Schwab, suspect in crime spree, was on downward spiral, family and friends say

December 5, 2011

Stephanie L. Schwab was deep in debt, addicted to drugs and living out of hotel rooms when she sat with her cousin in the parking lot of the Prince William County hospital last month.

As bad as things were, Schwab told him, she was upbeat as he headed in for treatment for depression related to drug withdrawal. She told him that they’d both beat drug habits and start fresh.

“We cried on each other’s shoulders,” Jason Schwab said. “She started making promises about when I got out of the hospital we were going to get clean and make a better life.”

She drove off in his pickup truck, he said, and he hasn’t seen his cousin since. Three days later, police said, she launched a 13-day crime spree that sparked a manhunt for the 26-year-old mother of three, who came to be known as the “Blonde Bandit.”

Schwab, a former gang member turned government witness, carjacked one woman at knife point at a Fairfax County mall and another outside a Baltimore County grocery store, authorities said. She’s accused of robbing two banks, trying to rob a third and stealing a van. And police said she’s a suspect in the theft of Jason Schwab’s pickup.

When she was arrested last week after she crashed her car, she was relieved she’d gotten caught, her attorney said Monday after a brief court hearing.

“When your life is falling apart around you, it’s nice to know the situation is over,” said the lawyer, Alfred Robertson Jr.

Schwab’s family and friends, who for days watched bank surveillance images of the young woman flash on the television news, are trying to come to terms with what may have led to the spiral. Schwab, who joined the violent MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, street gang as a young girl, had years ago broken from the gang to testify in a murder case. She told people that she entered a federal witness protection program and moved to New York City. Relatives said that at one point she had a job and an apartment and was doing well.

But in recent months, family said, her drug problem again overtook her, and she was back on the streets of Manassas, staying with relatives or at motels. As the police announced she was a suspect in one crime after another, they feared someone would get hurt.

“I guess she figured once she got past the first bank robbery, it was all or nothing. That’s why she kept on running,” Jason Schwab said. “I’m her cousin, and I love her, but I was expecting her to go out in a blaze of gunfire.”

Schwab, with her round face, long blond hair and shy yet engaging demeanor, grew up in a middle class neighborhood in Manassas, where the largely Latino MS-13 gang has a presence. She ran away from home at 12, became an associate of the gang at 13 and had her first child by 15 with an MS-13 member, Schwab testified at the 2005 murder trial.

“I looked to them because I cared about them, because they were the only people I had,” Schwab testified. “They were always there for me.”

Arlington County police Sgt. Rick Rodriguez, who worked on the murder case, said that although it was unusual at the time for a white girl to be associated with MS-13, members saw a benefit in girls who might have money or would beg to support the gang. “She was being more or less used for cash,” Rodriguez said.

Greg Hunter, a lawyer who met Schwab when she was in the gang, said that despite her allegiance to MS-13, many of its actions disturbed her. “She seemed like someone who genuinely wasn’t approving of what the gang did,” Hunter said. “It was a situation of hate the sin but love the sinner.”

Schwab told jurors that she was “obsessed” with the gang. A relative said the death of her father around the same time hit her hard.

But after gang members killed her 17-year-old friend Brenda Paz, Schwab rejected gang life. She became a key witness in the federal trial of four gang members accused in the slaying.

Robertson declined to discuss the charges against Schwab but said he thought she was in danger on the street. When media reports noted that she had been a witness against MS-13, he feared gang members might try to exact revenge.

Family members said that after the trial, Schwab entered the witness protection program, an account that federal officials would not confirm. John Montero, a family member, said things were looking up for her.

“She was on the straight and narrow for a long time,” Montero said. “She had a baby, and she was healthy.”

At some point, Schwab returned to Virginia and stayed with her mother. Helen Schwab took care of her daughter’s children, who still live in her Manassas home, family members said. But over the summer, Stephanie Schwab left and began hopping from hotel to hotel.

In August, Kathie Ours of Woodbridge was being treated for depression at Prince William County hospital when she befriended Schwab, a fellow patient. Schwab visited other patients and was “very sweet and very helping,” Ours said.

“It seemed kind of like she wasn’t that proud of her past,” Ours said. “It seemed like she was trying to get that part of her life behind her.”

In recent months, Jason and Stephanie Schwab hung out, partied and occasionally split the cost of a hotel room, he said. He said she could no longer afford her drug habit.

Schwab’s alleged crimes came in swift succession. Three days after the conversation with Jason Schwab, Fauquier County authorities said Stephanie Schwab stole a van from her sister-in-law’s house. Authorities suspect she drove it to rob a Manassas bank later that day.

The next day, Nov. 19, police said, she posed as someone who had run out of gas and used the ruse to carjack a woman at knife point at Tysons II Galleria. On Nov. 22, she hit a West Springfield BB&T branch and made off with $1,800, authorities said. Then on Thanksgiving, a woman in Baltimore County was carjacked.

On Nov. 30, Schwab was arrested after an attempted robbery at a McLean bank.

When asked to reflect on Schwab’s life, Hunter, who was Brenda Paz’s guardian, talked about a tattoo popular among MS-13 members: three dots that form a triangle. The ink represents the most likely fates for a gang member: the hospital, jail or the grave. Hunter said the thing that struck him most about Schwab, who has the tattoo near the corner of her right eye, was that she seemed to have escaped that fate.

“She actually got off that path for a number of years,” Hunter said. “It’s nothing but sad.”

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