The two women’s wardrobes suggested they were extremely devout — even if they seemed a bit religiously confused. They wore nuns’ black habits with white wimples one day, blue and orange hijabs the next and black head coverings on other days.
But the religious garb was specifically worn to be misleading, according to federal prosecutors in New Jersey. The two women put on the clothes to disguise themselves as they terrorized banks across New Jersey and Pennsylvania in a months-long run of attempted bank heists last year. Most of their armed robbery attempts failed, but one succeeded, prosecutors said.
Authorities finally caught 23-year-old Melisa Aquino Arias and 19-year-old Swahilys Pedraza-Rodriguez in October 2017, when a bank employee recognized the duo from an earlier heist and quickly called police, according to federal prosecutors.
Arias, a resident of Passaic, New Jersey, pleaded guilty in federal court Friday to bank robbery, attempted bank robbery and attempted conspiracy to steal from a bank, according to U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Craig Carpenito. Pedraza-Rodriguez, of New Haven, Connecticut, pleaded guilty to the same charges in April.
Their first attempted heist, in August 2017, was a failure. Dressed up in nuns’ habits, they walked into a bank in Tannersville, Pennsylvania. As Arias kept watch, Pedraza-Rodriguez did the dirty work: She whipped out what looked like a gun and tried to make the teller hand over cash, according to prosecutors.
But before they got any money, Arias gave Pedraza-Rodriguez a signal and they both fled, according to an FBI criminal complaint.
The women tried a different outfit — hijabs — for their next attempt on Sept. 20, 2017, prosecutors said.
The effort still failed, though. The women rolled up to a drive-thru ATM at a bank in Scotrun, Pennsylvania, and tried using a screwdriver to pry the machine open, prosecutors said. But again, they gave up and ran off with nothing.
A week later, on Sept. 27, the women succeeded.
The robbers began by informing the bank tellers that they wanted details about opening accounts at the Garfield, New Jersey, bank they visited. But then Arias — sporting a blue hijab — pulled out what looked like a black handgun and told the teller to fork over cash.
“Give me all your money. No funny money,” Arias told the bank employee, according to an FBI criminal complaint. “Don’t press anything. Give all the money in the drawer.”
Pedraza-Rodriguez guarded the bank’s manager as Arias got the money from the teller. The women fled before police arrived, making off with about $2,900, according to the complaint.
The next month, their crime spree came to an end.
Arias (in an orange hijab) and Pedraza-Rodriguez (in a black head covering) walked up to a bank worker in Teaneck, New Jersey, on Oct. 15, 2017, asking about creating an account there, according to prosecutors.
The teller suspected the women were the robbers who held up another bank just weeks earlier, and wasn’t buying their story. The worker called police, and the women drove away. Cops were quickly on their trail, though, and arrested them just minutes later, the criminal complaint said.
Each woman faces up to 20 years in prison for each robbery and attempted robbery count, prosecutors said. Each count also carries a fine of $250,000, prosecutors said.
The conspiracy charge could lead to a prison sentence of up to a year.
Arias will be sentenced in September and Pedraza-Rodriguez in August, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.