HAGERSTOWN – The streets of this 230-year-old town in the heart of Washington County are humming with more people and cars than ever.
With just one parking garage to accommodate the growing number of commuters, cars line up bumper-to-bumper on the side of the narrow one-way streets to wait for spaces.
But Lt. Douglas W. Mullendore, Washington County Sheriff’s Office patrol commander, has more important things to worry about than directing traffic.
As the number of people and cars have swiftly grown in this 131,923- population county squeezed between West Virginia and Pennsylvania, so have the number of car thefts.
Car thefts in Washington County grew by 70 percent between 1994 and 1999, according to a Capital News Service analysis of Maryland Vehicle Theft Prevention Council statistics.
While its number of vehicle thefts still pales in comparison to the Baltimore and Washington metropolitan areas, an understaffed Washington County police force is struggling to fight a crime that has been increasing since 1989.
The council – which posts State Police Uniform Crime Report statistics for stolen cars on its Web site – has helped the Baltimore region tackle its theft problem with several grants, and has been successful.
More than half of the state’s 38,194 car thefts in 1994, the peak year in the state, were committed in Baltimore City and County. But council grants and a regional task force created in 1995 cut that rate to 39 percent of the state total in 1999.
Meanwhile, Washington County, which has seen its number of car thefts grow from 152 in 1994 to 258 in 1999, is in need of help, Presley said.
The Sheriff’s Office will use a $500 council grant it received this year to run cable ads telling people to take their car keys with them when they leave their vehicles, Mullendore said.
There won’t be any Baltimore-style task forces created in Washington County anytime soon, however, Mullendore said, because crime in the county is not focused in a particular area.
“It’s so random that we can’t draw any conclusions,” he said.
Education may help, since a quarter of car thefts in the state stem from drivers who leave their car keys in the ignition or somewhere inside the vehicle, local and state police officers say.
Two in 1,000 cars registered in Washington County were stolen in 1999, while only one in 1,000 were stolen in 1994.
Not only are cars getting stolen, the number of cars registered in the county has grown faster than its population.
There were 113,412 vehicles registered in the county in 1999, according to Motor Vehicle Administration statistics – 15 percent more than in 1989. Meanwhile, Washington County’s population grew at a snail’s pace: by just 5 percent between 1990 and 1999, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
Hundreds of shiny new cars fill car dealerships along crisscrossing Interstates 70 and 81 near Hagerstown.
But some car dealers are not worried about the county’s rise in car thefts.
Larry Crowe, manager of Younger’s Used Vehicles, said only two cars have been taken from his lot in the 10 years he worked there.
“It’s not a problem,” Crowe said. “We’re happy.”
But it’s not cars that have caught the attention of thieves lately.
All-terrain vehicles, or ATVs, are the latest craze for thrill seekers, said Jim Nelson, a sales representative for Twigg Cycles Inc. in Hagerstown.
While the $1,800 to $8,000 vehicles have been used in Washington County as farming vehicles since the 1970s, a surge in thefts of these four-wheeled motorcycles – which are reported in police statistics with city vehicles – has plagued the county recently, Mullendore and Nelson said.
ATVs easily can disappear, Nelson said, since the vehicles, which can float on water, are built to drive through woods and unpaved roads, making it difficult for police to catch thieves.
But most thieves are just seeking cheap thrills and abandon the four- wheelers in the middle of nowhere, Nelson said.
“The problem is they’re being stolen right off people’s (property),” Nelson said. “They’re getting stolen left and right.”