The Case of the Bank-Robbing Prostitutes: How a Team of L.A. Hookers Became the "Starlet Bandits"
ILLUSTRATION BY TIM GABOR
Mallory Mnichowski was nervous. Nineteen and pregnant, she had never robbed a bank before. Robert St. John was worried, too. He was her pimp and, on this morning, her getaway driver. He was sure she would screw it up.
"Mallory's, like, the last person you would send in a bank," he confides.
But he wasn't about to go in himself — not with all the cameras in there. And neither was Kadara Kilgo, the streetwise hooker who had helped him cook up the idea.
In the car, Kilgo wrote out the demand note on a sheet of spiral notebook paper: "Don't step away from your drawer or else I will start shooting customers. No dye packs." Kilgo said she would talk Mnichowski through the whole thing on her cellphone.
When Kilgo and St. John let the teen out near the Bank of America on Woodman Avenue in Van Nuys, St. John was so jittery he was "shitting bricks."
Kilgo, on the phone, relayed what was happening inside the bank.
"She's at the window."
"She got the money."
St. John did a double take.
"She got the money?"
"She's coming out," Kilgo said.
Mnichowski climbed back in the car, her zebra-print purse stuffed with stacks of cash.
"Fuck," St. John said, impressed. "This is good shit." Mnichowski had walked out with $5,685 — as much as St. John's prostitutes could earn in a week, or even more, on the street.
Back at home, they divided the money. Mnichowski got $400, which wasn't much, considering the risk she took, but she didn't complain.
"I'm like, 'OK, it's a good day,' " St. John recalls.
But of course the story could not end there.
"I thought it was a one-time thing and it wouldn't work," he says. "But when it worked, it ruined everything."
Henry McElvane grew up in a middle-class family in Washington, D.C. His father was a U.S. marshal. His mother worked at the Pentagon. It was like, he says, The Cosby Show.
His idol was Eddie Murphy — the most successful, confident black man around. That's who he wanted to be, but his parents had other ideas.
They were pillars of their community, and they wanted their only son to follow their example: Go to college, maybe start a business. But Henry wanted to blaze his own trail to wealth and fame.
He grew to be 6 feet tall, with green eyes that made him stand out from the crowd. After high school, he changed his name to Robert St. John, moved to Hollywood and started doing stand-up comedy.
The trail did not lead to stardom. Instead, it led into the darkest realms of exploitation. He would do things that would be impossible to forgive — not that he was asking for that.
The trail would run through prison and parole, ending in a string of bank robberies across Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley — so many that he lost track. The robberies fueled an addiction more elemental than either narcotics or notoriety.
"Everyone was on money," St. John says. "That was the drug. The drug was money."
Along the way, he met a woman who became his wife and raised his sons, who remained loyal to him despite everything. She went to work every day, trying to build a respectable, middle-class life, even as he did everything he could to destroy it. After the arguments and the absences, she was left to wonder how he could be so stupid — and how she stood by him for so long.
"We're not Bonnie and Clyde," she says. "How do you go from having this great family life to the complete opposite?"
St. John, 43, remembers the exact moment he knew he had to come to Hollywood. He was deejaying in a club in D.C. when a Redskins player walked in. All of a sudden, he says, "I was invisible." To compete with that, he realized, he would have to get on TV.
"I don't want to be a big fish locally," he thought. "Let's go to L.A. How hard could it be?"
His parents were adamantly opposed. They wanted him to be like his sister, a lawyer. But he had attended American University only briefly before deciding it wasn't for him. He also sold Nissans for a while but felt underappreciated and underpaid.
So, despite his parents' objections, he drove cross-country with a few thousand dollars to his name and found an apartment smack in the middle of Hollywood.
He read a lot about Richard Pryor and started to do stand-up and work as an extra. It was harder than he'd thought. It took a year and a half to get a SAG card — the longest he had worked on anything. He struggled to get by, working at Marshalls department store until he settled on an easier way to make money.
He would deal drugs.
