FORT WORTH, TEXAS — It was a crime spree of historic proportions. For 30 days, a brazen gang of hoodlums in a blue Oldsmobile prowled the streets of Fort Worth, mugging people at gunpoint. Before their arrest last week, they'd committed as many as 70 robberies.
But this case is remarkable in another way. Witnesses described the gang's ringleader, the one who kept a silver handgun tucked in a pair of baggy sweat pants, as a slender 19-year-old with gold earrings and a "pouffy" hairdo.
The bad guy, it turns out, was a girl.
To police here and in many large cities, it's not much of a surprise. According to the FBI, the number of adult females arrested for forcible crimes has increased by more than 28 percent since 1991. Although women still account for only 15 percent of all violent-offense arrests, the number of men detained for similar crimes fell slightly over the same period.
"We're definitely seeing a change in criminal behavior," says Freda Adler, a criminologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
"As women become more involved in the legitimate world, they become involved in the illegitimate world as well," she says.
According to Professor Adler, female criminality has been increasing since the 1960s and has ballooned in the last decade with the onset of the cocaine epidemic.
These days, she says, at least 10 percent of gang members are women, many of whom belong to independent female gangs with their own initiation rites, identifying colors, robbery rings, and drug networks. As this illicit world grows more lethal, she says, so do the women who participate.
"In the early days of my research, most women in county jails were serving time for prostitution or shoplifting," Adler says. "When I go there now, the majority of women are in for drug offenses, and that business gets pretty violent."
In many ways, the Fort Worth case reflects these trends. The female suspect, police note, has tattoos that link her to a prominent street gang here that was implicated earlier this year in a string of driveway robberies. The gang has also been known to dabble in drugs.
There are many theories for the apparent surge in female crime. After conducting 500 interviews with female offenders in New York, Deborah Baskin, chairman of the criminal justice department at California State University at Los Angeles, says that female criminals are turning to crime for many of the same reasons that men do.
Chief among them, Professor Baskin says, is a natural adolescent tendency to seek excitement and adventure.
With a lack of positive role models, a dearth of jobs, and a decline in adult supervision in poor communities, she says, women have been left with few options more attractive than the flashy criminal lifestyles of their boyfriends: a world where status is conveyed by jeeps, cellular phones, gold jewelry, and more often than not, violence.
According to the FBI, the number of juvenile girls arrested for violent crimes has risen 34 percent in the last five years.
"A lot of these girls come from families that have never before experienced such distress," Baskin says.
"There's a tremendous amount of physical and sexual abuse going on at home, and on the street, they're constantly confronted with violence against family members, neighbors, and themselves. This exposure to negative things is a great pull to antisocial behavior."
Yet not all criminologists agree that female criminals are following male patterns. Meda Chesney-Lind, a women's studies professor at the University of Hawaii who has written a book on female offenders, argues that the FBI statistics are misleading.
The apparent increases, she says, are partly due to the fact that law-enforcement authorities are paying more attention to female crime, and more of these offenses are being reported.
In addition, she notes, the murder rate for women has actually declined slightly over the last decade.
Moreover, some analysts say that women's motivations for committing crimes are different from men's.
Natalie Sokoloff, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, argues that women often commit crimes for economic reasons - often to support children.
Indeed, one of the crimes Fort Worth police are attempting to tie to the robbery suspects is the shoplifting of $800 worth of infant feeding formula from a local supermarket.
To police in Fort Worth, however, arguments about the differences between male and female criminals, and strategies for rehabilitating them, are increasingly irrelevant. On the streets, they say, it makes little difference to them if the person waving a gun is a man or a woman.
"There wasn't anything about these crimes that was any different from what a man would do," says Sgt. Freddy Garcia, the Fort Worth police officer who apprehended the robbery suspects last week.
"This woman pretty much stuck a gun in her victims' faces and said, 'Give me money,' " Sergeant Garcia recounts.
"Most people didn't argue with her. They could see in her eyes that she meant business."