History's most notorious female criminals

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Anna Brech
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Men may rule the head count in history's most notorious crimes, but women have the monopoly when it comes to fascinating and colourful back stories.

Take Griselda Blanco, the "cocaine godmother" who gunned down her husband and six bodyguards with an Uzi in a Bogotá nightclub after a row over money. Or Patty Hearst, the kidnap victim who turned bank robber under the influence of a radical guerilla group. Then there's flamboyant drugs baron Sandra Avila Beltran, who convinced prison guards to smuggle in Botox injections to her when she was serving time and demanded make-up before posing for her mug shot.

Meet seven of history's most notorious and calculating femme fatales - and one incredible lady who made it her job to hunt down dangerous convicts:

Bonnie Parker: the outlaw robber

Bonnie Parker, of Bonnie and Clyde fame, went on a two-year rampage with her lover across the States during the Great Depression, in a revolutionary tale of fatal attraction and violence that would forever resonate in the public consciousness. Waitress Bonnie met Clyde Chestnut Barrow in 1929 and the chemistry was immediate. He was sentenced to jail soon after but escaped in 1930, using a gun Bonnie smuggled in to him. Between 1932 and 1934, the pair embarked on an increasingly reckless crime spree of robberies, kidnappings and murders across Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Louisiana, and New Mexico.

Along with the fellow members of their Barrow Gang, they changed cars and jumped borders frequently to elude the "big, bad law" who were "out to get them." But however much they've been romanticised in the public imagination, there's no doubt that the actions of Bonnie and her cohort were brutal and desperate, as they stole money from a host of small grocery stores and petrol stations, and trailed no less than 13 murders in their wake of destruction. They died in as grisly and dramatic style as they lived; in a spray of 130 bullets during a police ambush on May 23, 1934.

Griselda Blanco: the cocaine godmother

Known as the Queen of Cocaine, the Black Widow or simply La Madrina, Griselda Blanco bloodied the streets of Miami in a decades-long reign of terror that saw her become one of the most notorious drug lords in the Western hemisphere. Born in Colombia, she first got involved in the drugs trade aged 14. By the time she was 40, she was moving 300 kilos of cocaine a month, had around 20 aliases and had developed a reputation for ruthless brutality even among Colombia's most hardened criminals.

Blanco was queen of bloody revenge attacks and was credited with the dubious honour of inventing the motorcycle ride-by killing in the 70s and 80s. She was responsible for a huge amount of gang-related murders; urban legend has it she left a body count upwards of 250 people in her wake, including at least three of her ex-husbands. In one infamous incident, she pulled out a Uzi submachine gun and killed her husband Alberto Bravo and six bodyguards in a Bogotá nightclub car park, in a row over missing profits from a cartel they built together. She was eventually caught and served 19 years in a US jail for murder and racketeering (having avoided the death sentence on a technicality) before being deported to Colombia. There she reached a sticky end; she was gunned down in the street - ironically, by a killer on a motorcycle - as she left a butcher's shop in 2012. She was clutching $150 worth of meat and a bible at the time of her death.

Patty Hearst: the radical-on-the-run

In one of the most intriguing cases in FBI history, kidnap victim Patty Hearst turned bank robber after she was abducted by guerilla group the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). Hearst grew up in an "affluent and sheltered environment" in California, as the granddaughter and heiress of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Her high profile made her a target for the SLA, who seized her as a 19-year-old college student in an armed raid on her apartment in Berkeley in early 1974.

A group of anarchist extremists, the SLA was a loose affiliation of domestic terrorists opposed to the US government and what they termed "the capitalist state". In the short time she was captive, they abused and brainwashed Hearst and she appeared in a video tape saying that she'd joined their fight to free the oppressed. The socialite appeared on bank surveillance cameras a few days later wielding an assault weapon before going on the run. The FBI finally caught up with her and her SLA colleagues in San Francisco in 1975, and she was sentenced to seven years in prison for bank robbery and other crimes (despite her defence that she had been brainwashed). President Carter commuted her sentenced after two years and she was later pardoned. She's now an actress, author and mother.

Sandra Avila Beltran: drug queen of the Pacific

Drug cartel leader Sandra Avila Beltran became known as La Reina del Pacífico (the Queen of the Pacific) to mark her status as one of the only women on the inside of Mexico's lucrative and violent narcotics trade. The niece of Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, known as El Padrino (The Godfather), she is a third generation drug trafficker; a glamorous and colourful figure who has enjoyed folk hero status in some parts of Mexico, with a famous drugs ballad describing her as "a top lady who is a key part of the business." She is also believed to have inspired Mexican TV soap opera, La Reina del Sur, based on a beautiful young woman caught up in the dangerous world of drugs cartels.

She rose up the ranks of Sinaloa cartel by developing a knack for money laundering and later began an affair with Colombian drug trafficker Juan Diego Espinos, a relationship which meant she gained control of narcotics flowing from Colombia to Mexico's Pacific coast ports (hence her nickname). Beltran developed a taste for luxury cars, fine dining and plastic surgery but her lifestyle was not without its risks - two of the men she married were later assassinated. After years underground, she was arrested in Mexico in 2007 and was extradited to the US five years later - she was then released and re-arrested in Mexico City. But even behind bars, her charm seems to have worked its magic; in 2011, two prison officials were fired after they allowed a doctor to adminster Botox injections to Beltran. When she was first arrested in 2007, she also convinced federal officers to allow her to apply make-up before appearing before press photographers.

