Credit: Illustrations by Brian Taylor

On Aug. 17, 2004, security officials at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) started receiving reports of a spree of thefts at agency headquarters in White Flint, Md. About $800 had gone missing in the space of a few hours and it looked like an outside job. Report No. 08-21 described a typical encounter with the unknown suspect.

A little before 2 p.m. the previous day, a woman returned to her office and found a stranger sitting at her desk. According to the report, the uninvited guest was a young African-American woman with straight black hair that hung past her shoulders. She wore black slacks and a white blouse. “I was going to leave you a note,” the stranger said, rising from the chair. She explained that she had a piece of mail for the woman and needed to deliver it in person.

Her supervisor had insisted she get a signature since the parcel was actually addressed to someone else. Oh, and she didn’t have it with her right then. The “whole thing seemed very odd,” the NRC employee later told investigators. Nonetheless, she allowed her visitor to leave without further questions. In a hurry to make a 2 p.m. meeting, she left the office as well.

A few minutes later, the employee’s secretary saw the girl back at her boss’ desk. She wore an NRC badge, turned backward. The young woman explained she needed to leave a note and asked for paper. When the secretary returned with a notepad, the girl had moved closer to a filing cabinet, her back facing the door. She wrote a note and left.

It was an odd interaction for sure, but not quite alarming. But such blasé encounters began to emerge as a pattern as the NRC investigated 11 separate thefts of cash and credit cards. According to incident reports obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, most of the crimes took place between 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. on Aug. 16 in two heavily secured buildings occupied by the commission on Rockville Pike. The complex is not a tourist destination, as armed guards will inform you. Visitors need to have verifiable business in the building and must provide photo ID. Bags get scanned, people get the metal detector. Employees must show a badge with their photo and job title.

Elsewhere around D.C., at other highly secure federal buildings, similar thefts were causing frustration among security officers. There were reports of missing cash and electronics at the Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of the Treasury, and the Government Accountability Office. The suspect had a keen sense for the weaknesses of office dwellers, even in government offices where employees should know better.

Take hiding places for example. Theft victims at the NRC reported missing cash from just a few favorite spots: the bottom desk drawer, the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet, under the desk. One victim covered his wallet with a napkin and a bagel and hid the whole thing behind a cup of coffee.

Witnesses who later realized they’d seen the thief said she passed muster at the time. The fact that she didn’t have an escort, one secretary reasoned, proved that she belonged in the building. Another employee described the potential suspect as dressing and acting like a typical secretary at the NRC. Those who stopped and questioned her gave up on their suspicions as soon as she started talking.

Her excuses were flimsy inventions. But people don’t like confrontations. They feel they’ve done enough if they ask a question and get an answer.

NRC investigators launched an inquiry into the thefts. But as the weeks passed, they failed to come up with a suspect. The woman had stolen only cash and credit cards, but her crime exposed the potential for much more costly breaches at the agency trusted with overseeing 104 commercial reactors and the storage of tens of thousands of tons of nuclear waste.

No one could have guessed that the mastermind behind the thefts was a 19-year-old mother from Southeast D.C.

Ameenah Franks has a knack for telling the story of her life in crime with cinematic flair. There’s even an opening scene.

It was early spring 2001. Franks was 16 and pregnant with her first son. Her boyfriend and the father of the baby was on leave from the Navy. They were both on rocky terms with their families but wanted to stay together. So they decided to brave the cold for one night. On the concrete landing of some steps near Farragut West, they made a nest of coats and pulled in two potted plants for privacy. In the morning, they woke to the smell of fresh bread. Franks ran into the street and grabbed two loaves from the back of an idling truck.

As she sat eating a stolen breakfast, she decided she needed to get enough money to put them up in a hotel.

“It was either theft or prostitution,” she says, “and I definitely would not be selling my body on the street for no amount of money.”

She told her boyfriend to meet her that evening at a hotel on Bladensburg Road where a friend had a job as a desk clerk. Then she left on her own.

