Thelma, Louise and Sybil?

The saga of Joyce Carolyn Stevens and Rose Marie Turford seemed odd enough from the moment it began surfacing in May. Stevens, a 30-year-old onetime psychiatric technician and operator of a landscaping business, and Turford, a 36-year-old mother of three and wife of a computer-company executive, had been charged with running a scam in which the two women would contact men through a dating service, arrange to meet them in a hotel or at the men's homes, and then rob them once the meeting took place.

Police said the pair -- both middle class, both with no previous criminal record -- had ambushed at least ten men in Texas and relieved them of their valuables; they were also suspects in two similar thefts in Las Vegas. It appeared like a case of Thelma and Louise come to life, with Stevens, the stronger-willed of the pair, luring the bored Turford into a life of illegal excitement. Then the duo were arrested, released on bond -- and disappeared, apparently to Canada, in mid-May, leaving behind letters that indicated they had been kidnapped by a mysterious man named "Avery."

And now the case has taken yet another strange twist, with at least one of the investigators on Stevens and Turford's trail saying that the unknown "Avery" may be a distinct personality of Joyce Carolyn Stevens, and that Stevens' body may harbor yet another alternate personality, that of a wealthy woman named "Ann Kerrigan." And in another odd detail, a former nurse at Spring Shadows Glen -- home to the multiple personality disorders unit discussed in the Press' July 6 story "Devilish Diagnosis" -- says that Stevens, who was also employed at Spring Shadows, spent part of her time at the psychiatric hospital working with multiple personality disorder (MPD) patients. (Turford, a nurse, also worked at Spring Shadows Glen, where she met Stevens in 1992, though it's unclear whether she worked with MPD patients.)

Nancy Smith, an investigator with Lawyers Bail Service, interviewed Stevens and Turford shortly after they were arrested to help determine if they would be good bail risks; during her talk with the duo, Smith says, they both referred to a man named Avery who had forced them to commit their crimes by threatening them with torture and kidnapping if they failed to carry out his commands.

Smith says she came to suspect that Avery, whom Turford had never actually seen, was in fact Stevens, in part because the Stevens she had seen appeared incapable of carrying out the crimes she was charged with. Smith also came to believe that a woman named Ann Kerrigan, who Stevens said was Avery's wife, was also another aspect of Stevens. When checking out Kerrigan, Smith says, she found that Stevens had opened a checking account under that name and had also registered to do business as Ann Kerrigan and Associates.

Of course, this could all reflect a woman consciously creating confusion in her wake. But Earl McCauley, a Houston engineering assistant who has known Stevens for five years, says Stevens is no criminal mastermind. Either someone is coercing her, he insists, or "another personality took over." In 1992, McCauley says, he noticed a distinct change in Stevens. She disappeared for several months, and when she surfaced she told McCauley she had been hired to investigate satanic cults. "She went from being laid back, easygoing, to being withdrawn, nervous and paranoid," McCauley says. "She said she discovered that the people doing the investigations were as bad as the people in the cults."

The friend who worked at Spring Shadows Glen with Stevens, and describes her as being very familiar with the MPD unit and the behavior of MPD patients, also insists that the Stevens she knew was incapable of being a brazen robber. "No way Carolyn could do this," the friend says. "She's a mouse."

If so, she's a mouse who appears to have roared in a most peculiar way. According to investigators, Stevens and Turford have led double lives that involved increasingly wacky and weird scenarios almost since they met.

For example, in 1993, says investigator Smith, Stevens told Turford that a wealthy benefactor had picked the Turford home for some free landscaping. Stevens also apparently told Turford that the patron wanted to remain anonymous. Stevens, who has worked as a landscaper, performed the actual labor.

Smith says that Stevens told her that the "anonymous benefactor" was Ann Kerrigan and that she was married to Avery, who was supposed to be the powerful head of an international private investigations firm.

About a year ago, Stevens moved in with Turford and her family and began to engage the Harris County homemaker in elaborate games that involved, among other things, scrubbing temporary tattoos from Stevens' body. According to Smith, Turford was given a certain time frame in which to remove the tattoos from her friend's body or Avery would punish Stevens.

Sometimes, Smith says she was told, Turford would find Stevens chained and handcuffed to a bed in a hotel room. Turford would have to solve puzzles to find the keys to the cuffs and free her. Such games and riddles ultimately escalated, police now claim, into robbery. According to Smith, Turford said that when she indicated that she wanted out of her life of crime, she was told that Avery had threatened to kidnap her children unless she continued to do his will.

When the two women vanished soon after Mother's Day, a note was found saying that Avery had kidnapped them. Police recovered a number of letters, the majority of which, says Smith, were from Avery to Turford, telling her what her next assignments and jobs were. Whether Avery exists, is a manifestation of a MPD disorder on Stevens' part, or was simply dreamed up by Stevens, Turford, says Smith, was the unknowing pawn. "[Turford] is the puppet," Smith claims.

Still, Smith is, admittedly, not a psychotherapist, and neither is Stevens' friend Earl McCauley, and for them to talk of distinct "personalities" may not be the same as a psychiatrist doing the same thing. Meanwhile police haven't evidenced much interest in psychobabble, or the curious connection between Stevens and the MPD unit at Spring Shadows Glen. To them Stevens and Turford are just another pair of common crooks. But according to investigator Nancy Smith, "I've been doing this since '71, and really, I've never come across anything this crazy.

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Bonnie Gangelhoff