New Orleans—Robyn Lewis, owner of Dark Charm fashion and accessories for women, represents the first line of defense for the Magazine Street shop owners. She is the first to see them come strutting in their pumps down St. Andrew Street, the bewigged pack of thieves who have plagued the Lower Garden District since May.
Like an SOS flare, Lewis grabs her emergency phone list and starts calling.
“They’re coming,” she warns Eric Ogle a salesman at Vegas, a block down Magazine Street. Ogle, who was terrorized by the brazen crew two months earlier, alerts neighboring Winky’s where manager Kendra Bonga braces for the onslaught.
Soon every shop owner in the 2000 block of Magazine Street has been alerted.
Sarah Celino at Trashy Diva eyes the door, ready to flip the lock at the first sight of the ringleader’s pink jumpsuit and fluorescent red wig.
Down at Turncoats, where the fashion-happy gang once made off with more than $2,000 in merchandise, store manager Wes Davis stands ready.
Davis said it wasn’t supposed to be like this. They survived Hurricane Katrina’s Category 3 winds and the ensuing looters. They reopened despite the long odds of doing business in a devastated city. The last thing the Magazine Street shop owners expected to threaten their survival was a crime ring of transvestites.
“They’re fearless,” said Ogle. “Once they see something they like they won’t stop until they have it. They don’t care, they’ll go to jail. It’s really gotten bad. You know it’s ridiculous when everyone on the block knows who they are.”
In the ensuing weeks, the gang of transvestites continued their reign of terror. Sometimes they come dressed as men, though Bonga said it is obvious who they are based on their delicately plucked eyebrows. Sometimes they bring 2-year-old children to add to the level of distraction. They once returned to Vegas holding an “infant” that really was a Cabbage Patch doll wrapped in a blanket.
“They’ll make themselves scarce for a few weeks and then one day you’ll be busy with a customer and all of a sudden there’s a whole slew of them in your store and there’s nothing you can do because you’re there by yourself,” Lewis said.
The New Orleans Police Department investigated the Turncoats robbery but unless police catch a shoplifter in the act or in possession of stolen property there is little they can do besides take a report, said NOPD spokeswoman Bambi Hall.
“If store security states that someone took something, and then by the time we apprehend them they don’t have the property, then there’s really nothing we can do because it’s their word against the (suspect),” Hall said.
Lewis said she understands the understaffed NOPD has bigger priorities than to “catch a drag queen running down the street with an armful of clothing.” So the store owners created their own watchdog system unofficially known as the “Drag Queen Alert List,” a comprehensive phone roster of every business on the block with stars next to those who carry guns.
When one shop owner spots a gang member, they immediately warn everyone on the block and raise their defenses in unison.
When they enter Turncoats, Davis said he locks them inside the store, which “freaks them out,” and they leave.
When Lewis co-owned Trashy Diva, they attacked one of her partners in the French Quarter location, throwing her to the ground and tossing a heavy mannequin on top of her.
“They’re kind of confused because they think they’re women so they don’t mind hitting women, but they’re dudes. If you get hit by one it’s like getting hit by a dude. . . Because the police are so poorly staffed, we’re kind of on our own but the system we have seems to be working. I haven’t seen them in at least a week but they’ll be back. They’re never gone for long.