"I had friends who did drugs, and they were, like, 'You need to sell,' " he says, minimizing — as he often does — his own agency in the matter. "Like, in Hollywood, people don't really care how much it costs. They want it to be brought to them, and they want discretion. Coke, weed, whatever. I was that dude. I would bring you whatever you wanted."
From there, he says, it was an easy transition into pimping. His apartment was at Sunset Boulevard and Curson Avenue, which was right on "the stroll" — the spot where prostitutes hung out in the mid-'90s. As he tells it, he sort of fell into it: "I hooked up this one dude, and the rest is history."
He was still struggling as a comedian, telling unfunny jokes in out-of-the-way clubs. But he didn't feel like he was struggling anymore. He had wanted to be a star, and in a small way, he was. He had found a shortcut.
"Whenever you're selling drugs and dealing with women, you're cheating," he says. "You're not believing in your talents. You're hedging your bets."
Doing stand-up one night in Montebello, he met a girl after the show. Ana — her name has been changed to protect her privacy — was 19. She had a difficult childhood. After suffering abuse, she'd left home to live with an older brother. Intent on getting her life on track, she had enrolled in college.
St. John, then 25, captivated her. He told her he had grown up in D.C. and come out to L.A. to pursue an acting career. With her tough background, such ambition was exotic to her.
"He's a very smart guy," she says. "He wanted to be famous."
After a while, Ana started to notice little lies. Once, she found an old ID in the name of Henry McElvane. He said it was a fake. Only much later, when she met his family, did she learn it was his true name.
As time went on, he had more and more excuses for why he couldn't hang out with her. Her older brother warned her that he was the wrong guy for her. She knew that St. John was dealing drugs, but that didn't make her love him any less.
When she was 20, she got pregnant. St. John told her that if he had wanted a baby, he would have stayed in Washington. Now he was trying to get famous and didn't want to be tied down.
When she made it clear she would be keeping the child, he broke up with her. She was devastated.
"He took my heart, and he stomped on it," she says.
Even after the break-up, he attended a birthing class and was at the hospital when his son was born. But a few days after the birth, in December 1996, he was arrested. It was only then that Ana realized her baby's father was a pimp.
It got even worse. One of the girls working for him was just 13.
A few days after Christmas 1996, a 14-year-old named Tameka ran away from a group home for teenage girls. Her friend Kacey had also run away from the home, and through her Tameka wound up at St. John's apartment in Hollywood.
If she wanted to stay, Tameka was told, she would have to sell herself on the street.
"I asked Kacey why she didn't tell me," Tameka would later testify. But she agreed to do it, she said, because "I had nowhere to go."
Kacey, also 14, had been prostituting off and on for a few months, turning over her earnings to St. John in exchange for clothes and a place to stay. She would stand at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Gardner Street, a couple of blocks from St. John's apartment. On weekends, she would do about three tricks a day, stopping when she had made $150. Then she would go to the movies or return to the apartment and watch TV.
That fall, St. John had split up with his pregnant girlfriend. He spent his time going to comedy shows and auditions, eventually talking his way into a small speaking part on a TV series. (In addition to income from drug dealing and prostitution, his parents still sent him checks.)
Kacey wearied of the life and turned herself back in to the juvenile services system. But in early December she ran away again and returned to St. John's apartment. There she stayed with another girl, Kristen. During the day, St. John made the girls break up bricks of marijuana and package them in Baggies.
At night they slept on the living room floor. Tameka and Kacey had never slept with St. John. But on New Year's Eve, Kacey was awoken by the sound of Kristen and St. John having sex. She tried to convince herself it was her imagination.
Kristen later would testify that she and St. John had been having sex since September. She was 13.
Tameka's stay with St. John was mercifully brief. On Jan. 3, 1997, she was arrested for soliciting prostitution by Hollywood vice cops. A female officer persuaded her to call her pimp. When St. John arrived at a nearby Denny's, he was put in handcuffs.
In his apartment, the officers found packages of marijuana on the bedroom floor. They also found a copy of a comedic monologue in which he complained of the difficulties of being a pimp. He was booked on a half-million-dollar bail.
At that point, Ana could have walked away. In retrospect, she knows she should have.
