where the demand for drugs and money is an issue," she said. "It's a problem everywhere."

Ralph Regan lives a few doors down from the site of the home invasion.

He recalled that on the night of the crime, he heard police banging on the front door of Lombardi's house, which is directly behind the house where the home invasion occurred.

"We just heard there was a home invasion with a shotgun and a knife," he said. "You think of Smithsburg as a quiet town. You don't expect things like this around here."

One of the victims of the home invasion, who wished to remain anonymous, said he felt the same way.

"It's still one of the safest towns in Washington County," the man said. "You just have a bunch of regular people living here. To my knowledge, nothing like this has happened before. Everyone's really nice. I guess there's just a bad apple on every tree."

He said he didn't want to comment further because it might jeopardize the case.



Officers spread thin

Regan said he believes the Smithsburg Police Department tries hard, but its officers can't be everywhere at once.

"They did a good job,"  Regan said, noting police had people in custody "within a half hour of the event."

Another neighbor disagreed.

That neighbor, who wished to remain unnamed, said the victim who escaped the home invasion ran to his house for help.

He said a Washington County Sheriff's Office deputy was the first to arrive at the scene, followed by a Maryland state trooper.

He said a Smithsburg officer didn't arrive until 25 minutes after his wife called 911.

"I kept asking my wife about the (estimated time of arrival)," the neighbor said. "The dispatcher couldn't give us an ETA."

Knight disputed the neighbor's claim, saying the Smithsburg officer arrived on the scene 12 minutes after he was called. It took 12 minutes  because the officer was on his way back from getting gas at a Washington County fuel depot in Hagerstown, he said.

Knight said the officer stopped to get a rifle and a ballistic shield before he went to the scene.

It was a fluke that the officer was getting gas when the home invasion occurred, he said.

"It's really, really easy to criticize police officers," Knight said. "No matter how hard we try, circumstances are just that — circumstances."

Knight said he strives to always have an officer on duty, but that isn't always possible.



Vigilante justice?

One Smithsburg resident said someone might have to take the law into his or her own hands to teach criminals a lesson.

Brian Lawyer, who operates Smithsburg Auto Parts, said children in town terrorized his 93-year-old father last year when they broke through his bathroom window.

"That probably went on for an hour," Lawyer said. "It went on for a good little while .... That shook him up."

He said children also have tapped on his father's window "just to play with him."

"You can see them running through the alley," Lawyer said. "It's just a different breed than when I was a kid."

He said he has slept at his father's house on numerous occasions "with gun in hand" to ensure nothing happens again.

"It's going to come to a head one day," Lawyer said. "One day, they're going to buck up to the wrong person."

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