At the Avis Rent A Car in Anaheim, manager Jeremy Wilkinson hands the keys to a customer and directs her to the car's location. She's back within minutes. "I just can't have a white car," she says.
Calls pour in to the California Highway Patrol from concerned women, some asking where they can buy life-sized dummies so it appears they're not driving alone--in their white cars.
A 47-year-old Long Beach woman was thinking about getting rid of her cellular phone. She decides not only is she going to keep the phone, she's going to take a self-defense class. She too drives a white car.
In restaurants and workplaces, at home and on the road, women throughout the Southland are talking about a trio of shootings involving women in white cars on freeways and wondering how they can protect themselves.
Investigators are uncertain whether the three shootings, all within the last 2 1/2 months, are related, but they are still gathering evidence. Two of them involved the same gun.
It's understandable, experts say, if women are alarmed by the chilling series of crimes. Such crime sprees--and the attendant media coverage--typically prompt such fears.
But it should be noted that the odds of being a victim of such a crime are extremely low, experts say. In fact, although you'd never know it from watching the nightly news, serious crime is as low as it's been since 1971.
One crime expert said that from 1993 to 1996, homicides decreased 20% nationwide, yet the mention of murders on newscasts increased 700%.
That doesn't include dramatic programs such as "NYPD Blue" and "Brooklyn South," which show even more explicit violence and fuel fears.
"You tell people you're pretty safe, but we can't expect people to accept that when they see crimes like this constantly on TV and the impression is they live in great danger," said Joseph McNamara, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace.
Politicians feed the perception of a dangerous world by continually calling for a war on crime. "It reinforces the concept we're all about to be killed at any moment even though the numbers show we're safer than in years" past, said McNamara, a former police chief of the San Jose and Kansas City police departments.
Statistics show that the groups most frightened by the prospect of being a crime victim--the elderly and women--are even less likely to be victims.
For example, the U.S. Justice Department said that in 1993, white females older than 65 were killed and assaulted at a rate of three per 1,000 nationally. The rate for teenage black males was 113 per 1,000.
"The fear of crime does not necessarily correlate with actual risk," said James Allen Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston.
Figures also show that many homicide victims knew their attacker. "You should be more afraid of being killed by your husband than being shot on the freeway," said Malcolm Klein, director of the Social Science Research Institute at USC. "The fact is, most of us don't become victims of violence."
The print media is not entirely blameless in fanning the flames of fear. After Laou Lani Autagavaia was shot to death on the Costa Mesa Freeway in Santa Ana last Monday, for example, the Press-Telegram in Long Beach ran a headline with 1 1/4-inch type across four columns that asked, "White car killer?"
Sgt. Steve Despenas, a spokesman for the Santa Ana Police Department, said the coverage of the shootings has "almost caused a mini-mass hysteria among women driving white cars."
The first of the shootings occurred Feb. 15. Melody Spicer, 47, of Orange County was driving from the San Gabriel River Freeway to the Artesia Freeway in Cerritos when she was shot in the back.
Less than 40 minutes later, Helena Joyce Dobiesz was on the 7th Street offramp from the northbound San Diego Freeway in Seal Beach when she was fatally shot in the head. Ballistics tests showed the bullets came from the same gun, as did those fired into a house in Cypress 20 minutes before Spicer was wounded. No one was hurt in the house shooting.
Then, last Monday, Autagavaia, 31, was shot to death. Like Spicer and Dobiesz, Autagavaia was driving a white car.
"If it weren't a white car in all three cases, you probably wouldn't have heard about it," researcher Klein said.
Despenas, the police spokesman, said that while it is too early to rule out a connection between the latest shooting and the earlier incidents, the investigation is leaning in that direction.
"The similarities are that they are all women, and they were all driving white cars," he said. The differences, he said, include the fact that the latest shooting happened at a different time of day, involved a different caliber of gun and occurred at closer range.
The motive, he said, is unknown. "In today's society, everybody should be concerned if there is a homicide, but I don't think it should be to the height of panic."