- The Washington Times - Friday, September 12, 2003

A car is not worth a life. Yet Ernest Sockwell, 15, of Southeast was killed and an unidentified 23-year-old man was wounded. A Laurel man told police he shot them when he suspected them of trying to steal his sport utility vehicle.

Glen R. Ellis, 37, said he has an alarm system that alerts him when his 1999 blue Chevrolet Tahoe is being tampered with, which is what happened about 2:30 a.m. Wednesday. So he grabbed a loaded 9 mm handgun and headed to the parking lot to confront the potential perpetrators.

Ellis, who it turns out has hurt people and attempted to take things that don’t belong to him, too, told The Washington Post that he’d “had enough.”

Like his neighbors, the tow truck driver with the D.C. Department of Public Works — which can whisk a car away fast enough to give you whiplash — said he’d been the victim of auto thefts and break-ins at the Fox Rest apartments in recent months.

“Things just went a little crazy,” a tearful Ellis was quoted as saying about why he opened fire on three unarmed boys and a man. Before you rush to rally to defend Ellis, a convicted felon who was in unlawful possession of a handgun, stay tuned.

Based on preliminary reports, Ellis did not make a single call to 911 before or after the shooting, a law-enforcement official noted yesterday. Yes, these young thieves should have been home in bed in the early morning hours of a school night. Yes, these young thieves were wrong, and they should be charged if the evidence shows they were indeed trying to steal the SUV.

But no one deserved to die.

Pending an investigation, Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Glenn F. Ivey must decide fairly soon whether to prosecute Ellis. Surely, the prosecutor should be painstakingly cautious, but drawing this case out too long may give others the wrongheaded idea that it’s OK to transform Prince George’s into Vigilanteville.

Mr. Ivey said he understands how people feel about having their cars stolen. His van was stolen last year. But using deadly force is inappropriate. Actually, it’s illegal to use deadly force in the protection of property. Fear of bodily harm and acting in self-defense can be ruled justified. A screwdriver was found near where the SUV was parked, but Ellis’ gun was the only one recovered at the crime scene.

“It doesn’t appear that the gun was his,” Mr. Ivey said.

What? Ellis initially said he had a permit for the handgun he carried with him to the curb. How was a convicted felon able to get a gun? The gun was registered, but to the woman Ellis lives with, Mr. Ivey said.

If nothing else, there is at least one charge that should be brought here because a convicted felon is not allowed to possess a handgun in Maryland.

As part of the overall investigation, Mr. Ivey said his office will be looking at the background and credibility of those involved.

Law-enforcement authorities confirm Ellis was convicted of assault in 1985 resulting from the stabbing of his girlfriend and her mother. Unbelievably, his five-year sentence was reduced to 90 days. While he was on probation, Ellis was convicted of armed robbery of a Hechinger store in 1987.

No matter how you cut it, Ellis’ action sets a bad precedent. “Everybody buying a gun doesn’t make the problem go away,” Mr. Ivey said. “We don’t want people taking the law into their own hands.”

First off, call 911 when you witness a crime being committed. Police officials say alarms and devices are helpful, but people should call the police before putting themselves in harm’s way. The police and politicians must also provide adequate response and sanction.

With county police Chief Melvin High, Mr. Ivey’s office has been holding public awareness events about antitheft devices in light of the high number of car thefts. The county has the highest rate of car thefts in the state and in the region.

In the District last month, officials faced with a six-year high in the rate of car thefts sponsored an “Auto Theft Device Day” at the Boys and Girls Club in Northeast where they gave away 500 Masterlock antitheft devices provided by the Baltimore-based American Skyline Insurance Co.

In addition, Officer Brad Wagner has created a program called “The Joy Ride is Over” to teach young people about the consequences of stealing cars.

Meanwhile, Ellis said he feels bad and his “biggest regret is for the families of the two kids” because “I have a 16-year-old. I’m crushed about this.”

Too late.

Like Ellis, Mr. Ivey and others, I’ve experienced anger after having a car stolen and a car broken into. Once, a couple of teens stole my worthless old clunker from the parking lot and drove it until they ran out of gas.

I have also been the victim of an insidious swindle that I was unable to prove, so I know the peculiar, painful and intolerable sense of violation without vindication. You feel as though you’ve lost something far greater than property you will never get back. I’m speaking of a more valuable sense of self or safety or justice.

Yes, you do feel like you could do bodily harm to the vermin that victimizes you.

But it’s not worth a life, not theirs, not yours.

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