Franks chose a building nearby, she can’t remember which one. She wore gray Old Navy maternity pants, rumpled from sleeping, and bought a newspaper on the street to carry under her arm. She got so nervous she had to run to the bathroom and relieve herself before she began. “Then I was ready,” she says. She crept from office to office, fingering the latches of untended purses and sliding open unlocked drawers. By the end of the day, she had several hundred dollars in cash, enough for a few nights at a hotel.

She could have asked for help, but that would have meant compromising with her mom. That would have meant living without her boyfriend.

“I thought I was 30 at that age,” Franks says. “You couldn’t tell me I was 16.” Plus, she says, her mom had all but kicked her out.

Although she loved her daughter, Franks’ mom didn’t like her daughter’s boyfriend. Perhaps the boy reminded her of another Navy man who’d done the family wrong: her ex-husband. Franks had remained devoted to her dad even after he left the family, which always infuriated her mom and her older sister. Now she was determined to stay with the father of her own child, too.

They’d met in 1999 at the Sasha Bruce community center in Southeast. Franks was a sophomore at the School Without Walls, a downtown magnet school that she describes as a “suburban school.” Her boyfriend (who could not be reached for comment) was an upperclassman at Eastern Senior High School, a “ghetto school,” she says. Franks was bent on setting herself apart from the ghetto. She read Edgar Allan Poe and Washington Irving and listened to boy bands. The boy from Eastern spotted her notebook, covered with Backstreet Boys stickers, and gave her a thorough clowning.

Instead of getting upset, Franks sassed back. They clicked immediately.

“Our sarcasm,” she says. “We just kept catching each other.”

Despite the obvious chemistry, Franks pushed him away at first. She told him she didn’t date black boys. He told her she was going to date him. And, after a few weeks, she did.

He was different from other boys. He didn’t back down from Franks’ intellectual precociousness. When she used words he didn’t know, he took it as a challenge and came back the next day with a harder word. They made up secret codes of acronyms so that no one else would know what they were saying. “Our thing was to outsmart the other one,” she says, “outsmart the world. Against other people, we just took people down.”

They dated for nearly a year before he left for Navy boot camp in Illinois in the late summer or early fall of 2000. Franks says she realized she was pregnant about a month after he left. She took a Greyhound all the way to the camp, but the guards wouldn’t let her in to deliver the news in person.

He returned to D.C. when Franks was still pregnant. That’s when they spent their night under the bridge and Franks learned she had the skills to provide for her family. They spent several months together at a hotel in D.C., she says. Then he decided to go back to the Navy, which he’d left without permission for weeks or perhaps months. Franks can’t come up with a clear account of the next several months. She dropped out of the School Without Walls and later enrolled at Eastern, but it “wasn’t my cup of tea.”

She says she stayed with her boyfriend for stretches of time at a base in Virginia, crashed with friends, and even roomed for a while with his aunt in D.C.

When she could, Franks worked a few “real jobs,” at a movie theater, at McDonald’s. When she needed more money, she says, she stole cash from offices, always trying to choose buildings far from where she lived.

Franks left for the offices with the early morning crowds, dressed presentably in slacks and nice shirts. Instead of a newspaper, she brought a folder stuffed with papers from home. Her method for getting past security was neither clandestine nor complicated. Franks usually tailgated legitimate employees, walking close behind as if they’d arrived together. Or she flashed a stolen ID and kept a straight face. Once inside, she’d nab mail from a pile, and pretend to be on her way to deliver it. Magnetic boards with lists of names and times “In” and “Out” provided a map of where to go and when.

The most important trick was something that came naturally: confidence. Franks describes her aptitude bluntly. “I’m very, very intelligent,” she says. With so much self-assurance, it was easy to act like she belonged.

Not that she wasn’t nervous. Franks never got over the sudden, uncontrollable need to rush for a bathroom before she began her rounds. More than getting caught, she says she feared failure. “What was more scary to me,” she says, “was going home empty-handed.”

