With the recent arrests of four people suspected of being associated with an interstate theft ring, known as the Felony Lane Gang, Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler is asking residents to be extra cautious about keeping their valuables secure in vehicles and to report any suspicious activity.
"We'll be watching, and we're asking the public to be aware, not only in protecting their valuables but bringing to our attention anything that seems out of place," Gahler said, as he and a top aide talked about the gang and its suspected local activity.
Members of the gang, which law enforcement officials say is based in Florida, are known for traveling up and down the East Coast and breaking into vehicles and stealing identity and financial documents such as drivers' licenses, credit cards and checkbooks, according to the Sheriff's Office.
Maj. William Davis, commander of the agency's Police Operations Bureau, said women are the typical victims of the Felony Lane Gang, specifically women who have left their purses or pocketbooks in the car as they visit businesses such as day care centers, fitness centers or walk or run on the Ma and Pa Trail in Bel Air, Fallston and Forest Hill.
Davis said the women who are victimized either expect that they will be in and out of the business quickly, or they do not want to take their valuables with them when they are working out.
"They lock it in their car, thinking it's going to be more secure there," he said.
Davis said gang members known as "smashers" break a window and take the valuables, and then the member known as a "casher," a young woman who resembles the theft victim, takes the checkbook and the ID to a bank, where they attempt to cash a check.
The cash is then sent or transported back to Florida and given to a "collector."
"They use the lane, which is furthest away from the bank teller, on the drive through," Davis said. "The police in Florida deem that the 'felony lane.' "
Davis said the terms "smasher," "casher" and "collector" derive from Sheriff's Office Det. Michael Yeagy, who has taken the lead on investigating the Felony Lane Gang's activities in Harford County.
Gahler said that the Felony Lane Gang fits the definition of a gang, or organized crime, based on its makeup and levels of organization, but he stressed they are not a new street gang similar to the Bloods or the Crips.
"The term 'Felony Lane Gang' doesn't necessarily identify a new street gang that's operating in Harford County," the sheriff said. "It just, more or less, describes the activity."
Davis also stressed that members of the groups have not committed any violent acts, and no weapons have been recovered during arrests.
Ashley Dupuis, 22, of Port Richey, Fla., Shaundrick Lowe, 25, and Ja'Marri Barnes, 20, both of Lauderhill, Fla., were arrested July 18 after Sheriff's Office Sgt. Peter Georgiades pulled over their rented 2014 Nissan Maxima shortly before noon at the intersection of Route 24 and Bel Air South Parkway.
Georgiades, who was conducting a traffic enforcement operation in an area known for a high number of vehicle crashes, saw the driver of the Nissan, Lowe, fail to yield to traffic and was talking on a cell phone.
The sergeant pulled the vehicle over, and he determined that the car was rented, had Florida tags and had after-market tint installed on the windshield, which Davis said are known hallmarks of the Felony Lane Gang.
The gang has been on Harford County law enforcement's radar since 2012, and Davis said all information on the organization is shared with the variety of agencies that participate in the Sheriff's Office's weekly CompStat meetings.
The meetings are held every Wednesday, and participants include the Sheriff's Office, municipal police departments from Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace, the Maryland State Police, the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, the Harford County Health Department and the Harford County Liquor Control Board.
The information on the gang is also distributed via police intelligence reports.
"All of our people are very well in tune with this Felony Lane Gang-type of activity," Davis said.
Davis said Georgiades began to conduct a more in-depth investigation when he saw the signs of the Felony Lane Gang, and he also learned through his investigation that Dupuis had tried, unsuccessfully, to cash a check at a nearby bank.
"The bank did a very good job of not allowing her to cash a check," Davis said.
Dupuis, Lowe and Barnes each face charges of theft, receiving a lost credit card, altering physical evidence, possession of burglary tools, rogue and vagabond and identity theft, and Dupuis faces additional charges of identity theft, forgery of private documents and attempted theft for trying to cash the stolen check.
All three have been released on bail, and they have trials scheduled for August in Harford County District Court.
A fourth suspect in local Felony Lane Gang activity, Kristen Townsend, 34, of Davie, Fla., was arrested June 18 in Anne Arundel County by the Harford County Sheriff's Office with assistance from Anne Arundel County Police and Maryland National Capital Park Police, according to a police statement of charges.
The Harford Sheriff's Office suspected Townsend of cashing $2,924 worth of checks at three bank branches in Montgomery and Prince George's counties using a Maryland driver's license taken from a woman's vehicle while it was parked at the North Harford Swim Club on June 7.
The woman's vehicle was one of four broken into in the swim club lot. The checks had been taken from another victim, and police began to zero in on Townsend after she tried and failed to cash a fourth check at a bank branch in Columbia.
Police caught up with her in Anne Arundel County, and she initially provided the driver's license of a Georgia woman as identification. She gave her real name and residence while she was being taken to the Harford County Detention Center, according to the statement of charges.
Townsend has been charged with five counts of theft using a fraudulent identity, fraud to avoid prosecution, three counts of issuing a false document and two counts of theft, according to online court records.
Court records also indicate she remains in the Harford County Detention Center on $75,000 bond.
Davis said an "ad-hoc" task force, headquartered in Indiana, has been set up among the various local and state investigators of the Felony Lane Gang to share information. He said there has also been preliminary discussion of federal charges against gang members who have been arrested.
Gahler said Harford County still experiences "crimes of opportunity," as thieves break into vehicles where valuables such as electronics or purses are visible.
He said community policing officers will be placing cling stickers on vehicles that are in "trouble spots" known for criminal activity that include a checklist of anything that would make the vehicle attractive to a thief, such as an unlocked door or valuables that are in plain view.
Signs will also be posted at parking lots along the Ma and Pa Trail encouraging visitors to lock their vehicles, take their keys and not leave any valuables in sight.
"When I give my talks, I tell [people] they're going to get victimized twice." Gahler said. "They're going to get victimized once by the act of somebody breaking into their car and stealing their valuables, and they're going to get victimized the second time when they're able to get into their checkbooks and their bank accounts, or their credit cards."