It was Leroy Harvey Reaves' feet that gave police their first indication the 19-year-old may have belonged to a gang of transvestite criminals.
Mr. Reaves, wearing a white Italian designer blouse and leather skirt, and two other men had just been arrested Jan. 29 for allegedly stealing $80,000 in merchandise from the ritzy Gianni Versace store in Bethesda when detectives arrived.
"He looked and dressed just like a very stylish woman, but he had the biggest feet, the kind you know can only belong to a man," said Montgomery County police Sgt. James Hennessy. "It became obvious this wasn't an ordinary armed robbery."
Clearly, there is nothing ordinary about it. Mr. Reaves, a transsexual who lists his address as Oceanside, Calif., and his two accomplices are believed to be part of a loosely-knit group of transvestites that has terrorized designer clothing shops from Florida to Manhattan.
The "transvestite fashion robbers," as they have come to be known in some states, are believed to number in the hundreds and often recruit members at transvestite beauty pageants -- some of which are held in Maryland.
"It's really a shame. I had heard of these kinds of groups doing this," said Margarita Martinez, the manager of the Gianni Versace store in Bethesda, who said she recently had seen transvestite robbers featured on a television episode of "A Current Affair."
"At this point, we're just hoping it doesn't happen again and we're hoping to put it behind us," Ms. Martinez said.
Another employee who asked not to be identified said he was amazed that someone would hold up a store for clothes.
"They meant business. They used tape to bind the employees, locked 'em in a room, and then they just started shopping," he said. "It was terrifying. They kicked one guy in the head a couple of times. They were desperate to get the stuff."
The heist was foiled when an employee untied himself and called 911 while Mr. Reaves and the others allegedly looted the store. Police recovered six duffel bags stuffed with $2,000 suit coats and $600 blouses.
And in the suspects' pockets were directions to upscale shopping malls and designer clothing stores from Washington to Manhattan, some of which already had been robbed, Sergeant Hennessy said.
"They were obviously doing this in conjunction with someone else. They weren't just stealing this stuff to put on their own backs," Sergeant Hennessy said. "I would say it's a loose-knit organization with quite a few other players."
The three suspects also are believed to have committed about eight "smash-and-grab" robberies at chic stores in the Bethesda area, including Silhouette, Arthur A. Adler Clothier and Jewelry by Luria, police said.
Arrested along with Mr. Reaves were Bryan Keith Chandler, 24, of Santa Monica, Calif., and Christopher Darnell Hall, 31, of Orlando, Fla. Each has an extensive criminal history ranging from shoplifting to pickpocketing to armed robbery, police said.
A handful of police detectives, primarily in Florida and New York, has taken on the unusual task of becoming experts on burglary rings of female impersonators.
One such man is Detective Michael Roggin of the West Palm Beach, Fla., police, who has put together a file of more than 100 suspects, many of whom are known to travel up and down the East Coast.
The stories are endless, of transvestites with nicknames like Farrah and Large Marge who swipe, swindle and steal any bit of clothing that might fetch them a buck or a seductive glance.
In the past five years, robberies and burglaries involving East Coast transvestites likely amounted to more than $50 million, he said.
"It's pretty crazy stuff and people usually think it's funny," Detective Roggin said. "But it's tearing us up down here. It's putting people out of business."
Transvestite beauty pageants, gala affairs in which men dress in gowns, tiaras and designer clothes, frequently are the spots where recruits are found and where stolen goods are bought and sold.
"They have pageants in the Baltimore area, we know that much," Detective Roggin said. The pageants, usually publicized by word of mouth and on fliers in gay nightclubs, sometimes see $800 pantsuits sold for as low as $50, he said.
But intelligence files on the Maryland transvestite operation show more of an inclination toward check fraud than armed robbery, Detective Roggin said.
"Maryland is really lax in the way they give out driver's licenses. We had an operation up there 2 1/2 years ago where female impersonators were obtaining women's driver's licenses, then re-laminating them with their own picture so they could buy expensive outfits in New York," he said.
The thieves are difficult to catch and frequently set up in rented houses. In Maryland, the transvestite ring is "much more sophisticated and organized than we have here," Detective Roggin said.