When she had money, she took her mom and her older sister out to get their nails done, or splurged on a dinner at the Olive Garden or the Cheesecake Factory with her boyfriend and their little boy. Most of their cash went toward housing. Franks got pregnant again around her 17th birthday, in November 2001.

Sometime in early 2002, Franks says, the father of her children quit the Navy for good. From then on, they moved back and forth between hotels in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. When Franks left to troll the offices, he baby-sat. “He was my manny,” she says.

Franks was six months along and showing on April 26, 2002, the day Montgomery County police got a call about a sudden rash of thefts at the American Society of Health System Pharmacists in Suite 200 of 7272 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda. Seven female employees had returned from lunch and discovered $460 missing from their purses and desk drawers. A magnetic key card had also disappeared.

By the time an officer arrived to investigate, employees had time to compare stories. Four people remembered seeing an unfamiliar woman wandering through offices in the suite around lunchtime. She was black and heavyset, and carried an accordion-style folder stuffed with papers. When stopped, the woman had said she needed a paper clip or had to find Donna, an actual employee. It was enough to end each confrontation.

In the middle of the officer’s investigation, the sounds of a dispute echoed up from the street below. Looking out the windows, the employees of Suite 200 observed a violent confrontation between a man and a woman on the street.

The woman was Franks. Angry, pregnant, and busted.

She might have gotten away with her crime, if not for her temper. “I was feistier back then,” she says.

According to court documents, Franks hailed a cab outside the office and asked the driver to take her to Bethesda Naval Hospital. As they rounded the corner, Franks saw that the fare meter already read $3. She got so angry that the driver pulled over and asked her to get out. Franks obeyed, but on her way, reached over the seat and yanked the keys from the ignition. The driver chased after her and snatched them. Franks fought back, biting into his arm and then his belly, both times drawing blood. After a radio from the offices upstairs, police charged Franks with theft and second-degree assault.

Back at the station, police found nearly twice the cash reported missing from Suite 200: $620 in Franks’ left sock, $100 in her bra, $115 in her underwear, $28.17 in her wallet.

Franks made a statement admitting to the thefts at 7272 Wisconsin Ave. But her goose was still cooking. Her MO rang a bell with another Montgomery County police officer and two months later, in June 2002, Franks was charged with a series of thefts in Rockville from 2001.

The Montgomery County police clearly had a budding career criminal on their hands. They’d caught Franks with money in her pants and secured a written confession. They’d linked her to similar year-old thefts and could only assume she’d kept herself busy in between. But Franks had lucked onto another secret of the trade—the punishment for nonviolent property crimes isn’t stiff, especially for first-time offenders.

She walked away with probation.

Outside the courtroom, Franks continued to live the life of a young working mother. In July 2002, she gave birth to son No. 2. Her boyfriend proposed, and they were married on Christmas Eve 2002 at Holy Truth of God in Christ Jesus, a church in Northeast.

“It was perfect,” she says, “everything was free, or nearly.” The church didn’t charge and gave Franks a complimentary bouquet. From Goodwill, they bought a bargain tuxedo and a veil. Franks walked down the aisle in a gown borrowed from her Aunt Pinky. Her mom said the dress was bad luck, since Pinky had gotten divorced. But Franks thought her inexpensive ceremony was a blessing.

Now married with two kids, Franks continued to develop the skills that supported her family. She learned to embrace interactions with the people who confronted her as she wandered unfamiliar buildings. If a door was locked, she lurked in front of it, fumbling for her keys. She always stopped to chitchat with the folks at reception.

A little more than a year after her first big bust, Franks got caught again in July 2003. Just like the last time, she was in the advanced stages of a pregnancy. Her third son was due in September. The charge this time was stealing a credit card and a magnetic key card from the offices of Charles E. Smith, a real estate agency in an office complex on Crystal Drive in Arlington. Since Virginia court records provide far less detail than those in Maryland, the only narrative of how the crime went down comes from Franks herself.

