Residents, Business Community Shocked by Bethesda Row Murder, Assault
Two Lululemon employees assaulted — one fatally — inside the store Friday evening.
For the most part, life went on today as it would on any spring Saturday afternoon in Bethesda. Girl Scouts sold cookies outside the Barnes and Noble, bikers and walkers enjoyed the Capital Crescent Trail, and patrons formed a long line outside of Georgetown Cupcake.
It wasn’t the kind of scene where one would expect to see police cars, yellow crime scene tape and news vans. But inside high-end athletic retail store Lululemon Athletica, as shoppers strolled by with their purchases and dodged cars driving too fast down Bethesda Avenue, Montgomery County police were conducting a detailed homicide investigation after two female employees were assaulted Friday evening — one fatally — inside.
Around 2 p.m., when police briefed media near the store, police hadn’t yet removed the body of the female employee, 30, who was killed during the attack by two masked men.
The woman’s body was towards the back of the store, said police spokesman Capt. Paul Starks, and police were meticulously moving their way from front to back. “This is a one-shot chance; we have to collect evidence,” Starks said.
The attack, during which the surviving 27-year-old female victim was sexually assaulted, has left residents and the business community here saddened and shocked. News of the crime was circulating around the downtown area as the investigation prompted questions between strangers on the street.
Many expressed the same reaction to the homicide and assault — “This is an area I would never have expected this to happen. Period,” said Kristie Donohue, manager of J. McLaughlin, a boutique across the street from Lululemon. “I just think we’ve always felt so safe, it’s something we’ve taken for granted. Maybe this is an eye-opener that we have to be more aware.”
“You’d probably consider this to be the safest place in the Metro area,” said shopper Peter Berg, a Kensington resident who was visiting Bethesda Row Saturday. “You’re surprised if you see a police car here.”
Police said downtown Bethesda is a rare place for this type of crime to take place, with such heavy pedestrian and vehicle traffic. But it’s not the first time in recent months an employee has been assaulted. Recently, a Wisconsin Avenue Radio Shack was burglarized, and an employee there assaulted with brass knuckles, pepper spray and a crowbar. Police have since made arrests in that case.
For business owners, the Lululemon attack has brought safety concerns to the forefront.
“It’s devastating. It’s hard to believe,” said Gretchen Hitchner, the owner of Ginger, a clothing boutique nearby Lululemon. “Then again, it makes me think we’ve been a little bit naive about what could happen.”
Hitchner, a frequent customer of Lululemon, said she had shopped in the store Friday afternoon. “Everyone in Bethesda has shopped there, it’s such a popular store,” she said.
Located in a prime-traffic area at 4856 Bethesda Avenue, the store is among a chain that caters to yoga enthusiasts and runners and hosts in-store events and free yoga classes.
She noticed it was unusually slow for a Friday, as Ginger had been. “It was quiet in the store, and its never quiet,” Hitchner said. She recalled passing a line of customers waiting outside the nearby Apple store for the new iPad release to get to Lululemon. The iPad release was still drawing customers to the store Saturday, as the homicide investigation continued next door.
Hitchner said her boutique has a panic button and her employees always e-mail her when they close the shop. Friday evening, the female employees at Ginger closed the store as usual and headed to the parking garage, she said. They didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary.
Hitchner is now considering purchasing mobile panic buttons for her employees. Donohue said she is considering a course on safety for her female employees.
Hitchner said she’s friendly with the employees at Lululemon and would recognize them by face, though not by name. “I just keep seeing their faces in my head and thinking who it was,” Hitchner said.