SET IT OFF 2:

You go, white girls

ACT I: THE HOOD

The kids awoke excited that Friday, July 31—a big day. They'd get to dress up and take a bus trip with Mom. If they were good, maybe they'd get to rob a bank and ditch the cops.

Marcia, 15, was a runaway living at the 10-bedroom rental on East First Street in Aberdeen, where the heavy, baby-faced woman who rented the place had befriended her. Marcia called her Mom. The run-down home was a maze of old sofas, 14 beanbag chairs, two dozen assorted tables, a dozen beds and mattresses on the floor, with pillows, pictures, and knickknacks everywhere. At times, up to 10 homeless kids lived there. Many were like Marcia. Her family had moved from the Seattle area to a rural community along the south beaches of Grays Harbor County, and she never made the switch to small-town life. But she had learned how to escape it by drinking and using methamphetamine. She may have resorted to theft as well. Someone recently had stolen two guns from her mom and stepdad's place at the beach. The weapons would become a key to both the success and failure of her big adventure that Friday.

Patty, also 15, was also a runaway—from tiny Moclips, on the north beaches. The youngest of five kids, she sometimes stayed with other relatives in nearby Taholah, where fishing and poverty dominate—it was famous for a highway advisory sign that read, "Taholah, End of the Road"—and where she got busted for dope. She couldn't see much of a future from the vantage point of the Indian reservation, but in her wanderings into Hoquiam and Aberdeen she found a friend at the old house on East First. The woman there welcomed strays, many of whom she met at a teen dance club she operated briefly downtown. There was little for a teen to do around the economically and atmospherically overcast Harbor: Aberdeen, Hoquiam, and the mill town of Cosmopolis, a Bermuda Triangle for the wood-products industry. The empty storefronts, fallen brick buildings, and vacant streets of once vital towns were among the depressing inspirations that led the late rock star, Aberdeen-raised Kurt Cobain, to pen his most popular, and desperate, tunes before inviting suicide. But for the moment, Marcia and Patty were surviving, thanks to the woman they called Mom.

Tiffany, 14, called the woman Mom, too—for real. She was the woman's birth daughter. The two-story blue-and-white Victorian that had unofficially become a haven for Aberdeen's teen runaways was in fact Tiffany's new home. She and Mom moved in two months earlier. Like Patty and Marcia, she too was from a divorced family; her dad had split with her mom and now lived in California with her brother and her grandparents. But Tiffany wasn't without "relatives"—she had lots of other brothers and sisters, as Mom called them, wandering in off the street. Strangers moved in and out or just flopped overnight in one of the upstairs bedrooms. They lolled around on the old couches while Mom scared up a bite to eat in the funky kitchen. A few did drugs as they listened to music, or watched TV or a video—one in particular, a dubbed copy of a film called Set It Off. As in: Set the guns off.

The three toughened girls—one had shaved her head—watched the video endlessly. It stars Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett, Vivica Fox, and Kimberly Elise as members of a black, four-girl robbery team in Los Angeles. They're poor, smoke a little dope, work as janitors, and feel wronged by society and murderous LA cops. Rash and vengeful, they resort to armed robbery. "Ain't nobody gonna get hurt, that's why this is the perfect crime. . . . " says Frankie, Fox's character. "We just takin' away from the system, it's fucking us all anyway." As upbeat music roars, they take over banks, waving guns, counting down the seconds, stuffing cash in garbage bags, making a clean getaway, celebrating: "$12,000 in 60 seconds!"

It was exciting and fun. The destitute, angry, younger white girls on East First could have seen themselves in Takashi Bufford's story despite its ultimate cautionary message that crime is no solution. But maybe Mom got them past that bromide. The girls would later say that after some screenings, Mom would give them a quiz: What did Cleo do wrong there? She took her eyes off the customers! Missteps like that could spoil a good Friday field trip.

