The two women first crossed paths during the spandex-era fitness craze that peaked in the 1980s, in a chance encounter at a West Los Angeles health spa, people who know them say.

Neither made friends easily, but Helen Golay and Olga Rutterschmidt had enough in common to form a middle-age bond.

Both told stories of painful childhoods, acquaintances say. Golay spoke of feeling lost after her father died in a car crash when she was a youngster. The Hungarian-born Rutterschmidt talked about the injuries she suffered as a girl in World War II bombing raids.

Adulthood brought more hardships, with failed marriages and shaky finances. Each complained to friends of a need for fast money.

The older they got, the fiercer their chase of a dollar became.

Golay, 75, and Rutterschmidt, 73, are expected to be arraigned Aug. 29 on murder charges in the hit-and-run deaths of two homeless men. Authorities allege that the women killed the men so they could collect $2.8 million from insurance policies they took out on them.

Since their arrests, a fuller picture of the women's unlikely, often arm's-length friendship has emerged. Authorities say they entered into a predatory partnership that started with small-time swindles and bogus lawsuits and culminated in the purported plot to "harvest" the down and out for cash.

Before they were taken into custody, their rapport had become strained, investigators and acquaintances say.

"They didn't trust each other," said Los Angeles Police Det. Dennis Kilcoyne.

In the 1980s or earlier, Golay and Rutterschmidt began hanging out together at Westside gyms, the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Hollywood Roosevelt, Kilcoyne said.

The exercise buffs used their good looks and a certain flamboyance -- Golay with her short skirts and towering bouffants, Rutterschmidt with her Zsa Zsa Gabor accent -- to beguile strangers who had just enough money to be careless with it, investigators and others familiar with the women said.

At the hotels, authorities now believe, they would pretend to be registered guests. They would slip into a bathroom to change and then lounge by the pool in their swimsuits, trolling for "marks," authorities and others said.

Detectives said they have received allegations that the pair's initial joint venture was stealing purses and credit cards from gym and hotel patrons, although there is no known record of their being charged with such crimes.

"It was petty stuff," Kilcoyne said.

But it grew more and more serious, as the two pursued a variety of quick payoffs, investigators and others knowledgeable about the women said.

Rutterschmidt bragged to a longtime confidant that she had learned to "pyramid" dozens of credit cards, using one to pay the balance on another, then "stiff" the issuers.

Golay, for her part, engaged in questionable transactions involving property transfers, estates and possibly insurance policies, authorities and former associates said.

Her hairdresser recalled that Golay once described how a woman could score a windfall by marrying an older man, insuring his life and then secretly feeding him daily doses of Viagra until it triggered a fatal heart attack.

" 'I am evil,' " the hairdresser, who asked not to be named because she feared for her safety, quoted Golay as saying earlier this year. " 'You have no idea how evil I am.' "