They shot at a cop in Zephyrhills but didn't hit him. They robbed a bank in Georgia but didn't hurt anyone. In August, the Dougherty siblings — Lee Grace, 29, and her brothers Ryan, 22, and Dylan, 26 — were fugitives from Pasco on the run. And the nation was captivated.
"Which cases strike a cord with people is always unpredictable," said David F. Schmid, associate professor of English at the University at Buffalo and author of Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture.
"There are much more sensational crimes that barely make a ripple," he said.
Americans are fascinated by criminals, Schmid said.
And they loved the story of the Dougherty Gang.
Lee Grace was an exotic dancer who posted flirty pictures of herself on Flickr and wrote, "I like milk and German engineering and causing mayhem with my siblings." Her brothers had stayed at a Zephyrhills home where officers later discovered a large underground bunker with running water and electricity. They had what authorities described as a "large stockpile of weapons," including an AK-47 purchased a few years ago in a local pawn shop.
The trio led the country on an eight-day manhunt after being accused of shooting at a Zephyrhills police officer Aug. 2. Authorities said their next stop was Valdosta, Ga., where they marched into a bank, fired shots into the ceiling and told everyone to hit the floor.
They said they weren't going to be taken alive. They walked out, authorities said, with $52,000.
The FBI plastered their photos on billboards across the country. They were labeled armed and dangerous. Newspapers and TV stations across the country carried reports on the manhunt. The Doughertys' fugitive life ended in a high-speed chase in the foothills of southern Colorado, where they allegedly shot at officers during the chase and attempted to flee after wrecking their car. Lee Grace was shot in the leg when she raised her gun at a local police chief.
Shooting at anyone is a serious offense, but people — and law enforcement officers — are shot at all the time. Most of their stories don't get national attention.
Schmid said the essence of what interests people is when an ordinary person does "something extraordinary, something most of us would never imagine doing."
"These are criminals, in general, who look like us, who act like us, who live lives very like our lives and then something happens," said Schmid. "That combination of things really fascinates people."
Kathleen Heide, professor of criminology at the University of South Florida, said the sibling bond grabbed attention.
"Two boys and a girl, it was them against the world," she said. "So I think that captures the attention of the public."
The siblings had prior arrests, but it was Ryan Dougherty's designation as a sex offender that triggered their trek. On Aug. 1, he was sentenced to house arrest and given a monitoring bracelet after being convicted of exchanging sexually explicit text messages with an 11-year-old girl. The next day he and his siblings hit the road with plans to rob a bank and flee to Mexico, he later told a detective. When the Zephyrhills officer tried to pull over their car for speeding, authorities say, the siblings opened fire.
Heide said their actions — thinking they could shoot their way out of trouble — show immaturity. As Heide followed the case, she was worried the trio would hurt or kill someone.
"I don't think people were cheering them on, but I think people were almost incredulous that this bond, which so many people feel, could go that far — to shooting at the police, which is very serious," Heide said.
"It's almost like a movie, where you're asking: 'Is this really happening?' "
The trio outran authorities for more than a week, but there were reported sightings as they bought a tent at a Colorado Springs camping store and inquired about AK-47 ammunition at a Walmart in Canyon City. Minutes before Colorado officers began the final pursuit, Dylan went into a convenience store in the remote San Isabel National Forest and bought vitamin water, sunflower seeds and gas.
The siblings remain at the Huerfano County jail, each on a $1.5 million bond, while the legal authorities sort out dozens of charges, which in Colorado include attempted murder. A grand jury in Georgia issued a federal indictment Dec. 15 charging the trio with bank robbery and with using firearms while committing a violent crime.
Assistant State Attorney Manny Garcia, who works in Pasco County, said so far he has not heard from prosecutors in Colorado as to any possible plea deals. A Colorado judge issued a gag order, so no information was available about how the siblings are faring in jail. According to Pasco court records, the only charge here against the siblings is fleeing or eluding.
"The difference between a homicide and a non-homicide is the marksmanship of the offender," said Heide. "If the trio had been better shooters, somebody could have been dead."
Times researcher Caryn Baird and Times staff writer Lisa Buie contributed to this report, which also used information from the Pueblo Chieftain and the Associated Press. Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6229.