A 51-year-old Arizona mom allegedly used her young sons and their friends to commit at least 20 armed robberies in a calculating and "revolting" scheme, police said.
Cynthia Roberson was arrested Friday and accused of manipulating her adolescent sons and others into scores of gunpoint thefts in the Phoenix area by making them feel guilty about finances.
Roberson was taken into custody along with some of the boys and young men involved in the armed robberies.
Police said Monday that Roberson recently lost her job and guilted her 12- and 14-year-old sons and some of the others into committing the robberies to pay for rent and a car loan.
"Mom was running the gang," Phoenix Det. James Holmes told FOX News on Wednesday. "She guilted the kids into doing this."
Holmes said the child thieves grew brazen: In one case, a suspect approached a youngster in a grocery store whom he had robbed a day earlier and bragged that he was the bandit.
"These children were very arrogant in what they did," Holmes told FOX. "In some cases, teenagers were being robbed by teenagers."
All eight people involved in the case lived in the same Phoenix apartment; all are facing charges of armed robbery and aggravated assault.
"She was directing the males to go out and do the robberies to produce the funds, and she was making them feel guilty about the bills she had to pay and the things she had to provide," Glendale police Detective Mark Lankford said. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out times are tough. There is no excuse for any crime whatsoever to prey on individuals because you can't pay your bills."
Roberson's 12-year-old was in the custody of Child Protective Services but still faces charges; her 14-year-old was being held in a juvenile jail. Two others, a 14- and 16-year-old, also were being held in a juvenile jail.
Three men arrested in the case were identified as: Jorge Elias, 18, Tony Vaughn, 20, and Jason Moore, 20. They were being held in a Maricopa County jail.
Police said Moore, a convicted felon, may also have been coaching the younger suspects, but that they believe Roberson orchestrated the crimes and was the group's ringleader.
A request with the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office to interview Roberson and the other adult suspects was not immediately returned Monday evening; it was unclear whether they had lawyers.
In all of the 20 cases involved, police said Roberson drove the getaway car and once coached a 14-year-old during a robbery because he was having trouble stealing a cell phone from a victim. One victim reported that Roberson was holding a sawed-off shotgun during a robbery, police said.
Most of the victims in the robberies were between 13 and 20 years old, while some were older. They were robbed in parks and along neighborhood streets on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Police said all the robberies included physical assaults, with one victim being hospitalized with a possible concussion; one 13-year-old victim was beaten up and forced to empty his pockets — which contained only an orange lollipop, police said.
"All of us should be disgusted by this," Phoenix police Sgt. Phil Roberts said. "This is absolutely not how to raise your children. As a parent, it's not disgusting — it's revolting to me."
Aaron Seaman, an 18-year-old Glendale resident whom police identified as a victim of one of the robberies, told The Associated Press that he was sitting on a curb eating tater tots with two of his friends on May 17 when they were robbed.
He said a gold vehicle driven by an older woman pulled up, and a boy who looked about 15 years old jumped out, cocked the gun he was holding, and put it against his friend's head, ordering him to empty his pockets.
When his friend refused, Seaman said the boy hit him across the face with the gun.
Eventually, Seaman's friend gave up his wallet, which contained no money, and an iPod. Seaman gave up his cell phone, while the third victim didn't have anything valuable on him.
Seaman said he didn't know what to think when he saw the older woman behind the wheel, coaching the boy about what to do.
"I wasn't sure if it was his mom or something like that," he said. "I was just like, wow, she's helping him become a criminal. That's great parenting skills.
"It just makes no sense," he added. "That kid should not have a gun because he's too young."
Police said different boys and men were involved in each robbery, but that all of them, including the 12-year-old, used a gun or a pellet gun in the crimes.
"Imagine that this 12-year-old goes out with a rubber pellet gun, sticks it to some person's head and that person pulls out his real gun and he kills this kid," Holmes said. "Even worse, they do an armed robbery, the police see them, they chase them down, and this kid not knowing any better turns around with his little pellet gun and points it at the police, and now he's dead. It's so stupid."
Police do not know how much money the group made, but said the figure couldn't be very high, considering they usually made away with a cell phone or a bit of cash. Police are checking with pawn shops to see whether the group tried to sell any of the electronic devices they stole.
While police say they've identified 20 robberies, the group may have committed up to 20 more, adding that the investigation still is new.
Lankford said police began watching Roberson's apartment after her older son was arrested in an armed robbery the previous week. Detectives observed that Roberson and her unique, gold car matched descriptions provided by victims in various similar armed robberies, he said.
During her four-hour interview, Lankford said Roberson, who is divorced, shifted blame to the boys and men involved, saying that she thought they were doing gang initiations when she saw them beating up others as she waited in her car.
Police described conditions in Roberson's apartment as filthy, with dirty dishes and clothes strewn about, very little furniture, and cockroaches.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.