Ulrike Meinhof: the left-wing militant

Ulrike Meinhof, as played by Martina Gedeck in 2008 film The Baader Meinhof Complex

The co-founder the radical Red Army Faction (RAF) in the 1970s, Ulrike Meinhof was a political hard-liner who has long been a source of fascination and mystery in her native Germany. She started off in the fairly innocuous role of writer at leftist magazine Konkret but some time later she left and joined an armed revolutionary struggle against the government of Germany, which at that point was one of the world's richest democracies.

In May 1970, Meinhof helped free RAF leader Andreas Baader from detention (he was imprisoned for setting fire to two stores) under the guise of running an interview with him. Around this point, she transformed from peace activist to someone who believed "...there may be shooting" to achieve change. Later in 1970, she and other RAF members traveled to Jordan, where they were educated in guerilla tactics including shooting with Kalashnikovs, throwing hand grenades and robbing of banks. On return to Germany, they went underground and instituted a two-year campaign of bank robberies and bombings. Meinhof's foster mother sent her a open letter pleading with her to "give up", but to no avail. In June 1972, Meinhof was arrested in a house where she was hiding, and four years later she was found hanged in an alleged suicide - though many contend it was a political assassination.

Lizzie Borden: the acquitted axe murder suspect

The Fall River Murders of 1892 claimed its place as one of the biggest and most sensational cases in American history, with Lizzie Borden at the very heart of the gruesome mystery. In the summer of 1892, Borden found her father covered in blood and slumped dead on the coach, his left eyeball split in half. Her step-mother, Abby Borden, was found axed to death in similar style in an upstairs bedroom.

Borden was the prime suspect in the murders and her trial descended into a media circus. The evidence against her was overwhelming; police found a hatchet with a broken handle in the basement and knew that Borden had attempted to buy prussic acid and even burned one of her dresses two days after the murders. Borden herself was inconsistent with her account of events and her maid Bridget Sullivan (who was there when the bodies were discovered) testified that she never mourned the loss of her parents. Despite this, Borden was acquitted and lived a long life, dying in 1927. The crimes were never solved although Borden remained inextricably linked to them in popular culture - as this rhyme shows:

"Lizzie Borden took an axe/ Gave her mother forty whacks/ When she saw what she had done / She gave her father forty-one."

Leona Helmsley: the Queen of Mean

Leona Helmsley's downfall from one of the richest and most glamorous women in New York City to tax evasion convict was spectacular by any standards. The hotel tycoon, along with her husband Harry, formed a property empire worth millions, including the Empire State Building, the Park Lane Hotel and a 100-seat private jet. She became the poster girl for all the worse excesses of Reagan's 1980s run on capitalism and money-making - not least for her tyrannical behaviour behind closed doors. She was prone to tantrums and rages against her staff for infractions as small as a tilted lampshade, lending her the nickname "Queen of Mean." Terrified employees even set up an alarm system to alert each other to when she left her house and was heading for a particular htoel.

Her cruelty was of legendary proportions, as was her disdain for the "little people". But Karma had its day when Helmsley was arrested in 1989 and sentenced to 16 years in prison. In the end, she served 18 months behind bars. But the damage to her reputation was done; during Helmsley's trial, her housekeeper famously testified that she overheard her former boss saying, "We don't pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes." Even Helmsley's own lawyer described her as a "tough bitch" in her defence and the judge described her as "arrogant... a product of naked greed." Helmsley died of a heart attack aged 87 in 2007.

Domino Harvey: The Bounty Hunter

Domino Harvey with her mother Paulene Stone in 1990

From criminal to criminal-catcher now...

Domino Harvey's life story has all the elements of a Hollywood blockbuster; the beautiful girl from England turned gun-toting LA bounty hunter. The daughter of the late actor Laurence Harvey and model Paulene Stone, Harvey described herself as "a natural ringleader and troublemaker" and was expelled from at least four schools growing up. She quit work as a model to move to the States in 1989, where she developed a taste for weapons and took to walking around with a 10-inch hunting knife. She also built up a collection of samurai swords.

In 1993, she signed onto a bond agency in south central LA and spent her days on the trail of drug deals, robbers and murderers. She was tough and could easily stomach coming face-to-face with violent criminals in the ghettos of Hollywood. "If I was doing this for the money, I'd have stopped a long time ago. The real satisfaction is putting the sleazebags in jail," she once infamously proclaimed. In the end though, the murky life she immersed herself in appeared to overcome her and she was jailed on charges of conspiracy to distribute drugs, possession, interstate trafficking and racketeering. She was released on bail but was found dead in a bathtub a few months later, aged 35, following an overdose. Keira Knightley starred in the 2005 film about her life, Domino. Domino was said to disapprove of the big-screen interpretation of her story because it depicted her as heterosexual, when in reality she was a lesbian.

Words: Anna Brech, Photos: Rex Features

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.