Photo by Annabelle Gordon

This story was updated on March 17 at 2:30 p.m. to include comments from County Councilmember Natali Fani-Gonzalez and on March 18 at 2:40 p.m. to include a statement from Westfield Wheaton management.

Montgomery County residents are expressing heightened concern about the safety of visiting the Westfield Wheaton Mall following a recent spike in carjackings on the premises. They are criticizing the lack of communication and instruction during an active shooter event and calling for increased safety measures.

Police say there have been a dozen carjackings at the mall and surrounding areas since December. In response, officials say they have been ramping up communication with police about safety in the area.

Lauren Boccardi and her husband were pushing two grocery carts’ worth of Costco purchases back to their car Saturday morning, 9-year-old child in tow, when they heard a series of loud pops ring out across the mall parking lot.

“Right away, my husband knew it was gunshots,” she said. “Nobody knew what was happening. I heard the parking lot attendant say someone was running around with a gun. We got our kid in the car right away.”

Montgomery County Police arrested and charged Monteray Horn, 43, of Washington, D.C. with the shots Boccardi heard, which allegedly occurred while he was attempting a carjacking. According to police, the incident was part of a spree of shootings and carjackings Horn allegedly committed that day in D.C. and Montgomery County. Horn had recently been released from federal prison after serving 17 years for sexual assault of a child.

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Boccardi, who has lived in Chevy Chase with her family for 11 years, said what distressed her most about her experience on Saturday was the lack of clear communication about what to do during the crisis.

“Nobody told anybody to evacuate. Only the people who heard gunshots knew to take cover or do anything,” she said, describing how unknowing shoppers continued to exit the mall after shots had been fired.

She added, “I’ve had many active shooter trainings in workplace situations, and I don’t feel like anything prepared me to be in a situation like that where it wasn’t clear what was going on.”

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She said she’s not aware of any community resources available to help residents know what to do in the event of a public shooting or carjacking incident.

According to a brochure published by Maryland State Police, prevention tips to discourage carjackings include parking in well-lit areas, keeping valuables out of sight, being aware of surroundings and staying alert for anyone who seems to be watching your car.

Margaret Rifkin visited the mall’s Costco on Friday evening around 6 p.m. and said she believes she was targeted by a man planning to carjack her in the parking lot. Rifkin, who is in her sixties, has lived in Wheaton for over 20 years.

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She said she deliberately parked her car in a well-lit spot away from other cars and with direct line of vision to the Costco entrance. She said as she pushed her cart toward her car, she noticed a “beat-up old vehicle” parked about 50 feet away. As she opened her hatch and began loading groceries in, she said a man got out of the car holding a phone to his ear and began walking toward her.

Rifkin said she immediately closed her hatch and went back to Costco to ask an attendant to accompany her. Looking over her shoulder, she saw the man peering through her car’s rear window. When she went back to unload her groceries with the attendant, the man continued circling the area and speaking on the phone. She said she caught snippets of his conversation, including that he had been “waiting a while,” that he was in Maryland and the words “white woman.”

“I’m absolutely convinced his goal was to either score my car or the contents of my car,” she said. “I firmly believe he was going to claim to have a gun if he didn’t actually have one.”

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Even though she said she “did everything right” to avoid being targeted as a victim, she still ended up in a situation where she felt unsafe.

“There’s got to be some immediate, stronger protection right now,” she said. “I don’t think anybody should be walking outside of that Costco without security at this point.”

Police spokesperson Lauren Ivey told MoCo360 in an email that there have been 12 carjackings at the mall or in surroundings areas since December 1. Montgomery Police’s 4th District is providing more police presence in the Wheaton Mall area following the recent string of carjackings, she wrote, and the department has surveillance cameras positioned outside the mall.

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“The district has also provided the mall with suggestions on how they can increase security measures,” she wrote.

MoCo360 could not reach representatives from Costco for comment on Friday.

In a prepared statement emailed to MoCo360 on Friday afternoon, Westfield Wheaton management wrote:

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“We are diligent about coordinating our security training and preparedness with local law enforcement, making appropriate plans based on the needs of the shopping center. We are incredibly grateful for the support local law enforcement provides the community and we will continue work with them as well as follow their guidance in preparing for, or responding to, any incidents.”

County Councilmember Natali Fani-Gonzalez (D-Dist. 6), whose district includes Wheaton, said she shares residents’ safety concerns and has been on the phone with area Police Commander David Smith “at least three times a week” receiving incident briefs and other safety updates.

This week, she said she attended a meeting of the Wheaton Urban District Advisory Committee, an 11-member team appointed by county officials to represent Wheaton’s community interests in government decision-making. At the WUDAC meeting, Fani-Gonzalez said police shared details about Horn’s capture and arrest and advised attendees that the department is working closely with mall personnel to boost security.

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On Wednesday, the county executive unveiled his $6.8 billion proposed operating budget for next fiscal year. Fani-Gonzalez said she’s “looking forward to seeing how the budget will support police officers in keeping us safe.”