By Richard Jerome
September 13, 1999 12:00 PM

The convenience store surveillance video is brutally stark, a moment of terror captured in grainy black-and-white. “This is a holdup!” screams the masked figure, pointing a rifle at the head of a petrified cashier. “Give me your f—king money.”

Over a five-week period, from late May to July, variations on this scenario unfolded at a total of four groceries and a bakery in or near Kingwood, a bucolic planned community just north of Houston. Investigators

realized early on that it was no ordinary crime spree. For one thing, the robberies had an almost scripted staginess; real-life bandits rarely declaim, “This is a holdup!”—they just demand the money. What’s more, the suspects were distinctively slight, with high-pitched voices. After anonymous tips, Houston undercover investigators W.C. Pudifin and D.W. Smith found themselves tailing the unlikeliest of stickup gangs: four bright, middle-class teenage girls, schoolmates at Kingwood High. “We kept saying, ‘I can’t believe this,’ ” recalls Smith, a 17-year veteran of the force. “It was like a movie.”

Felicity, meet Quentin Tarantino. By Aug. 6, all four girls were in custody, and police say three have confessed to the robberies: the trigger-woman on the video, Malissa “Lisa” Warzeka, 17, a popular volleyball star who was hoping for a college athletic scholarship; Katie Dunn, 17, a member of the school drill team—who reportedly missed one robbery because she was grounded; and the artistically talented Michelle Morneau, 18, who graduated in May. The one who didn’t talk was Krystal Maddox, 16. Though the youngest, Maddox was allegedly the ringleader, and police say her champagne-colored 1999 Firebird served as the getaway car in some robberies. Authorities are reportedly also seeking a male accomplice. “Their motive was money,” says Houston police investigator B. J. Stephens, who has worked on the case. “They ran out of money, and drugs played a part.” The girls’ attorneys have reserved comment, though without delving into specifics, Robert Scardino, Maddox’s lawyer, suggests certain “evidentiary problems” surrounding his client’s arrest. “We live in America,” he says, “and I am going to make sure the rules are followed in this case.”

The other three teenagers’ statements, say investigators, were dispassionate. “No remorse,” reports Stephens. “Other than Katie—she showed a little.” The girls also seemed largely oblivious to the consequences—several counts of aggravated armed robbery, each carrying a 5-to 99-year prison sentence, at least half of which must be served, according to state law, if weapons are involved. “It was, ‘Okay, when can we get this wrapped up, because I have school starting in a few days,’ ” says Pudifin. Only Warzeka eventually appeared to grasp her predicament. ” ‘My life is over,’ ” he recalls her sobbing. ” ‘I’ve lost my scholarship. I wanted to be a lawyer; you can’t be a lawyer with a felony.’ ” Warzeka told police the foul language caught by the store camera was intended to make the clerks “give me more money.” As for the gang’s M.O., she said, “Oh, we got it off TV.”

All the girls but Warzeka are children of divorced parents, and police say none seemed unduly concerned about how their crimes might be received at home. “There was nothing here like, ‘Mom’s gonna kill me,’ ” says Smith. For the record, most of their parents appear more sad than angry. “This is a little girl who has had her first brush with the law,” says Thomas Morneau, 53, a corporate attorney, of Michelle, his younger child, who lives with her mother, Judith, 52, a former special-education teacher. Fixing the family Ford in the driveway of the modest home he shares with his Thai-born wife, Chalerm, 52, and their two daughters, airport worker Rand Warzeka, 55, calls Lisa “an ail-American girl” who fell in with the wrong crowd. Oil company financial officer Kenneth Maddox, 52, insists his daughter, who lives with her mother, Shelley, 40, a dog-kennel owner, and her older brother, “never exhibited anything other than being a normal 16-year-old.” But, he concedes, “you’re never as close to your child as you want to be.”

News of the arrests stunned Kingwood, a placid community of 57,000 residents scattered across 14,000 heavily wooded acres. “Everyone is appalled,” says school district spokeswoman Karen Collier. “We see it as some kind of anomaly.” Indeed, the very notion of armed robbery seems alien to this suburban Utopia—originally developed in the early ’70s to house the families of Exxon executives—where the priciest homes cost $1 million. But, like most idyllic suburbs, the community isn’t all it appears.

“Kingwood, everybody thinks, is a perfect little bubble,” says Nikki Carlson, a high school junior. “But it’s not.” Adds a classmate: “The parents here are so naive.” Typically, Saturday nights find scores of high schoolers gathered in a shopping center parking lot, blaring their car radios and flirting, some of them drinking and buying drugs. Police say the alleged robbers, none of whom is known to have a serious boyfriend, were immersed in this subculture. “The girls slept until 2 or 3 p.m.,” says Smith. “Around 6 or 7 they’d hit the streets and would ride and party until 1 or 2 a.m.” They often bought marijuana and cocaine, police say, and sometimes didn’t come home. Still, says Kingwood junior Kristen Degraff, “I knew they partied, but I didn’t think they’d rob a store.”

