In 2012, a then-22-year-old Abigail Lee Kemp posed for a professional photo shoot. Young, pretty, brunette, she wore short dresses of black and red. Her high heels were steady on the balcony of a Midtown Atlanta high-rise, skyline stalwarts like the AT&T building standing tall in the background.
She bent over to touch the water flowing from a fountain, sat in front of an outdoor fireplace and stared into the distance. She smiled while a tattooed man suggestively touched her hips.
The same woman will be a few miles away Monday, in federal court at the Richard B. Russell building downtown. The FBI believes her responsible for a string of armed jewelry store robberies across five Southeastern states, crimes they say netted watches and diamonds worth millions.
Her arrest was thanks, in part, to an entirely different set of photos.
A gun, zip-ties and an earpiece
It is April 28 of last year, at a place called Jared’s Vault at a Woodstock outlet mall. A slim white woman in athletic gear walks in with a portly black man, who pulls out a handgun.
The woman, perhaps portraying herself as an innocent bystander, lies on the floor while the man orders store employees into a bathroom and zip-ties their hands together. The woman then rises and acts as a lookout while the man pilfers display cases.
Ninety-nine days later on Aug. 5, the same woman pulls a handgun at the Zales Outlet in Dawsonville. Again, employees are forced into a back room and zip-tied, jewelry stolen. The woman flees when a customer enters the store.
Over the next five months, four similar robberies — and one other attempt — are reported in five different states: Aug. 11 in Panama City Beach, Fla.; Sept. 2 in Bluffton, S.C.; Oct. 16 in Sevierville, Tenn.; Dec. 30 in Macon (the failed attempt); and Jan. 4 in Mebane, N.C. In each, the woman is armed. She wears an earpiece during at least two of the incidents, but never a mask. The man is present for at least the first two Georgia robberies and the one in Florida.
There’s $900,000 worth of jewelry here, $400,000 there. An estimated $4 million all told.
‘You might dream of running away’
Abigail Lee Kemp attended Cobb County’s Kennesaw Mountain High School, then Hillgrove in Powder Springs, where a former friend said she played basketball and softball. The friend, Stephanie Godfrey, described her as cocky and mischievous. Confident. Why she left her old high school was a “fun mystery for everyone.”
“She thought she could get away with a lot,” Godfrey said.
Kemp was athletic and comfortable in her body. She worked at places like Hooters and Twin Peaks, Godfrey said, restaurants that boast scantily clad waitstaffs.
She “literally fell off the grid” before Godfrey graduated school in 2010, Godfrey said.
More recently, Kemp took leave from social media. For nearly a year, her Twitter account has done nothing but publish automated horoscopes.
She is a Pisces. The reading posted Sunday begins like this: “You may be overwhelmed with an unrealistic desire to avoid your current responsibilities. Although you might dream of running away to an exotic locale, you could quickly become disappointed once you realize how impractical it would be to drop everything right now.”
On Friday, Kemp was arrested at an undisclosed location in Smyrna, charged officially with “conspiracy to interfere with commerce by threats or violence.”
A paint job
A spokeswoman for the FBI’s Jacksonville, Fla., office — which is spearheading the investigation into the crime spree — declined Sunday to provide specific information about Kemp’s arrest, or that of a second, unnamed individual also detained. It was unclear if that person was the man caught on camera during the early robberies.
An FBI affidavit obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution does, however, offer insight into how Kemp was identified as a suspect in the first place.
After the most recent crime in North Carolina, the FBI distributed information and surveillance photos to media across the region. “A number of citizens” subsequently contacted the agency with Kemp’s name. They said she owned a handgun and recently had her car painted black.
A four-door Honda Civic — originally maroon before being re-painted, authorities believe — was spotted near several of the crime scenes, the affidavit said. The license plate tied it to an older Cobb County woman with Kemp’s surname. The affidavit also alleges that a cellphone tied to Kemp pinged off towers in the areas of the robberies at the same times they were being committed.
“Some citizens also advised,” the FBI said, “that [Kemp] was wearing expensive jewelry that some of the callers believe she cannot afford.”
Kemp is expected to appear in federal court Monday, though a specific time had not been set as of Sunday afternoon.