Also rising anxiously that morning was Amber Wood, 20, who had moved in a month earlier. Her parents owned the headstone engraving company just down the street, but they'd had a falling out with Amber after she tried to pass a check forged from their business. It wasn't her first: She was arrested five times in 1997 for bad checks, forgery, and theft. A chunky young woman—5-8, 180, about the size of, say, Queen Latifah—with tattoos on her back, ankles, and hands, Amber was on parole for the bad check but wasn't making progress. She'd just been fired from her fish-packing job in Westport, and her parole officer in Montesano was upset. He was planning to issue an arrest warrant in the next few days to send her back to jail.

Amber and the woman of the house both worked at the packing plant and both dreamed of a quick, big score, then a move to Mexico and the start-up of a business. The Harbor's timber- and fish-based economy, far from the burgeoning epicenter of Boeing, Microsoft, and Seattle, remained in its historic slump. Anyone hoping for a windfall would probably have to find it somewhere out of town.

In, say, Olympia.

That was indeed the plan of Virginia (Ginny) Marie Kay, 33, the kids would later insist. The woman of the house rose early that day from her waterbed—with a foam mattress—and began dressing. Round-faced, mouth turned down at the corners, brown hair to her shoulders, Virginia was born in Idaho—a Pocatello High grad—and came to Aberdeen by way of Tennessee, following a friend to the Harbor. They'd met in Tennessee just after Virginia's two young children were killed in a 1992 car wreck—Virginia saw the whole thing, following in the car behind. She moved in with the friend, Kay Gregory, after the accident, seeking comfort, and began calling Gregory her mom. Gregory thinks Ginny was therein inspired to become a mom to strangers, too. Virginia and her two other kids, son and daughter, initially moved into a home across the street from Gregory, then in June moved to the rental on East First. She worked as a secretary, but—after blowing money on the dance club—ended up nearly broke and getting busted for writing a bad check. She had no phone and lost the old Jeep she was buying. She hung on, doing what she thought she did best—being a mom. She had first given birth when she was a teenager 15 years earlier. Now, as she got dressed that Friday, slipping pants over the rose tattoo on her left hip, she had to wriggle a little. At 5-5, she had ballooned to a beefy 205 pounds. Aberdeen's mom was pregnant again, five months along.

The three kids and two adults dressed mostly alike—baggy hip-hop pants and sweatshirts. Into a duffel bag, the kids would say later, they stuffed stocking caps, red bandannas, some light clothing, garbage bags, and the two stolen guns—a .22 revolver and a .357 Magnum. They were edgy and wild-eyed—Marcia, she'd tell her real mother later, was still wired from the meth she'd taken earlier.

Within a few minutes, according to police, the group lined up with the duffel bag at a bus stop. Route 40, the Grays Harbor Transit milk run to Montesano, Elma, McCleary, and Olympia, would leave at 11:30am. With that, the daylong excursion to Anchor Savings Bank would begin.

Act II: Girlz 2 boyz

The older gentleman put away his checkbook and was about to push through the door when he saw the masked person step in front of him. "This is a holdup. Down! Everyone on the floor!" the robber yelled. Like the rest, the man paused. Is this a joke? He began to feel his way to the carpet. As both a bank robbery and a theatrical knock-off, it seemed to be following a script: Everyone standing in Anchor Savings Bank, 2610 Harrison Avenue on Olympia's Westside, at 2:21pm on Friday afternoon, July 31, 1998, was on the deck. Seven customers, six employees, face down. Just like in the movies.

A radio played softly in the small bank that, during slow hours, has just one active teller. Any commotion or shouting is startling in the tight quarters. The four robbers—three boys and a girl, one maybe 12 years old, customers thought—rushed in waving handguns and screaming, takeover style. They wore baggy pants. Two were in hooded sweatshirts, two in stocking caps and masked in red bandannas. Two dashed through a gateway and ran behind the counter, hitting the tills and cash racks next to desks. They grabbed packets of bills and placed them into garbage bags. The other two—a big one and a little one in a hooded shirt with a pubescent voice and the robotic moves of a grade schooler playing a movie robber—paced about with their guns. They moved back and forth from the lobby to the cash area, whirling and watching the room and looking out windows onto Harrison and the drive-up in the back. The big one, the leader, counted backwards in 10- and five-second intervals: "30! 20! 15! 10! 5! . . . go!" The robbers headed toward the door. "Thank you for your cooperation," the leader shouted to the prone robbery victims. The door swung open. They were in and out in under a minute. The take, they'd later tell a friend, was less than $1,000. Something like $900, in 53 seconds.