Franks says she’d nicked the credit card from a desk without thinking about it. Realizing she couldn’t use it, she decided to put it back. But someone had already called police. Hurrying to make her escape, she passed a woman who asked if she’d seen a black girl who didn’t belong in the building. “I don’t know what a thief is supposed to look like,” she says, “but I didn’t fit her description.”

Through the glass front doors, Franks spotted squad cars pulling up outside and panicked. She says she was arrested as she fled the building. “I probably could have walked out,” she says. “I never ran again since then. Whenever I got caught, I just started talking.”

This time, with a record and now a probation violation and new crimes, Franks faced real jail time. In November, Judge James Almand revoked her bail, keeping Franks in jail until her trial. Turning to her most trusted skill, Franks wrote him a two-page letter.

“I hope this letter finds you in the best of moods today,” she wrote. She swore that her experience sitting in a cell for three months had led her “to a closer relationship with Jesus.”

“I have learned that instead of trying to provide the illegal way I should have waited for the many blessings GOD is always willing to provide us with. I was so sad when you revoked my bail oh the countenance I wore was priceless.”

Countenance is one of the words Franks uses a lot. She went on:

“I know that I have hurt, or shall I say inconvenienced many people…there is no excuse for my actions except desperation.” She says she replaced the credit card because her conscience told her to do so. “I have learned my lesson.”

The note didn’t help. Franks received an unsigned form from the judge’s chambers explaining that he doesn’t respond to ex parte communications. She signed a plea agreement accepting a five-year sentence with all but six months set aside.

When Franks got out of jail in April 2004, she returned to live with her husband in an apartment on Barnaby Road in Southeast. It was not a happy homecoming. He was on unusually friendly terms with a next-door neighbor, a school teacher, says Franks. Less than a week after her return, he went to the store and never came back. “You hear about people doing that,” she says, “but when it actually happened, I was distraught.”

When he pulled up days later in the neighbor’s van, Franks lit into both of them on the street. She threatened to kill the school teacher, who promptly called police. (Franks explains later she has “a problem with telling people I’m going to kill them.”) Franks and her husband went into the house and kept fighting.

Police arrived and placed the quarrelling couple under arrest, but the officers soon realized the husband was the one they wanted. He had an arrest warrant for stiffing a hotel in Virginia. Franks says the charge was left over from their early days hopping between cheap rooms, when they didn’t always have enough money to settle the bill. Court records confirm that her husband was extradited to Fairfax County, where he spent a few days in jail before being released on his own recognizance. Meanwhile, D.C. cops never filed charges against Franks for the domestic incident they’d been called to investigate.

Despite the drama, the couple got back together. They moved again, to an apartment on 25th Street SE. Now motivated to protect his own record, her husband pressured Franks to quit stealing. At the same time, she says, he continued to resist getting a job of his own.

“He kept telling me he couldn’t get the jobs he was applying for. He kept giving me this, ‘I’m a black man with a record’ thing,” Franks says. She didn’t buy the story, but, she says, “I didn’t want to stress him because I loved him,” adding a little angrily, “He didn’t have any problem spending the money when I got it.”

Franks says she did get a real job. She says she worked at various office jobs, including temporary employment through Friends and Co. The agency confirms she worked for it one day in 2004.

She says she stole only when she really needed the money. Over the last few years, she thought she’d figured out how not to get caught. She’d gotten better at talking her way through tough situations and added a few more tricks to her scheme, like changing clothes in the bathroom in case she’d been spotted.

Franks wasn’t ready to retire. And she was pregnant again.

On Sept. 17, 2004, a little after 4 p.m., Special Agent Karen Cottrell heard a knock on the back office door of Suite 500 in the 15th Street offices of the Inspector General of the Treasury. When she opened the door, a young woman introduced herself as an intern from the American Bar Association upstairs. It was Franks. According to investigative documents, she said she had an envelope to deliver to Tammy Stephens. Cottrell stood back and watched the young woman slide a package under an office door. Then she escorted Franks out and shut the door.