But now she had a newborn, and she wanted to do right by her son. While St. John was out on bail, they went to D.C. His father had died, but meeting his mother had a profound effect on Ana. She was respectable and middle-class — something Ana wanted badly to become.
"She just embraced me," Ana says. "The first question she asked was, 'When are you gonna get married?' "
They wed soon after. "I wish she never asked me that, or that I would never have done that. I didn't know what those years would entail."
At trial, St. John testified in his own defense and denied everything. Asked about it now, he continues to maintain that the sex charges were false. Working with underage girls, he says, would violate his own "integrity line." He does admit to pimping (which is more than he acknowledged on the stand) but says he worked with a different, older crew.
In any case, the jury was not persuaded. He was convicted of pimping underage girls, dealing marijuana and one count of lewd acts with a child. He was acquitted of nine other charges of lewd acts, apparently owing to discrepancies over dates. But the one count he was found guilty of was enough to earn him 11 years in prison.
Left behind, Ana focused on finishing college and raising her son, with financial help from St. John's mother. St. John promised that, when he was paroled, they would start life over in a new place.
She bought a three-bedroom house in a subdivision in Palmdale and waited for her husband to come home, hoping that he would change.
For St. John, the first three years in prison were the hardest. One of the worst parts was watching TV and seeing comics he recognized from the clubs becoming famous. He still longed for stardom, and decided to use his time behind bars to work on writing and acting.
"Apart from his crimes, he was a talented writer-actor-comedian," says Deborah Tobola, a poet who ran the theater program at the California Men's Colony at San Luis Obispo. St. John had roles in several productions, once stepping in at the last minute when the lead in a play was put in solitary confinement.
His final project was an autobiographical play titled Last Call. The purpose of the program was not to discover talent; it was to reduce recidivism. And while the play is well-written, with believable characters and genuine drama, it does not offer much evidence of rehabilitation.
Mostly, it's a prison lament. The action concerns the lead character's yearning to be a star. He is a singer, Dream, trying to make it big while also maintaining a long-distance relationship with Nicole, his baby's mother. His misfortunes — he is stuck playing a small club called the Joint — are chalked up to associations with the wrong people.
His solution is a change of scenery. He urges Nicole to move to a new house so they can start fresh, but she worries about being far from her friends.
Dream tells her he hopes to sign with Parole Records. He pleads with her not to lose faith in him.
"I've been thinking a lot about us," he says. "Let's start a new life together."
In their final scene together, Dream calls and a man answers the phone. When Nicole comes on the line, she confesses she is seeing someone else.
"So you just gonna throw us away?" he asks.
"It's just ... you're not here," she says, and hangs up.
In real life, Ana stayed married to St. John. She brought their son to visit him every couple of weeks.
His mother died while he was behind bars, and that, too, made it into the play. A character is told that his mother has died, and he's racked with anguish. "I'm here, and I just realized I needed to be there," he says. "And I can't get there. ... Mom was the only one who was really there for me."
In 2007, St. John was paroled. But because he had committed a sex crime with a minor, he was not allowed to live in the Palmdale house with his son.
He got an apartment at a complex next to the Tujunga Wash in Van Nuys, an hour's drive from Palmdale. He came around to take his son to school, but he was prohibited from staying past midnight. The couple had another child, but they fought about St. John's absences and his relationship with another woman.
St. John needed money, but he wasn't about to work at Arby's. Soon after his release, he was back to pimping. Within three months, he had been arrested and sent back to prison on a six-month parole violation. When he got out again, he pursued pimping as though making up for lost time.
"I knew a girl that was still in the game, so I took it to the extreme," he says. "I turned it into a business."
Prostitution had changed while he was away. Now the action was on Craigslist. He drew up escort ads and figured out how to make them stay at the top of the queue. When johns called, he would pretend to be a woman. He also would send mass texts advising of "trick parties" in the Hollywood Hills.
"[Prostitutes] would call me, because they knew if they went on my phone, they would make money," he says. "It was Sylmar, Glendale, Mission Hills, North Hollywood, Vegas ... I took it way far."
At first, Ana was in the dark. But she caught on when she found condoms in his car. His explanation was that he needed to make money to pay the mortgage and the rent. To keep her happy, he got her a $40,000 Lexus.