A witness watching from outside the bank noticed that the robbers never looked back, laughing and high-fiving as they disappeared behind the building. Police arrived quickly, then fanned out looking for a mostly male robbery gang in an unknown getaway car.

Actually, police would later say, they left on a bus—the way they arrived.

Act III: Da man

The local newspapers headlined the robbery the next day. It was the fifth heist ever at the Olympia branch of Anchor Savings—headquartered in Aberdeen—but certainly the first of its kind: Young boys! Kids! Total takeover, then disappearing into the afternoon. Noting the apparent sophistication of the robbers, a police spokesperson speculated to an Olympian reporter that it was the work of experienced thieves: "This is a big person crime; this is not a kid's crime." Police also discounted some early reports that there was a 12-year-old involved. The three boys and a girl were no younger than 14, they thought.

Two guns, recovered from a vacant lot nearby, were dispatched to the state crime lab, and were quickly found to have been stolen in Grays Harbor. Clothing found with them, meanwhile, went on TV—pictures of the discarded items were shown around Western Washington. Calls poured in. That sweatshirt? Bobcats? That's the Aberdeen High School mascot. The focus shifted west. The cops figured they'd better talk to that Grayland couple who had their guns stolen—the beach couple with the runaway daughter.

Within days, the case would begin to change dramatically, surprising the witnesses as well. The robbers, police announced, were all female, mostly teen runaways and school dropouts. Furthermore, they lived together or hung out at the same home, and were allegedly led by a woman who watched the robbery from outside the bank, apparently in the woods. She and another adult had been arrested, and police were hot on the kids' trails. Two other things, police said: The heist was inspired by a movie about a black girl gang hitting banks in the 'hood. And the robbers took a nearly 50-mile trip to get to the bank—on a public bus. After the robbery, they'd ditched their guns, strolled down a nearby lane and caught the return run.

A closer look at the evidence and a grainy bank security video also suggested it was not exactly a professional hit: The two money baggers stumbled about locating the cash and had trouble seeing, due to their pulled-down caps and droopy hooded shirts. They dropped bundles and had trouble stuffing money into their plastic bags, which were sticking together. They left behind their traceable weapons and telltale clothing. Around home, they bragged about the heist, before and after. And they took a bus? If they were inspired by a movie, it must have been a Woody Allen script. All that seemed missing was Allen's famously misspelled bank-robbery note from Take the Money and Run: "I have a gub."

On Friday August 7, at 1:30 in the afternoon, a group headed by Olympia police detectives who had quickly nailed the case waited outside the Westport fish-processing plant and arrested co-workers Amber Wood and Virginia Kay when they dropped by to pick up their final paychecks. (Virginia's came to $313, which would have been more than her alleged split from the robbery.) Within a week, they were charged with first-degree robbery. Three days after their arrests, three Aberdeen juvenile girls were arrested on the run in Solano County, Northern California, and held for robbery. They were Patty Rosander, Marcia Thomas, and Tiffany Sullivan, Virginia Kay's daughter.

Their arrests struck a chord in Olympia, at least, where some local teens told reporters it was an "awesome" heist and others referred to the gang in folk-heroic terms—Thelma and Louise, with children. There was a sudden demand for Set It Off at local video stores (the two-year-old movie still had a waiting list weeks later at Seattle and King County libraries), and a month later two masked teens would hold up a bank in Lakewood, near Tacoma. Police said the two appeared to be a boy and a girl.