Ten minutes later, Cottrell heard noises from the office next to her own. Walking out into the hall, she saw Franks again, now emerging from the office with a wallet, a box for a digital camera, and a hanger with a black pants suit and a striped blouse. Franks told Cottrell she’d forgotten to put a note on the envelope she’d delivered before.

Now suspicious, Cottrell asked for identification. Franks said she’d just begun her internship and wouldn’t get her ID until Monday or Tuesday of the next week. She provided several names of supervisors and said she’d left her ID in their offices on the 8th floor.

When Cottrell mentioned that the blouse resembled one belonging to her colleague, Franks snapped back that the woman must be a sharp dresser. It went on like that for a few minutes, with Cottrell insisting on finding the intern’s supervisors, and Franks explaining that she had more items to deliver. Finally, they walked together to the elevators. On the way, Franks knocked on an office door and hung the pants suit on the door knob. Pointing at the name on the camera box, she asked Cottrell where the addressee’s office was located. Franks tried the door, but it was locked, and continued walking toward the elevators with the box and the wallet still in hand.

Inside the elevator, she asked if Cottrell would use her keycard to access the 8th floor. Cottrell said her card worked only for Treasury offices. Franks responded that if Cottrell didn’t have authorization to be on the 8th floor, she wasn’t going to be the one to let her in.

Franks was on a roll. She accused Cottrell of stopping her because she was black and refused to go upstairs. She said Cottrell was on a mission to get her fired.

At that moment, a second Treasury agent arrived and agreed to stay and watch Franks. Cottrell backtracked through the last half hour: She called her colleague, who said she’d left a suit on a hanger in her office. Cottrell unlocked the door and saw that the suit was now missing. The envelope Franks had delivered to “Tammy Stephens” was addressed to someone else. Cottrell hurried back to the elevators, by now convinced they had a thief on their hands. But the agent she’d left with her suspect stood alone. He explained that the girl had shown him a driver’s license with the name Ameenah Franks. He’d copied down her address and allowed her to leave.

When a digital camera was reported missing on Sept. 20, Cottrell contacted D.C. police Detective David Swinson, who helped her obtain a warrant to arrest Franks and search her apartment on 25th Street SE. When they executed the warrant a week later, Franks admitted to the theft of the camera, a U.S. Secret Service Task Force badge, and a set of handcuffs. Before clamming up and demanding a lawyer, she explained a little about how she’d made her way into the building. She said she had talked her way past the guard station, where visitors are required to sign in and show ID, by repeating her intern story and promising to show him ID next week. With the same story, she charmed an employee who helped her access a locked floor on the elevator.

In December 2004, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District charged Franks with second degree burglary, first degree theft, and attempted second degree theft for her spree at the Treasury. She brokered a deal with prosecutors by offering accounts of more than two dozen other thefts and burglaries and, in May 2005, pleaded guilty to a single charge of second degree burglary. She was sentenced to 36 months’ incarceration and is scheduled to get out on April 1, 2009. She also pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft in Montgomery County; for that she received a $200 fine, no restitution required.

Franks’ apprehension put to rest several unsolved cases. An internal NRC memo from February 2005 expressed relief at her capture while warning that the investigation revealed troubling “observations” about security at the agency.

According to an NRC spokesperson, Franks inspired several security upgrades at the White Flint complex. The agency installed additional cameras in both buildings, including some capable of producing higher-quality images. The glass doors on the connecting corridor where Franks gained entry were equipped with alarms.

Most of the federal agencies targeted by Franks declined to discuss their investigations or policy changes inspired by her escapades. But it’s clear her efforts caused widespread frustration. A Federal Protective Service officer, who asked that his name not be used, came onto the case in late 2004, when he was assigned to investigate about 40 reported thefts at two FAA facilities. He linked the cases to Franks after reading a Treasury investigator’s alert about her arrest. To his dismay, he says, the contract guards assigned to do entrance security at the FAA wouldn’t let him in.