He bought himself a $50,000 Escalade and, to Ana's annoyance, a Camry for the prostitutes. He also took them to clubs, ordering bottle service and spending upward of $2,500 a night.
He tried to restart his entertainment career. He bought a bunch of expensive video equipment and started shooting a reality show with the prostitutes. He put the footage on MySpace and tried to attract attention by buying banner ads promoting it on the website of Power 106, the hip-hop station. That led nowhere.
It's not clear who thought up the idea of robbing banks, but Danielle Derosier was the first of St. John's prostitutes to give it a try. Asked about it now, she says only, "Everybody in L.A. wants money. That's what this whole thing was about."
On March 25, 2008, Derosier walked into the Bank of America on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. She wore a baggy, gray sweatshirt and large, dark sunglasses. Her hair was swept back into a bun and she held a phone to her left ear. She did not put it down as she approached the counter.
Without saying a word, she slipped a note to the teller. "Give me all the money in the register," it said. "Quickly."
The teller opened the drawer and pressed the silent alarm. The two exchanged a look, and then Derosier turned and walked out just as calmly as she had walked in, still talking on the phone.
Four months later, she tried again, at a Bank of America in Van Nuys. They had learned something from past mistakes; this time the note was more detailed. "Quickly give me all the money in your till. Do not press the alarm. I have a weapon and I would hate to hurt innocent people."
But she hadn't thought of everything. The teller walked away from the counter and handed the note to a supervisor. Not knowing what else to do, Derosier headed out the door.
The FBI gives repeat bank robbers nicknames in order to keep track of them. They dubbed Derosier the Starlet Bandit because witnesses said she wore "movie-star glasses."
When those robberies didn't work, the group lost interest for a while. But in April 2010, another prostitute, Kadara Kilgo, started lobbying to do one, St. John says.
In a letter from prison, Kilgo, now 23, says that in her years on the streets, she was involved in a number of scams and get-rich-quick schemes. She came to rely on St. John for protection. "I sought out Mr. St. John," she writes. "I called him on more than one occasion when I could no longer make it on my own."
Sometime before, in a botched drug deal, she had been sliced with a box cutter, requiring 23 stitches and leaving a large scar on her back. Also, a john had pulled a knife on her during a trick. She was looking for an easier way to make money.
"I did want to leave prostitution behind," she writes, "so I guess you could say that's one of the driving forces that caused me to turn to a more aggressive form of income."
There would later be a dispute over whether the prostitutes were criminals or victims of exploitation. The arguments mirror the debate over how the justice system should treat prostitution itself.
Kilgo's lawyer, Kim Savo, argues that her youth was a factor (she was 19 at the time). She also was addicted to drugs.
"She was vulnerable," Savo says. "I think she was manipulated and taken advantage of in committing [bank robbery], the same way she was taken advantage of in prostitution. I don't see it as significantly different."
Kilgo, however, says St. John did not manipulate her.
"He never forced anyone to do what they did. He just gave the idea and help set the plan in motion," she writes. "What we did, we did of our own free will. ... I asked to do what I did."
St. John says that he and Kilgo agreed together to rob the bank. They also decided to protect themselves by persuading Mallory Mnichowski to be the one to go inside.
Mnichowski had been working as a prostitute in L.A. but returned home to the Midwest after becoming pregnant. She was reluctant to rob banks, but St. John and Kilgo talked her into it, agreeing to split her travel costs to bring her back.
Mnichowski's lawyer, too, would argue that she had been duped. Tests showed she had "an extremely low level of ability," he argues, and that she was "generally lacking in the ability to make good decisions."
For all the work they put into bringing Mnichowski back to town, St. John believed the robbery would not work. When Mnichowski walked out of the Bank of America with nearly $6,000, the spree began.
Two days later, Mnichowski went to the Bank of America in Hollywood. She came up empty there, but an hour later she robbed the Chase bank in Mission Hills — taking nearly $7,000.
Emboldened, Kilgo decided it was her turn. Two days later, she robbed a Bank of America in Palmdale and then returned to the Chase in Mission Hills.
