Hagerstown police figured they were searching for a witness to a murder, a 23-year-old woman who'd moved out there from Annapolis a few months earlier.
A phone call to the Annapolis Police Department changed their minds.
"I'd look at her as a suspect," Annapolis police detective David Stokes told them. Three years earlier, the woman had tried to pull a gun on him during an arrest. "And when you find her, approach with caution. This girl is really violent."
Her name is Michelle "Michelle Hell" Hebron. She is one of five women indicted by a federal grand jury as members of the Tree Top Piru gang, a set of Bloods that authorities say sold drugs in Baltimore, threatened and hurt those who opposed them and killed at least five people in the past two years.
Hebron's suspected criminal activities typify a new kind of fearlessness that investigators say they are seeing more and more in female gang members.
She stands 5-foot-3, her hair thick with long twists, but it's the scowl on her face and the swagger in her walk that the officers who have arrested her over the years remember most.
Of the 28 gang members under indictment, Hebron faces some of the most serious accusations. Authorities believe she killed the Hagerstown man because she suspected he betrayed the Bloods - and then wrote a poem about it. Months earlier, authorities allege, she shot a Tree Top member in Baltimore because she suspected he was cooperating with police. That man survived.
"Murder is necessary, but positivity is powerful," Hebron allegedly wrote in a May 30, 2007, letter to the gang leader. "I will chew a [racial slur] up then go to McDonald's and eat a double cheeseburger like it's nothing."
At her March 27 federal arraignment on racketeering charges, Hebron pleaded not guilty. She was ordered held without bail as she awaits trial and the possibility of other serious charges. Federal prosecutors say a first-degree murder indictment could come this summer - making her eligible for the death penalty.
"She is scared," said her attorney, Jensen Barber. "She is very scared, of course."
At Hebron's arraignment and detention hearing, Barber described the case against his client as "innuendo upon innuendo."
The role of the female members of Tree Top Piru - the "Pirettes," as they called themselves - surprised some investigators. The women, Hebron in particular, seemed as dangerous as the men.
Steve Gerido, an investigator with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who ran a federal wiretap investigation of the group, said the inquiry leading to the February indictment "showed how the roles of women in gangs has evolved over time."
"It was almost an equal role to the men," he said. "Hebron and other women in this gang were often asked to perform violent acts. Some of them carried the weight of the same amount of respect as the men."
The four other indicted women, though not accused of shootings, each contributed to the gang's fearsome reputation, investigators say.
Diane Kline, a Hagerstown woman, allegedly collected money and relayed messages for her boyfriend, reputed gang leader Steve Willock, as he sat behind bars in Cumberland. Police say Shaneka Penix, a Baltimore woman still on the run, sold crack cocaine and devised a plan to smuggle drugs into prison.
Tracey Whiting is accused of conspiring with other gang members to disrupt a Baltimore murder trial by intimidating a witness and talking to a juror. Court papers say Sherry Brockington requested a firearm and ordered violence against those who crossed her.
More so than any of the indicted women, Hebron has a hard edge that made her well-suited for gang life, authorities say.
Hebron, like the gang leader she regularly corresponded with in jailhouse letters, rose up in a Baltimore gang even though she was an outsider, authorities say. Hebron spent her childhood in Annapolis, and Willock grew up in the Bronx before moving to Hagerstown as a teenager.
Records show that Michelle Lenee Hebron was born in Baltimore, but, as a child, went to live with her grandmother in an Annapolis public housing project.
Hebron's mother died in Miami in May 2004, and her father lives in Virginia, she wrote in letters to judges. Her brother, in his 20s, and a teenage sister live in the Annapolis area, and a much younger sister is in foster care in Florida, according to the letters.
Relatives could not be reached for comment, but Hebron described a turbulent youth in letters from prison seeking mercy from the judicial system.
"I've been in group homes, institutions and foster homes majority of my youth," she wrote. She admits in another letter that she has problems with "impulse and anger management."
She did not finish high school and was rarely employed. Hebron is candid in the letters about her lifestyle. She wrote of being "robbed and pistol-whipped bloody," of selling drugs, of carrying a handgun she bought on the streets for protection.
Her juvenile record was not available, but court records show that Hebron collected her first charges as an adult - for armed robbery in Annapolis - when she was 17. She spent a few months in jail before charges were dropped.
A year later, in February 2004, an Annapolis officer spotted Hebron gassing up a stolen Dodge Stratus. She was convicted and sentenced several months later to time served.
Hebron's propensity for violence became apparent in October 2004. Stokes saw Hebron in the Robinwood public housing complex and, knowing she'd been banned from the property, approached to arrest her.
She ran, he grabbed her arm, and the two struggled and fought as Hebron kept reaching for her back pants pocket. Stokes found out later that she'd been reaching for a loaded .22-caliber revolver.
The officer finally handcuffed her. On the drive to the police station, Hebron kicked at the rear windows and yelled and cursed, screaming to Stokes that she'd find him and kill his children.
"It's a day I'll always remember," Stokes said in a recent interview. "She's one of the toughest people I've ever arrested."
Hebron remained combative in jail. When a correctional officer escorted her to her cell, she dropped to her knees and spat on the guard through a food slot, according to court documents, leading to a second assault charge.
She was convicted in both cases. In her 2 1/2 years in prison, she wrote at least three letters to Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Joseph P. Manck, asking him to consider releasing her.
"I must say your choice of sending me to prison was wise," she wrote in July 2005. She talked of taking the GED test, enrolling in anger management classes and attending prison church services. "I am preparing myself to be productive in society for a change."
Hebron was released April 17, 2007, but she was far from changed, authorities say. Within six weeks, she had written a letter to Willock, the alleged top boss of Tree Top Piru, telling him she expected to be appointed the gang's Annapolis leader.
Fresh out of a Jessup prison, Hebron traveled 72 miles to Hagerstown, moving to a homeless shelter and then to an apartment in a downtown house. Other indicted gang members, including Willock and his girlfriend, also have ties to the Western Maryland town.
Federal authorities believe Hebron traveled between Hagerstown and Baltimore several times last summer, including to a July gang picnic in Carroll Park.
Then, on Aug. 11, a man that gang members believed to be cooperating with police was shot in South Baltimore. Witnesses put Hebron at the scene, and one person watched her shoot the man, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven H. Levin said at Hebron's detention hearing. Charges in that case have not been filed.
Back in Hagerstown, in the foyer of Hebron's apartment house the afternoon of Oct. 5, David Leonard Moore was fatally shot in the head at close range, police reports state.
That's when Detective Andrew Lewis called the Annapolis police to ask what officers there knew about Hebron. Stokes, who knew first-hand how violent Hebron could be, answered the phone.
"That call brought her up on our radar screen," said Lt. Mike King, supervisor of the Hagerstown Police Department criminal investigations division.
Soon after, a witness came forward and identified Hebron, King said, and within five days of the killing she was under arrest and charged with murder. (State charges were dropped last month to allow federal authorities to take over the case.)
A search of Hebron's apartment found a 32-line poem laced with profanity and gang slang, including a reference to the Bloods' signature color. It begins: "Red robins flyin round my/ head [racial slur] goin' crazy I/ guess just shot a [racial slur] in the head cause he wear blue but claim red."
Reflecting on his interaction with Hebron, Stokes said, "Some people can be rehabilitated, but Michelle Hebron - I don't think she can. I think she'll be a violent person her whole life."