“I caught the devil getting into that building,” he says. “They would give me the blues about coming in armed to do an investigation into a person who they let into the building with no problem. I said, ‘How the hell can the bandit get in and I can’t?’”

Nearly four years later, he’s still exasperated. “Running behind an office thief is like running behind a ghost,” he says.

Franks managed to impress several of the investigators who worked on her case, including David Swinson.

“The most impressive thing is how this person was able to gain access to some of the most secure facilities in the country and use her charm and wit to get in,” Swinson says. “Most office burglars don’t want encounters. They stay away from encounters.” Typical thieves have stock answers for emergency situations, he adds, but avoid situations in which they have to think on their feet.

Franks was different. She sought out conversations. And in every confrontation, she had a creative comeback. “Her tactic was just her charm,” says Swinson, who was also struck by the fact that Franks didn’t steal to support a drug habit. “Her motive wasn’t based on substance abuse, which is 98 percent of these types of crimes. Her motivation was to support her family. I’m not in any way condoning what she did. But she was very good at what she did. She could have made a very good career in Hollywood as an actor.”

Last July, the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup was the lucky recipient of a dozen inmates transferred in from the federal system. Franks was one of them. Seated in an empty office with cuffed wrists crossed in her lap, she laughs dismissively at all the fuss people made about the federal buildings she stole from. She says they weren’t any different than strip-mall real estate offices or downtown law firms, other favorite haunts. But it’s clear she has a little pride wrapped up in her accomplishments. She tells me she talked her way into the FBI once, too. A guard and a social worker listen as she talks.

“I’m not going to say I thought it was right, but I will say you have these…places where people are making over $500,000, and myself who is intelligent, with no job,” she says. “Sometimes I would see people’s bank account receipts, and I would cry. A hundred dollars kept me and my children in my apartment for another month. And it’s what they spent on a nice dinner out.”

“This is a really poor example,” she says, “but I was kind of like Robin Hood.”

She muses that the law made a mistake throwing her in with real criminals. She’s learned things, she says. As for the crime that got her caught, she says she regrets going back for the camera.

“I got greedy,” says Franks, now 23. “I’m disappointed in myself for that.”

Franks says she knew what she was doing when she accused Cottrell of going after her because she was black.

“I played the race card,” she says. She explains that “if you’re not a racist, and someone accuses you of being racist,” then you’re more likely to back down from your position.

In exchange for her plea deal, Franks agreed to spill the beans on her tactics and targets. In a drive-around with Swinson, she identified about two dozen office buildings, many of them federal facilities, that she’d hit over the last three years, including the Department of Transportation, the Government Accountability Office, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Most of the cases were confirmed, Swinson says.

Franks also explained a few mysteries that had baffled investigators, like how she’d gotten into the NRC.

A cigarette did the trick, she says. Franks stood near a glass door that was locked from the inside and pretended to be an employee on a smoke break. She waited. When two women walked by, she knocked on the door and the women let her in. Once inside, she wandered around trying to figure out how to get to offices on the upper floors.

After a few hours, Franks got the feeling someone had spotted her. Since she’d arrived in business attire—black slacks and a white shirt—she stole gym clothes from an office, changed in a bathroom and left through the front door.

She still says she stole because she thought it would keep her family together, but Franks’ sacrifices didn’t pay off. In October 2006, her husband sued for divorce. A judge signed the decree that year, two days after Christmas. Franks’ mother is caring for her daughter, who was born in January 2006, and one of her sons, while her ex-husband has retained custody of the two other boys.

If she regrets anything now, it may be her devotion to this one man, whose name is tattooed on her left arm. “I love him,” she says, “and that’s about all.”

Does she wish she’d walked away from the relationship? Franks answers as if he were standing in the room. “If you knew you was going to get tired and not man up…” she says, trailing off.

“You think all this would be worth it?” she asks, waving a hand at the cinderblock walls. “That was the one thing I cared about.”