This was imprudent. Tellers might well have been on the lookout for a woman in sunglasses talking on her cellphone, and might have rung the alarm before she even got the counter. But they were not being careful.
"She got hooked on doing that — the high, I guess," St. John says. He was frustrated because the cops would have Kilgo's photo, which meant she could no longer advertise on Craigslist: "I can't put you online if you're running into a bank."
As a precaution, St. John also pulled the reality TV footage off of MySpace.
Kilgo traveled to Las Vegas, where she did a bank robbery on her own. She then returned to L.A. and did two more with St. John. At that point, the FBI alerted the media.
"Right now she seems to be unstoppable," KTLA's Chris Wolfe reported on the evening news, "apparently hitting eight banks in the last 10 days in Southern California."
The FBI still believed there was only one robber. She usually was seen talking on a glittery cellphone. She carried a large handbag. She was white.
But some witnesses gave different descriptions. Some said she was 5 feet 3 inches with freckles and red hair. Others said she was 5 feet 7 inches and blond.
"It looks like she's gained some weight," Laura Eimiller, the FBI spokeswoman, said in the KTLA report. "However, she's still wearing the same large sunglasses."
Asked if the bandit was dangerous, Eimiller said, "Of course. Anyone who's willing to rob a bank is clearly desperate."
When Kilgo saw the news reports, she was excited.
"I'm a TV star," she told St. John.
"Hold on," he told her. "This ain't the same thing."
When Kilgo bragged about the robberies, prostitutes started to come to St. John, asking if they could do one.
"Now we're the bank robbers," he says. "I already know when this shit hits the fan, it's on me. ... I'm supposed to have this shit popping, and now everybody wants to rob a bank."
Stephen May is the FBI agent in Los Angeles who specializes in bank robberies. He's the one who dubbed the robbers "the Starlet Bandit." Thinking up nicknames is part of his job.
As the spree went on, it became obvious from the photos that several women were involved. But the disguises were similar and the notes were in the same handwriting. The robbers were returning to the same banks they had robbed before. Most of the banks were in areas known for prostitution, like Sepulveda Boulevard in Mission Hills.
Something was up.
"This is not an everyday occurrence," May says.
The FBI figured an unseen figure was behind the robberies. But the first break didn't come until May 8, three weeks after the spree began, when a tipster reported that a woman had been smoking crack and bragging about robbing banks. She was staying at the Good Nite Inn in Sylmar, room 317.
The same day, the Starlet Bandit struck again, hitting a bank in Granada Hills. (The robber would later be identified as a fourth woman, Billie Jo Hacker.) After detectives finished interviewing the tellers, they decided to swing by the Good Nite Inn. As they pulled into the parking lot, they saw Kilgo — walking around on the third-floor balcony, recognizable from surveillance photos, and talking on her cellphone.
They arrested her. It was her 20th birthday, and she was mad that she would be spending it at the Van Nuys jail, May says.
After Kilgo was read her Miranda rights, the detectives showed her an image from a robbery in Woodland Hills and asked if it was her. She asked for a lawyer.
The detectives confiscated her cellphone, and found a "Mallory" in the contacts; they were able to trace the number to Mnichowski.
Over the next couple days, Kilgo repeatedly called a man from jail. The detectives listened to a recording of one call, in which she told the man not to throw her "stuff" away. The male voice told her everything was in a suitcase and was hidden in a spot where no one could find it. Detectives believed she was talking about proceeds from the robberies, but they couldn't tell who she was talking to.
St. John recalls that Kilgo called soon after she was arrested. He told to keep her mouth shut.
"She never did tell on me," he says. "She held water."
Word continued to spread among junkies and prostitutes that St. John was making easy money by robbing banks. A week later, on May 18, he picked up one young woman, Kayla Canty, at her mother's house in Lancaster, and another woman in Palmdale.
Even though Kilgo was behind bars, no one was slowing down. They hit a bank in Northridge but got less than they expected. So they went to the Chase bank in Mission Hills that they had robbed twice before. St. John sent Canty inside. He had just met her, but he had done so many robberies that he didn't worry anymore.
