Nice Girls With Guns

Every inch of Kingwood -- the bedroom community that used to be 25 miles north of Houston before Houston reached up and swallowed it whole -- has been as carefully planned as if it were a city on the moon. Its 15,000 wooded acres have been carved into cunning little culs-de-sac. Its 21 "villages" are organized by price range. Along the main boulevard, the strip malls are shielded from view by discreet strips of trees. Old-fashioned street lamps dot "Main Street" in "Town Center," so named even though Kingwood is not now and has never been a town. A paved greenbelt, maps of which are available only to Kingwood residents, threads its shady way between backyards, connecting every park and school. There are churches and soccer fields, two Starbucks and one Steinmart. There is CiCi's, Domino's, Little Caesar's, Papa John's and Pizza Hut. The wide selection of pizza chains is Reason 45 of "59 Reasons Why It's Time to Move Up to Kingwood," a pamphlet distributed by the Kingwood Home Finding Center. The Starbucks are Reasons 13 and 14. The old-fashioned street lamps are Reason 43.

Kids say growing up in Kingwood is like growing up in a bubble, an emerald-green suburban bubble to whose perimeter sticks a residue of brownish urban scum: convenience stores, auto repair shops and the two bars that serve Kingwood's 58,000 residents, whose average income is $78,000 a year. To the north is Kingwood's country cousin, Porter, where no shoes, no shirt doesn't mean no service. To the south, along the back fences of the Kingwood Country Club, runs the long, nearly barren stretch of Hamblen Road, where kids go to have their keggers down by the river. In the story of Kingwood teenagers Katie Dunn, Krystal Maddox, Michelle Morneau and Lisa Warzeka, this perimeter -- where the bubble ends and an oil-stained world blessed with neither landscaping nor a master plan begins -- is where the action takes place.

On July 1, at about ten minutes to ten, Ruby Murphy was going into the Forest Cove Stop-n-Drive on Hamblen Road for her customary nighttime soda when she heard teenage voices bickering in the parking lot. It sounded, she says, like one trying to boss the others. Ruby and Cindy Woodard, the store clerk, were accustomed to each other, and when Ruby entered the store, Cindy turned off the outside lights, took the day's receipts out from under the cash drawer and started to count. That's when two people burst into the store and started yelling. One of them (according to the girls' confessions, police say, it was Lisa), pointed a pistol in Cindy's face, handed her a bag and made a harshly worded demand for money. The other (police say it was Katie) held the door open. According to Ruby and Cindy, she too had a gun.

As Cindy fumbled with the cash register, Katie spotted Ruby at the back of the store and warned her not to move.

Ruby felt like she was watching Crime Stoppers on television. Because the intruders were hooded, masked and gloved -- "You couldn't see one spot of skin" -- she knew they weren't planning to shoot anyone. So instead of not moving, she calmly picked up her fountain Pepsi. She could tell that the masked figure at the door, at least, was female. "They gave me the idea that they were new to this," she says.

Meanwhile Cindy, rattled by the gun aimed squarely, if a little tremulously, at her face, suffered a sudden case of butterfingers. "You have two seconds or I'll shoot, bitch!" the robber said, in a voice whose Hollywood-holdup toughness seemed to Ruby's ears rather strained.

"I couldn't do anything right to please the one in front of me," Cindy says. "The more I did, the more she threatened to shoot me. The more she threatened to shoot me, the more I messed up." After missing a couple of times, Cindy finally got the money in the bag. Then she began handing over cartons of cigarettes, but she picked the wrong kind. "Marlboros, bitch!" the triggerwoman screamed. "Marlboros!"

As the two girls, who had both just turned 17, ran out of the store, they dropped a carton of Marlboros at the door. Another carton skittered to the parking-lot asphalt as they hopped into their car, where police believe the other two girls were waiting, and sped off into the night with about $800, the largest take of the five robberies.

What struck Houston Police Detective Billy Stephens as most unique about the five holdups was not that the alleged perpetrators were female. Women rob stores all the time. It was not even so much the middle- to upper-middle-class backgrounds of the girls, the fact that they are thought to have used a 1999 gold metal-flake Pontiac Firebird as their getaway car, or that one was a varsity athlete and one a drill team member at preppy Kingwood High.

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Shaila Dewan