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Real-Life 'Thelma and Louise' Elude the Law : Texas: Flamboyant accused robbers and kidnapers Rose Turford and Joyce Stevens have been on the lam since May, capturing imaginations. They've been 'sighted' about as often as Elvis.

September 03, 1995|SUE ANNE PRESSLEY | WASHINGTON POST

HOUSTON — They've been posing as nuns in Toronto. They've been playing the casinos in Michigan. They've been performing as topless dancers.

Or maybe not.

Ever since they skipped bail and disappeared from Houston in late May, Rose Marie Turford and Joyce Carolyn Stevens have hit the celebrity-outlaw Big Time--eight minutes on "Unsolved Mysteries," a segment on "A Current Affair," and wanted posters from Corpus Christi to Calgary. A small army of bounty hunters is pursuing the duo, who face four counts of armed robbery and one of aggravated kidnaping.

They've been "sighted" in nightclubs, airports and furniture stores. They are blondes. They are redheads. They are bald. They've been seen so many times and in such glorious, dubious detail that they've become the Elvis of Texas, and beyond.

"I think those girls are in hog heaven every time they see their mug shots on TV," Nancy Smith said grimly. In her 21 years as a private investigator on the lookout for bond-jumpers, Smith has never been so stymied, she said, nor so fascinated by a case.

Her boss, bail bondsman Clement Romeo of Houston, is obsessed with "the girls," he concedes. They bug him. They fill his dreams. He is offering a $25,000 reward for their capture.

"The girls aren't criminals," he said of the pair, who skipped out on their bonds, a total of $500,000, leaving their elderly parents holding the bag. "They're just messed up."

Of course Turford, 37, and Stevens, 30, might not appreciate being referred to as "the girls," particularly in light of the nature of the crimes for which they are charged. Their version of their story involves everything from sophomoric games of "Hangman," to a Mafioso-style "puppet master" named "Avery" whom the women blame for their bad behavior and authorities doubt ever existed.

"I think they both were looking for a different lifestyle," said Houston police officer Alex Hardesty.

"I think they both had an attitude about men," Smith said.

What has catapulted the case beyond the ordinary--and earned the women the inevitable nicknames "Thelma and Louise," after the cinematic revenge-seekers--are the bizarre, seriocomic details. Turford and Stevens allegedly amused themselves as armed robbers by humiliating and fleecing male "dates." In some instances, the men stripped naked and were handcuffed and tied, without initially realizing the shenanigans were not part of the evening's festivities. They found out differently when one of the women threw them to the floor while the other aimed a 9mm handgun at their heads and demanded their credit cards.

Police think they may have been involved in as many as 10 such robberies in Houston, Galveston and Las Vegas, netting as much as $250,000. Using wigs and makeup, sometimes posing as police officers searching for missing women, they assembled "kits" for each crime, Hardesty said, and wrote "scenarios" planning each escapade. Police found evidence they had intended to kidnap and hold for ransom a half-dozen wealthy men in Canada, Turford's native country, and Texas, including a recent winner of the Texas Lotto.

"The robberies were well planned; they stood out from the pack," Hardesty said. "They had duct tape. They had handcuffs. They had a stun gun."

But, he added, "They never really hurt anybody."

The wanted posters don't do justice to Rose Turford, the bounty hunters and police officers agree. In the photo, she looks wan and bedraggled, not like "the knockout redhead" described by some alleged victims, not like the upper-middle-class mother of three who drove a spanking-new van and filled her comfortable Houston home with nice things.

It is Turford--the psychiatric registered nurse who earned $50,000 a year, the lifelong "good girl" who never gave anyone a bit of trouble--who most fascinates those associated with the case. Why she would join forces with Carolyn Stevens, a troubled woman who worked as a part-time aide at the same Houston psychiatric facility, is a matter of speculation. In the last two years, they had become the closest of friends.

But after Turford met Stevens, the elusive and evil "Avery" also entered her life. Stevens would come to her with tales of abuse and injury at the hands of "Avery," police said. Before long, "Avery"--always communicating through Stevens, never showing his face--began to threaten Turford, promising harm to her children if she also did not obey his commands.

"Rose was lonely," said bondsman Romeo, who has devoted about $100,000 and several investigators to tracking the women. Turford's husband, Brian, a computer executive who earns more than $100,000 a year, lived in Detroit during the workweek, investigators said, and visited the family in Houston on weekends. The marriage was unraveling. Brian Turford could not be reached for comment.

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