08.11.11

Fugitive Stripper’s Wild Ride

Ex-exotic dancer Grace Dougherty and her two brothers allegedly got into a shootout with a cop in Florida that led to a bank heist and eight-day manhunt ending in their Colorado capture. Lynn Waddell on the saga.

After eight days on the lam, the Dougherty Gang are trapped on the side of the road, their car nearly flipped on a speed break, with flashing police car lights all around. In a futile attempt to escape, Grace Dougherty runs through a dusty Colorado field, a Walsenberg police officer on her heels. She turns to shoot, but the cop’s bullet hits her leg first. The mayhem ends.

The Central Florida siblings—Ryan Edward Dougherty, Dylan Dougherty Stanley, and Lee Grace E. Dougherty—led authorities on a 2,000-mile, cross-country chase, collecting ammo, and a surprising number of fans, along the way. Like Bonnie and Clyde of the Great Depression, the Great Recession’s Dougherty siblings have drawn a fair number of supporters who cheered them for breaking the law.  Grace, a former exotic dancer who posted photos of herself in a mismatched bikini on her Flickr page, naturally attracted the most supporters. Within days after the trio went on the lam, an admirer created a Facebook page in her honor. Soon she had more than 500 fans. Men salivated: “What’s better than a stripper with a Ak and robin (sic) banks...” Others blamed the trio’s crimes on the economy: “You know if we all had good jobs none of this bulls—would ever happen...” Then there were the flat-out anarchists: “I hate when the law wins.”

Despite what the Doughertys may represent to their fans, Grace’s description of herself and her kin is without glamour. “I have a huge crazy family,” she wrote in her 2010 Flickr profile. “I’m 28 but act like I’m 17 most of the time. I love to farm and shoot guys and wreck cars. I’m a redneck and proud of it. I like milk and German engineering and causing mayhem with my siblings.”

The trio’s crime spree began in the morning on August 2 in Zephyrhills, Fla. just north of Tampa, with what should have been a routine traffic stop. A local police officer attempted to pull over the white Subaru for going 15 mph over the speed limit. Instead the car sped off, and worse, passengers started shooting at him. The chase went on for five miles, sometimes reaching speeds of 100 mph. Occasionally the Subaru slowed to allow the passengers to get a better shot. They missed the officer, but took out one of his front tires, ending his pursuit.

Five hours later two masked men and a woman matching their description burst into a bank in Valdosta, Ga. brandishing automatic weapons. They fired into the ceiling and took off in a white sedan with enough cash, authorities said, to take them anywhere they wanted.    

Now suspected of felony bank robbery, the gun-toting siblings were dubbed the Dougherty Gang. They made the FBI’s Most Wanted List. Their photographs appeared on billboards in New York and 10 states throughout the Southeast, and on every national newscast. They were wily, changing their car tags along the road and possibly tossing their cell phones. They managed to leave the region undetected and didn’t show up on FBI radar until they were spotted buying camping equipment at an outdoors store in Colorado. They also reloaded, buying bullets at a Walmart as if they were preparing to go down in a blaze of gunfire.

Wednesday, authorities got a break when a caller reported spotting the trio at a campsite near San Isabel National Forest. Less than 45 minutes later, they were captured.

Why the Dougherty gang set out on a crime spree isn’t clear. Authorities aren’t saying much. The trio’s mother has gone into hiding. Dylan’s pregnant girlfriend and Grace’s fiancé claim ignorance.

According to the Pasco County Sheriff’s office, Grace was living with her fiancé, Brendon Bookman, in Orlando until the day before the trio allegedly shot at the police officer and robbed a bank. Bookman, 18 years Grace’s senior, claims to be a math professor at a prestigious Orlando college, although the school has no record of him ever being on the faculty. While the trio was on the lam, he described them to the Tampa Tribune as “daredevils and thrill-seekers.” He said Grace went to her brothers to help around the house since Ryan’s girlfriend was due to deliver their baby the next week.

Wednesday night, after Grace was captured, Bookman emailed that he’s doubtful she will be able to marry: “She is cuffed and stuffed and will likely be gone for a long time.” Later he emailed again: “She just called me from the joint. I still love her so much.” 

Criminal behavior is a Dougherty family tradition. Ryan, the youngest at 21, has 14 felony arrests for everything from burglary to a hit-and-run to texting an 11-year-old girl more than 200 sexually explicit messages. Grace, the eldest at 29, is a perennial hit-and-run offender and perhaps as a hint of what was to come, she viciously fought police when arrested. Once she tried to bite a police officer, and another time she head-butted a state trooper—after she was handcuffed.

The middle child, Dylan Dougherty Stanley, 24, had been arrested only for marijuana possession. Although a full brother, he was raised and adopted by their mother’s sister.

Dylan, Ryan and Ryan’s pregnant girlfriend lived together in Lacoochee, Fla., a former mill town of about 1,400 people in Pasco County. With few paved roads, no stop lights or public sewer system, Lacoochee is an ideal place to drop off the grid, or perhaps grow marijuana. In February, the Pasco County Sheriff’s office and an undisclosed federal agency followed a tip to Ryan and Dylan’s then rental house and discovered an elaborate underground bunker with electricity. It was empty, said Doug Tobin, spokesman for sheriff’s office. “There may have been a few leaves here and there, but it looked like maybe someone had tipped them off.”

I’m a redneck and proud of it. I like milk and German engineering and causing mayhem with my siblings.

Some authorities theorized that the crime spree may have been triggered by Ryan’s sentencing as a sex offender the day before the crew hit the road. His mother told investigators that after the sentencing he sent her a foreboding message: “There’s a time for all of us to die.”

As punishment for his sexting the 11-year-old, Ryan was fitted with a GPS-tracking ankle bracelet to be worn for two years. He cut it off just minutes before the Zephyrhills police officer attempted to pull over the family gang.

Tobin, of the Pasco County Sheriff’s office, said he doesn’t know how much jail time Ryan could have faced for removing the bracelet and breaking probation. He may not even have had to go to jail, he said. Now accused of trying to murder police officers in two different states and bank robbery in another, he and his siblings face charges that could put them in prison for life.

Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco, who has been on numerous national news shows warning that the siblings were deadly, says he’s relieved that from now on it will be more than ankle bracelets for the gang: “Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m proud to say we won.”