When on July 9 Dr. Mary A.T. Anigbo shopped at the Home Depot at the Brentwood Shopping Center in northeast Washington, she never expected to lose her vehicle. The charter school pioneer was unwillingly recruited into an expanding group of victims when her 1997 Dodge Caravan was stolen from the parking lot in broad daylight.

“I was dumbfounded,” Anigbo exclaimed. “Can you imagine coming out of a major shopping area with all this traffic and nobody witnesses a car being broken into and stolen? I tried to convince myself that I had placed my van somewhere other than where I parked it.”

On a normal day the area is bustling with lots of activity. Directly across the street from the shopping center, two court service operations have clients reporting to probation officers. As shoppers enter the complex, on the right, two new construction sites are underway, while buses, vehicles and riders move to and from the Rhode Island Metro Station.

On the left, dozens of immigrant day laborers line the entrance to the massive shopping complex looking for job opportunities. “Paint, paint, drywall, floors,” several immigrant laborers said as they bombard shoppers attempting to park their cars among the hundreds of vehicles. Unsupervised teens also run throughout the parking lot.

On the day her car was stolen, Anigbo called 911 and reported the car theft to an off-duty police officer in uniform standing inside the store. “The police officer admitted to me that one week prior another vehicle had been stolen and there were numerous complaints about cars being vandalized,” she said.

What Anigbo found more frustrating was the fact that it has been difficult to find an establishment to accept any responsibility. Stephen Holmes, Home Depot senior manager for corporate relations said, “Although the legal liability for theft doesn’t lie with the company, we definitely want our customers to have a great shopping experience; so we’re looking into this matter to see what, if anything, more can be done.”

District officials claim Home Depot owns its section of the parking lot. “Having your vehicle stolen makes you feel very violated and hopeless. To have a company like Home Depot deny responsibility yet still accept your money is morally and ethically wrong,” said Anigbo.

Earlier that day, on the other side of the lot, Mirna Valle, an instructor at Dudley Beauty College, had a similar experience. After dashing into the Giant Store diagonally across from Home Depot for some quick shopping, Valle returned to find her car parked in the first row with a smashed window and missing personal items. A few of Valle’s goods were found in Anigbo’s vehicle, when it was eventually found.

“I really think that Giant needs to be more courteous to long-time customers like myself, instead of giving me the cold shoulder,” said Valle. Unlike Anigbo, Valle did not file a report with the police.

Anigbo and Valle join many victims at the 57,529-square-foot retail space. According to police statistics, vehicle thefts more than doubled during the time frame of July 2010 to July 2011 from 13 to 29. Thefts from cars increased by 125 percent during 2009 and 2010, but car thefts remained stable averaging 15 per year.

“We’ve been devoted shoppers complaining about these things for years. There is more concern for the merchandise inside the stores than the safety of customers and their personal items outside the store,” said Minnie Elliott, president of the Brookland Manor Tenant Association, a nearby apartment complex.

Louie Andrakakos, property manager for the Carl M. Freeman Corp. based in Olney, Md. offered a new focus. “We are unaware of any thefts of vehicles and personal property at the Center. We currently have MPD presence at the center seven days a week to monitor the safety of customers. We will meet with MPD to discuss increased patrol at the center when we do not have an officer on site.”

One week after her loss, Anigbo’s van was found in Fairmont Heights, Md. With $500 and personal items stolen, and a car in need of repairs, Anigbo expressed her frustration. “Evidently, this has become an accepted nuisance by District officials and businesses in the shopping center but I’m not giving up until I’ve been compensated,” she said.

Researcher DeRutter Jones contributed material for this article.

Valencia Mohammed

Special to the AFRO