Why they went to such extremes and what brought them together in the first place remain, for the moment, elusive. Inclined toward theater and dance, Dunn shares a rented apartment with her mother, Virginia, 44, a nurse, and brother Matt, 19, who plans to enter the local community college. Despite the family’s relatively modest circumstances, her mother scraped together $2,000 to pay Katie’s expenses on the Fillies, Kingwood High’s white-gloved drill team. Evidently, Dunn has been excessively conscious of her weight. “We saw Katie at the mall, and I said, ‘My God, but you’re skinny,’ ” a friend recalls. “She said she had been on a diet and sniffed her nose like [she was doing] cocaine. She said, ‘I know it’s not the right way to go, but I’ll quit when I lose about 10 pounds.’ ” Observes a classmate who wished to remain anonymous: “Katie was a party girl. She’d talk back to the teacher, and she was constantly hanging on all the guys. Katie did things to fit in. Her thing was, like, ‘You’re smoking. Look at me, I’m smoking too. I’m cool’ ”

Dunn was especially close with Warzeka, an outgoing athlete with a promising future—a “yes ma’am, no ma’am kid,” her volleyball coach Krista Malmstrom told the Houston Chronicle. “Lisa was the one you were most shocked about,” says one classmate. Adds another: “She had so much going for her. I don’t think anybody disliked her—she was a totally nice person.”

Yet it was Warzeka who apparently first suggested a holdup. “We were sitting around having a cheeseburger at the Sonic [Drive-In], and I didn’t have any money,” she told police. “So I just came up with this bright idea: ‘Let’s go rob a store.’ ”

That, police say, was when Krystal Maddox took over and ran with the plan. Outwardly the most over-the-top of the quartet, she was reportedly a straight arrow until she hit Kingwood High. “In middle school, Krystal was on the student council, track and cheerleading,” says Lacey Gunter, 16, a cheerleader and track-team member. But by ninth grade, Gunter reports, Krystal, the most affluent of the four, tried making friends with even wealthier kids. When she was snubbed, says a classmate, she did “a 360.” Gunter says Maddox began “hanging out with weird people, wearing tons of makeup and low-cut shirts,” and also had a friend pierce her tongue. “She was nothing but loudmouth trouble,” says another student. “I think she was eager for attention. She’d say things like, ‘I’m going to throw up now, because I’m bulimic’ She’d tell people she worshipped the devil.”

Several classmates attest that Krystal was an enthusiastic cocaine user. “I saw her at a party at the beginning of the summer,” says one. “We were sitting around drinking, and she started doing a couple of lines of coke.”

It’s not clear where Morneau fit into the gang’s dynamic. Of the four, she remains something of an enigma—even gossipy peers seem to know little about her. Perhaps it was just a mere coincidence that the first robbery took place on May 30, two days after Morneau graduated from Kingwood High. Police maintain that the armed girls held up a country store in Montgomery County, north of Kingwood, and drove away with a small amount of money. At 9:50 p.m. on July 1 they allegedly robbed a Stop n’ Drive, inside the Houston city limits, netting their biggest haul, $800. “I thought they were boys going through a voice change,” clerk Cindy Woodard told the Kingwood Observer & Sun, recalling how the triggerwoman’s hands shook as the robber shouted, “You have two seconds, bitch, or I’m going to shoot!”

According to investigators, the girls struck the Porter Food Store north of Kingwood on July 4, and at 6:10 the next morning they allegedly took $45 from a small bakery next to Jack’s Grocery. Five days later, in a final robbery, with Dunn grounded at home, police say the girls held up Jack’s itself, terrifying the store’s Vietnamese co-owner Chi Barker, a close friend of Warzeka’s mother, who still has nightmares about the incident. “My wife went through the war in Vietnam,” says her husband, Rick, a retired overseas construction worker. “This brought it all back for her.”

Police are protecting the identity of the tipsters who helped break the case. But their initial skepticism concerning the girls’ possible involvement waned after they followed Morneau to Ninfa’s, a popular Mexican restaurant in Kingwood. Overhearing her sexually graphic conversation, says Pudifin, “you could tell she was just a little gangster.”

On Aug. 3, Warzeka was arrested for hitting her sister Jessica, 16, in a dispute over using the phone (she now faces a misdemeanor assault charge). By then the police had received reports that the girls were bragging about their holdups at parties and were close to pulling off a sixth heist. Concerned over potential gunplay, the cops decided to make their move. On Aug. 5 they brought in Dunn, whose statement was followed shortly by the arrests of the others. The three girls who investigators say confessed “told who did what,” says detective Stephens. “It wasn’t something we had to pry out of them.”

On Aug. 8, Morneau was released on $20,000 bond—$10,000 less than the other girls because she usually stayed in the car during the crimes and never carried a gun. Maddox remains in the custody of authorities at the Harris County Juvenile Detention Center, though at a Sept. 8 hearing prosecutors hope to have her reclassified an adult. (The other two girls are in Harris County Jail and all are scheduled to be arraigned this month.) Police are anticipating pleas for leniency on behalf of all four of them. But detectives Pudifin and Smith, at least, are not sympathetic and do not want to see the girls receive preferential treatment. “It was juvenile, and it was stupid,” Smith says of the alleged robbery spree, adding, “I can’t believe someone didn’t get killed.”

Richard Jerome

Hilary Hilton, Ellise Pierce and Michelle McCalope in Kingwood