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Malls Are No Strangers to Big-City Crime

January 03, 1991|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The shopping mall may have become America's new Main Street, but it hasn't escaped the danger that lurks in the back alleys.

In 1989, at the eight major malls most frequented by San Gabriel Valley shoppers, there were at least four rapes, 67 robberies, 128 assaults, 610 stolen cars, 826 burglaries and more than 2,800 thefts.

Officers at those malls, from Glendale Galleria to Santa Anita Fashion Park to Montclair Plaza, responded to reports of abductions, bomb threats, suicides, indecent exposure, public intoxication and child abuse.

"This is like a little city," said Glendale Lt. Brad Liston, who formerly headed the police substation in the Galleria. "We haven't had a drive-by shooting, but that's only because you can't get a car in here."

Police take the statistics in stride, contending the malls are at least as safe as the communities around them.

"When you put that many people in a confined space, you're going to have conflicts," said Montclair Lt. Terry Gibson, whose department in 1989 investigated one rape, 14 robberies, 23 assaults, 107 burglaries, 164 stolen cars and 618 thefts at Montclair Plaza. "But considering we don't live in a utopia. . . . I don't find those figures alarming."

However, a few highly publicized incidents can erode a mall's image as a safe shopping haven.

Plaza Pasadena, for instance, in 1989 recorded one rape, four robberies, 10 assaults, 22 burglaries, 19 stolen cars and more than 200 thefts--less than 4% of the city's major crimes and not unusually high numbers for a mall of its size.

But the plaza, particularly its subterranean parking structure, has also been the site of a notorious string of violent rapes and abductions--at least seven since it opened in 1980.

The first was the murder of 9-year-old Jenny Kao, who was abducted in 1982 while selling candy near her uncle's food stand. She was molested in a freight elevator and mutilated before being thrown in a trash bin.

In 1988, a 26-year-old woman named Lois Haro was kidnaped while heading down the escalator to the parking structure. She was driven to a grassy field near the Rose Bowl, raped and fatally shot in the head.

And last February, another 26-year-old woman was abducted in the parking structure, driven away at knifepoint, raped and stabbed, before fighting off her attacker.

"It's really scary," said attorney Harry F. Scolinos, who is representing the woman in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Plaza Pasadena. "I don't let my family go over there any more."

Scolinos, who has a computer printout from the Pasadena Police Department documenting every criminal incident at the mall for the last decade, contends that the plaza was negligent for not providing adequate security, such as a closed-circuit surveillance system and guard booths in the parking structures.

But Plaza Pasadena General Manager JoAnne Brosi said the mall takes precautions that are probably "over and above" those of the average shopping center to ensure that shoppers are provided with the safest possible environment.

During the holiday season, for instance, the security staff was beefed up, an escort service was available for people who wanted to be accompanied to their cars and other employees were stationed at the top of the escalators to welcome people in from the parking structures.

"We have had those unfortunate incidents; it's not something you like to see," Brosi said. "But we do the best we can. . . . We're always on our toes in terms of watching for things out of the norm."

No mall is immune from violent crime.

There were five assaults at Glendale Galleria in 1989, and in 1987, two rapes were reported there. There were four assaults at Montebello Town Center in 1989. The Plaza at West Covina had one rape and 40 assaults. West Covina's Eastland Shopping Center reported one attempted rape in both 1988 and 1986. In 1989, 31 people were assaulted there.

And outside the San Gabriel Valley, two people were wounded just three days before Christmas when suspected gang members opened fire in the second-floor food court at Long Beach Plaza.

"I think we've all come to recognize that the mall is a meeting place, and that includes all walks of life," Brosi said. "We're not a fort."

The Montclair and Glendale malls have police substations on the premises, and the Arcadia mall has a substation during the holiday season. Ironically, however, crime numbers tend to go up when officers are present because police are on the scene to catch crooks and take reports.

"You want to up your crime stats? Hire more cops," said Gibson, the Montclair lieutenant. "They will find more crime."

But despite occasional violence, the vast majority of shopping center crime is committed against property, not people. Shoplifters take up most of police officers' time. Car burglars are close behind.

"There's a lot of easy targets," West Covina Sgt. Lori Smith said. "The cars tend to be sitting ducks."

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