PALM BEACH, FLA. -- The lady was a burglar. Judy Amar, a woman of pretense, enchanted the cops, fascinated the prosecutor and charmed the judge. Only her victims were unimpressed. Lots of them.
For five years, Amar reigned as Florida's most accomplished female thief, sneaking into rich people's homes and walking off with jewelry, designer clothes and limited-edition artwork. Maybe 300 times. Maybe 400 or 500.
Again and again, Amar brazenly parked her luxury rental car right in driveways in splendid neighborhoods. Dressed like a real estate agent or even a Junior Leaguer in heels, slacks and a designer sweater, she walked right to the front door and knocked.
If no one answered, she went to work, removing from her Gucci bag a flat-head screwdriver. She kept a can of Mace for dogs. If someone answered her knock, she pretended she had the wrong address.
She shopped for her victims in her wish book, The Palm Beach Post's real estate showcase section, "The Parade of Homes."
She kept the loot she liked, sold the rest for cocaine, then packed up the stuff that didn't fit and sent it to her friends in Honduras.
If not for a tip from a drug dealer, she might still be at it. She impressed almost everyone.
"Very beautiful, charming and intelligent," said prosecutor Lynne Baldwin.
"Great personality. Razor-sharp mind," said Ron Tomassi, the Palm Beach County detective who finally caught her.
"Most con men are likable, and Judy Amar is a con man," said Palm Beach Circuit Judge Thomas Johnson. Charged with 33 counts of burglary and grand theft, Amar pleaded guilty Sept. 28. The judge gave her 10 years.
Unrepentant, Amar had no apologies for her one-woman crime wave. She said lots of her victims exaggerated their insurance claims. She offered to testify against them.
"I stole illegally, they stole legally. What's the difference?" she asked.
Over the years, Tomassi calculates, Amar stole valuables worth "somewhere between $3 million and $6 million." She fenced it for a high life style and a cocaine habit.
To look at Amar, 40, a plump and attractive blond, hardly anyone would take her for a crook from Arkansas. Her name used to be Judy Love, and she grew up on a cotton farm.
"You get to think a lot when you're picking cotton," she said, "and I knew I wanted something more. I dreamed of something finer. Diamonds, like Elizabeth Taylor wore on TV. I went looking."
At 13, already the beauty of "Mud Hole," a sharecropping farm that turned to brown muck when it rained, she earned 2 cents a pound picking cotton and took home $29 a month.
"Now that's hard work," she said. "It will make you think if there's an easier way, you'll find it."
Her mother Frances worked part-time at Chamberlain's shoe factory in Vilonia, Ark., population 250. Practically everyone who lives there is kin.
"It's about as country as you can get," said Glen Love, the illegitimate son Judy bore at 16. Her parents adopted him. "That's the only smart thing I've ever done in my life," Amar said.
She left home and went east, looking for love at 17.
In her first six months in Washington, Amar held the only steady job of her life -- as a key punch operator at the Securities and Exchange Commission.
"I always managed to run into bosses who wanted my body," she said. Finally, to pay for an abortion, Amar went to work at a massage parlor, a service she practiced for the next 10 years.
She endured two short marriages to men she didn't love, then moved to Miami in 1975 and became a lady of the night, catering to wealthy businessmen and vacationers.
Amar wasn't looking for another man in her life in 1981 when she and Jesus Avila made eye contact across a restaurant dining room. She could tell he had a nice smile; she didn't know he was also wanted for murder. Avila, who immigrated in the Mariel boat lift from Cuba, changed her life forever.
"He got me in over my head, and there's nothing I can do about it now," she said. "That was the worst thing that happened to me."
Avila had plans for the fancy Lincoln Continental that Amar's former husband had bought for her. Avila had her drive around fancy neighborhoods while his friends scouted for houses to burglarize.
"I was the lookout; I was paying for the gas," she said. Amar went along for the adventure, she said, until one day Avila's partner came out of a nice house with only a $25 radio for his girlfriend.
The next time Amar went in and showed them what to take: jewelry, designer clothes, crystal.
"After that, I just said, 'The hell with it,' and went out by myself," she said. "It was thrilling, like shopping at Christmas and not paying the bills. I guess people won't want to hear that, but it's true."
Judy Amar started stealing in Dade County but quickly made her way up the Florida Turnpike to suburban Palm Beach County -- where she thought it less likely she'd be shot.
She found drugs -- the best cocaine she ever had came from a doctor's house in Broward County, she said. And, browsing through dresser drawers, she found family secrets: a picture of the woman of the house posed naked over her dog, newspaper clippings of a husband's New York conviction for child molestation.
Usually, Amar carefully left these discoveries on a pillow in the master bedroom -- one last perverse joke.
Amar always looked for front doors that were hidden from view, and then would hack and pry the lock with her screwdriver.
Sometimes people interrupted her. Leslie Neer peered out the peephole when it sounded as if someone was chopping down the door at Casa Bella Lane in Boca Del Mar.
"What are you doing," Neer said, yanking open the front door. "I'm just leaving," Amar said, as she bolted for her car.
One day in 1984, Nancy Alexander arrived home in Boca Raton and found a Continental parked in her driveway. She assumed she had a guest and walked around to the pool. There she discovered Amar with a pillowcase of jewelry, and Alexander's favorite leather boots and clothes in her arms. Instinct took over, and Alexander attacked.
"I don't know why I jumped on her. Maybe it was because she was a woman and I thought I could stop her," Alexander said. "I quickly realized I was in trouble."
Amar grabbed a gun from her Gucci bag, pointed it at Alexander and escaped. But Alexander remembered the license plate. Police found screwdriver gouges on Alexander's front door.
Police found Amar and charged her with armed burglary. She pleaded guilty. Palm Beach Judge Johnson let her out on bond for a hysterectomy. He didn't see her again for almost three years.
Detective Tomassi finally caught her. "I've never chased anyone that was so good," he said, "and a woman at that."
In 1986, in search for the Bandit of Boca Del Mar, he realized that the burglaries in southern Palm Beach County could well be the work of Judy Amar. She had used the same techniques she had in 1984. He wondered if the screwdriver gouges could be her trademark.
At night, after he went home, Tomassi locked himself in the den, dialing long-distance to Miami and Arkansas. "Heaven help whoever he goes after," said prosecutor Lynne Baldwin. "Ron never gave up."
"Others gave up on me a long time ago," Amar said. "But every time I turned around, he had been there talking to someone. He really started to get on my nerves."
For a long time, she always managed to slip away. One Palm Beach deputy even waved as Amar, hiding her long blond hair under a black wig, drove a stolen Mercedes through a dragnet in Boca Del Mar.
"I told them not to charge me with that one, or they'd look stupid," she said.
Finally, last summer a drug dealer tipped off Tomassi about where to find Amar. After a four-day stakeout, he grabbed her in a motel room six blocks from the Surfside police station.
Amar is in trouble in Dade County, too. She has yet to be sentenced for possessing a gram of cocaine in 1984. And Martin County authorities have not yet decided whether to prosecute for burglaries they say she committed there.
Before she was sentenced in Palm Beach County, Amar made a how-to-do-it video for a sheriff's office training film. Explaining how she opened doors with her screwdriver, she basked in her fame and had a good time.
"It wasn't that hard," she said of her fugitive status. "Most of the cops weren't that smart."
Back home in Arkansas, Judy's mother keeps thinking about her little girl. "She changed when she left here, she sure did. I guess citified is what you could call it."
Her other three children turned out fine. "Judy is one of a kind. I guess that's something to be thankful for."