When Hooligans Are The Neighborhood Landmarks At First, They Just Cruised. Then The Harassment And Violence Began. Now Their Victims Are Fighting Back.

Posted: October 24, 1993

Whump! The car window made hardly any noise at all when the brick shattered it. Residents of Bensalem's Banbridge Court slept.

All but Joe Chesia. The Bucks County man awoke with a start before daylight last Tuesday. He bounded out of bed in time to see a yellow flower of flame bloom in his neighbors' 1993 Geo Prizm. It spread across the seats and onto the dash.

Chesia sprinted downstairs to warn Keith and Caroline Williams that their car might explode.

Pop! A car window exploded in the heat. Lights flicked on in bedrooms up and down the court. Pop! Another window.

Chesia had dialed 911 by that time. He had waked Keith Williams, who ran outside and backed his second car out of the driveway before it, too, caught on fire. But there wasn't much to do for the teal Geo, which was burning like a dry log by then. Plastic bubbled, paint peeled and the cloth interior smoldered. Smoke washed across the court in an acrid, gray wave.

A few neighbors stepped outside to watch the destruction as police and fire officials arrived. They stood in the glow of red and blue emergency lights, the colors of trouble, and shivered in the cool, pre-dawn darkness. They exchanged worried glances.

Something had gone very wrong at Banbridge Court. Very wrong indeed.

*

Police and residents in and around Banbridge Court have had enough - enough of roving gangs of teenagers and young adults who drink, curse, play loud music and race along narrow suburban streets, enough of vandals who break

windows and urinate on shrubbery.

Enough of people who torch cars and threaten lives.

Last week they agreed: It's time to fight back. Especially now, before Mischief Night on Halloween Eve invites more mayhem to a community that has had its share.

Fighting back is not what Keith and Caroline Williams expected when they moved to Banbridge Court in August 1992. They liked the townhome and their neighbors in The Clusters, a collection of brick-and-wood, two-story condominiums not far from Route 13. Life would be good.

"This was our first home," Williams said Wednesday, less than two days after he awoke at 5 a.m. to discover his car on fire. He pointed at the Geo, a sorry-looking, sorry-smelling shell that once carried Williams to his delicatessen in Center City. "We probably should have come out here and spent an entire night before we bought here."

If they had, the Williamses might have heard engines racing and seen shadowy figures in the woods, their cigarettes winking in the dark. The two might have reconsidered.

The packs had been coming to the neighborhood for about four years, neighbors told the newcomers. It had been a trickle of strangers at first - an occasional car that no one recognized, with nameless faces peering out.

"It was more a nuisance than anything," recalled Terry Sanson, a neighbor.

But an occasional carload of strangers soon turned into throngs of people - as many as 80 on one summer evening last year. A small trash problem grew.

Residents asked them to leave, and some did. "Others were rude, arrogant, you name it," Sanson said. Residents called the police.

But the police could only do so much. Banbridge Court is a public street, and officers couldn't block it. Nor would a curfew work: They are constitutionally questionable, said Frank Friel, Bensalem's public safety director.

Still, police did what they could, issuing citations for lapsed auto inspections or illegal parking. Officers cited teenagers caught drinking underage. Most of the time, they just cruised by.

It was like a shark entering a school of smaller fish. "At the sight of a police car, most of them would run away through the woods," Friel said.

The summer of 1992 was the worst.

Someone set off M-80 fireworks in the parking lot. Each packs the wallop of a quarter-stick of dynamite, and "they almost blew up a car," Sanson recalled. Vandals lit a paper sack filled with dog excrement, smearing the feces on a car. One young stranger threatened a Korean woman; a black family also reported getting threats.

And always, there was the traffic - cars and trucks and motorcycles, engines rumbling, tires screeching.

Police were hardly surprised this spring when they surveyed the community about crime concerns, said Sgt. Steve Moran.

"They wanted more lights, less traffic," he said. "They wanted something done."

The township put up street lights. "They were torn down the same day," Sanson said. Bensalem officials put up more. They, too, were damaged. Police stepped up patrols, and the township cleared away bramble in the cul-de-sac where unwanted visitors had hidden from police. The measures seemed to work, and Banbridge Court was quiet again.

Then, this summer, strange vehicles started showing up again. One evening, the Williamses came to a simple conclusion. "We weren't going to put up with this anymore," said Caroline Williams.

They helped organize a meeting last month to form the Banbridge Court Civic Association, the first step to take back their neighborhood.

"The Williamses were the first to say, 'This is our neighborhood,' " Sanson said. "And they paid for it."

The first payment was collected a week ago, when someone with a pellet gun shot out the Williams home's sliding glass door. The car fire followed two days later, an incident police consider retaliation against the couple.

"That scared all of us," said Maria Sanson, Terence's wife. "We were all stunned."

So were the police, who view the burning as a personal and professional affront. The day after the car's destruction, the first shift began in what officers say will be a round-the-clock watch until the problems subside. There have been no arrests for the vandalism.

"Officers viewed that (burning) as an attack on themselves," Friel said. ''No police officer is going to stand for that."

Nor are residents of Banbridge Court. Forty of them squeezed into the Williamses' living room last Wednesday to establish a town watch program, an initiative in which residents patrol their community streets and report suspicious activity to police. They are meeting this Wednesday with representatives from other Bensalem communities that have established watch programs.

The Williamses? They're on guard.

"These people threatened to destroy my property, they threatened to burn us out, they threatened to kill us," Williams said. He paused, looking again at the Geo, a reminder that terrorism can come knocking in the suburbs.

"You know what? They've done two out of three."

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