Police say Wood and all three of "Virginia's girls" quickly confessed to being the nucleus of the daring robbery team, and that Kay was the "brains" of the heist. In Aberdeen, The World quoted former teen residents of the suspected ringleader's home as saying Kay was both a "Christian" and a tempest. "She always flipped out on us," one teen said. Another remembered that when collection agencies called—a frequent occurrence—"She made us lie for her. I think she was just using us."

Relatives of Patty and Marcia would echo that thought, claiming Kay held a spell over the girls and programmed them with the movie video. "Marcia said she felt like Virginia brainwashed her," her mother told The Olympian, "and if she did what she said, she'd get food and clothing." Marcia, Patty, and Tiffany had been arrested outside Vaca-ville, California, near the home of Tiffany's father and grandparents. Police said they bused to California just as they had bused to the bank job. (Grays Harbor Transit driver Mike Hads of Hoquiam would later tell reporters the group of females in the back of his usually quiet bus that day were boisterous and "making a ruckus," but something instinctive told him not to interfere.) In less than a week, the girls told police, they had spent their share of the loot, including $55 each on separate buses to get them to Sacramento, where they were met by Tiffany's unsuspecting father. They were at the home only a short while when Solano County deputies arrived, at the request of Olympia investigators. Tiffany "said her mom made her go in [the bank]," says the father, Mike Sullivan. The girls told him and the deputies that they were planning to meet up with Amber and Mom, and launch that business, in Mexico.

In jail, Amber quickly broke with Virginia, telling all, police say. As they stood in court a few days after their arrests, clad in irons and flowing orange jumpsuits, Virginia shot sharp glances at Amber after the prosecutor revealed that Amber was spilling the beans. Virginia pleaded not guilty and claimed to an Olympian reporter that she wasn't outside the bank that day, but camping at Lake Quinault on the Olympic Peninsula. Virginia's teen son, Bobby Sullivan, arriving from California where he now lives with his dad, wasn't buying any of it. His mother had a criminal record for forgery, theft, and bad checks. "Mom has done stupid stuff all her life," Bobby said, "and finally she's brought my sister down."

Act IV: Chillin'

As she had quietly agreed to do three weeks ago, a tearful Amber Wood last Tuesday pleaded guilty to robbery and was sentenced to four and a half years in the Women's Correctional Center in Purdy. "You deserve the maximum sentence because this crime is that serious," said Thurston County Judge Daniel Berschauer, "and your role in it was not just as an innocent bystander... you were a participant." Wood was the gang leader who waved a gun and counted down—ࠬa Queen Latifah's character—at Anchor Savings. Deputy Prosecutor Phil Harju indicates Wood has been cooperative and may testify against Virginia, but he recommended the higher end of the sentencing range because Wood was armed with a .357.

A hearing will be held next Monday to determine if the three teens will stand trial as adults; they could also testify against Virginia Kay, whose trial is set for October, and who faces more than three years in prison. Virginia's home was looted by vandals after her arrest was announced; her friend Kay Gregory was able to salvage enough for two garage sales that raised a few hundred dollars, which she doles out to Virginia in jail.

Convicted or not, Virginia has lost everything—including, likely, custody of her daughter. She is expected to give birth by the first of the year to a child she may also have to give up. Kay Gregory says the father is a former boyfriend who lives in Olympia. "I never thought of Ginny as calculating," says Gregory. "She was desperate. I think she saw this as the only way to keep her kids."

When police searched Virginia's home the night of her arrest, they found the much-played video of Set It Off. Authorities later screened it, seeking clues. They saw obvious similarities in the takeover style of the LA and Aberdeen gangs. They also noticed that the Hollywood movie's ending is significantly different from that of the Olympia robbery: In the film, three of the young female robbers are killed in bloody, defiant shoot-outs. Investigators wonder how that played in the minds of Virginia's girls. Maybe each thought she would be the movie's fourth robber—Pinkett's character, Stony, who escapes with the money. In the final scene, a teary-eyed but smiling Stony drives off toward the sunset. In Mexico.

 
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