CUMBERLAND – The manner of the 66-year-old grocer’s death was not at all common in the Western Maryland town.
On a spring day in 1995, Edwin Hartman lay in a pool of blood in his grocery store in suburban Cumberland, his body punctured by multiple wounds.
When his 19-year-old murderer, John Clifton Johnson, fled the store, he took a few dollars, a pack of Marlboro cigarettes and some of the innocence of this woodsy town.
Violence has become increasingly common in Western Maryland over the past two decades, according to a Capital News Service analysis of state police data. In fact, the rate of violence in Western Maryland has grown faster in the past 20 years than any other region of Maryland, state Uniform Crime Reporting data show.
The figures are part of a trend – crime in the countryside is growing much more rapidly than violence in the cities.
In Western Maryland, which includes Allegany, Garrett, and Washington counties, the population has grown 7 percent from 1977 to 1997, but the rate of violent crimes there has doubled.
“The number of crimes have increased and the level of viciousness of the crimes has increased greatly,” said Sgt. John Dudiak, of the state police crime unit assigned to Allegany County.
Although the growth of violence in the Western Maryland region trumps that of Baltimore region, it remains a safer place to live by far. For instance, Allegany County, Western Maryland’s most violent jurisdiction, is still five times less violent than Baltimore City. In 1997, Allegany had 484.3 violent crimes per 100,000 residents, compared to Baltimore’s 2,436.1.
Southern Maryland is another seemingly unlikely region that has seen violent crime escalate more rapidly than urban areas over the past 20 years. The violent crime rate in Southern Maryland, which includes Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s counties, increased 94 percent from 1977 to 1997. That may be partly attributable its booming population, an increase of 76 percent in the same time period.
The Baltimore region, which includes Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford, Howard and Baltimore counties and the city of Baltimore, saw a 25 percent increase in violent crime, making it the region with the slowest growth in violent crime.
In suburban Washington, including Frederick, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, violent crime has increased 41 percent. On the Eastern Shore, including Caroline, Cecil, Kent, Queen Anne’s, Talbot, Dorchester, Somerset, Wicomico, Worcester counties, violent crime also grew by 41 percent.
The increase in violent crime in these less populated regions comes at a time when nationally, the crime rate is decreasing in urban areas. Yet it is consistent with a national trend of more violent countrysides.
Nationally in 1980, there were 7.6 violent crimes in the city for each violent crime in a rural area. By 1997, that figure decreased to 5.4 to 1, according to figures compiled by Illinois State University criminology professor Ralph A. Weisheit, who recently published book on rural policing.
Police in Western Maryland said much of the increase in violent crime reflects greater public awareness and better police training to report the crimes. They blamed the construction of Interstate 68 in the mid-1970s for attracting many unsavory elements into the area, including the Cumberland grocer’s murderer, Johnson, who came from West Virginia.
Testimony revealed that Johnson was high on drugs and alcohol when he killed the grocer. Highways are again to blame for bringing drug problems to smaller towns, beginning in the 1980s, according to Washington County police.
Because of its proximity to Interstates 81 and 70, the county saw a significant amount of drug traffic from Washington and New York City, said Lt. Doug Mullendor the patrol commander of the Washington County Sheriff’s office.
“We’ve had an influx of people and then you have drug wars and some shooting,” said Mullendor, an 18-year veteran of the force.
Other longtime Cumberland residents say that loss of several industries, including breweries, glass-makers, and power companies in the mid-1970s caused many residents to struggle financially, also contributing to the increase.
“The industries leaving was the biggest thing,” said Henrietta Propst, an 80-year-old lifelong Cumberland resident who 20 years ago lost her job when a bakery left the area. “I think that’s why the crime is so high. There was nothing to take their place.”
Experts say policing rural areas such as Garrett County pose special difficulties because police often must travel long distances to respond to calls.
“Often rural police are dealing with fewer resources,” said Weisheit. “They have to deal with the distance issue. For some police forces, it could take 45 minutes to reach some parts of the county.”
Weisheit’s study shows that to respond to a simple car accident, it takes big city police 12 minutes on average to arrive on the scene, compared to 22 minutes in rural areas.
It is a situation ripe for crimes both petty and felonious.
“Basically, I live out in the wilderness,” said Jimmy Brown, a 19-year-old lifelong Garrett County resident who is now a University of Maryland-College Park sophomore. “You never see police officers out there. So if there is underage drinking, they’ll go out there,” he said.
Weisheit noted that the rate of underage alcohol use is higher in rural areas than urban areas. Garrett County police agree that much of the crime stems from idle youth.
“We always get an influx of calls related to juveniles, there has been a dramatic increase in that,” said Capt. Donald Tucker of the Garrett County Sheriff’s office who’s been with the force nearly 25 years.
“Our patrols are scattered and thin. We recognize that. It’s spring now and everybody’s getting spring fever,” he said.
Police say the 20-year growth figures belie the reality of life in Western Maryland, where there are rarely more than one or two murders per year in each county. But that is one or two murders too many, so police pride themselves in having a 100 percent success rate in investigating and prosecuting murders.
“I don’t think we’ve had a lot of violent crime,” said Janette Miller, whose husband is a Cumberland police officer. “There aren’t too many murders. We don’t have too much of that.”
The death of the Cumberland grocer was one of those rare murders. Johnson, who had been on an alcohol and drug binge the night of the murder, eventually confessed. An Allegany County Circuit court judge sentenced him to death.
Last year, a Maryland appeals court sent the case back to the county for a new sentence because the court didn’t consider his youth.
“We don’t have the homicides that Baltimore city will have,” said Dudiak, of the state police crime unit assigned to Allegany County.
“But we have experienced a few,” he continued. “We have all the crimes that you would have in a metropolitan area, just on a smaller scale.”