And then she didn't come out.
"She's in forever," he recalls. "Everybody knows you can't stay in forever."
By then, LAPD knew the Starlet Bandit was likely to strike again. The group had robbed two banks on the same day on three previous occasions. Officers had deployed to banks throughout the Valley. When Canty went into the Chase bank, a plainclothes officer was parked right outside.
The officer had been there for half an hour when he saw a bank employee step out of the front door and take off running through the parking lot.
Other employees came out to look — and told the officer they had just been robbed. He hopped back in his car and joined the chase.
When the officer got to the alley, he saw the bank employee looking toward the rear parking lot, out of breath. Canty was running away, with her cellphone up to her ear. "Where are you?" she screamed. "Come and get me! They're chasing me!"
The officer drove closer to her and yelled to stop, but she kept going. He said he was a police officer, but she kept running. Then he yelled that he was pointing a gun at her. She stopped, and that's when he slapped on the handcuffs.
St. John had been waiting in the parking lot across the street, talking to Canty on the cellphone. He was circling the block, attempting to pick her up, when she went the wrong way. When he saw that she was trapped, he took off.
St. John later got a call from Canty's mother, saying that Canty would not rat him out, but they needed $5,000 for bail.
Before they could get the money together, Canty started talking. And what she told detectives unraveled the whole case. She was, May says, "the home run."
She confessed that a man she knew only as "Bob" had put her up to it. Bob had given her the sunglasses and the purse, and had scrawled out the note on the roof of his rented Chevy Malibu.
Though she did not know Bob's full name, the detectives got her to call her mother, who provided the license plate of St. John's car. With that, the detectives traced the car to Alamo, which provided the address of the customer who had rented the car.
It was St. John's house — Ana's house — in Palmdale.
Ana was at work when she learned that the police wanted to talk to her. Her first thought was that her husband had been murdered. The agents told her they had a search warrant for her house and that St. John was wanted for bank robbery.
He was still on parole, one of the conditions of which was that he had to wear an ankle bracelet. The agents informed Ana that the bracelet put him at the scene of 13 robberies.
The bracelet even showed how fast he was going. During the robberies, they could tell he was waiting in the parking lot. Immediately afterward, they could see him accelerating away.
It was a lot to process, but her primary reaction was how stupid it was.
"How do you spend all those years away from your children, and then decide to do something where you know you're going to get caught," she says. "I just don't get it."
The agents followed St. John around for a couple days before they arrested him. When they pulled him over, on May 27, 2010, Derosier was in the car. The detectives immediately recognized her from the first two robberies.
For St. John, the gravity of the situation began to sink in after he was arrested.
"When they put it on paper, that's when it's, like, 'What the fuck,' " he says. "It dawned on me, the seriousness, when I looked at it as a charge. I didn't realize it was that many."
He doesn't have particularly good answers for his wife. He had stopped thinking about the ankle bracelet.
"So many wild things happened, I didn't really trip," he says.
The FBI arrested five of the women involved. Most received relatively mild sentences and have been released. Prosecutors sought to put Kilgo away for 3½ years. Although she was linked to nine robberies, she was given just 14 months. Paroled, she later returned to prison on a drug charge; she's now in solitary confinement after fighting with other inmates.
St. John ended up pleading guilty, and was sentenced in January 2011 to eight years. He was also ordered to pay back $21,000 to the banks. He is due to be released in 2017.
"I understand I gotta take more responsibility," he says by phone from federal prison in Herlong, Calif. "I'm the EBP — the evil black pimp. I understand that. I hurt everybody that was helping me."
Ana says she hasn't talked to her husband in two years. The cars have all been repossessed and the house is in foreclosure. She's thinking about moving out of Palmdale to be closer to her family. And, after nearly 20 years of marriage, she's also considering a divorce.
"It makes me sad because I lost so many years," she says. "He destroyed a lot of lives and a lot of hope I had for us."
In a letter from prison, St. John suggests that he still has fame on his mind.
"People expected more out of me," he writes, "Hell, I did, too. But I'm not dead, so I'm gonna keep going. Besides, this isn't the last thing I wanna be remembered for."