The light-colored SUV was already parked when Keri Street wheeled into a neighboring spot at the KinderCare in a Seattle suburb. As Street gathered up her two kids, she ran a suspicious eye over the vehicle. The guy behind the wheel was cocooned in a baggy gray hoodie. A young girl sat shotgun. Their car windows dripped inside with condensation, a sign they'd been sitting there for a while. Why were these two killing time in a daycare center's parking lot before 9 a.m. on a weekday? Street wondered. Then she noticed the back seat. Who goes to a daycare and doesn't have car seats?
But Street was in a rush that morning in September 2013. She collected her kids, grabbed her keys and phone, and scurried into the mint-shingled building. She was inside for five minutes, then headed to her nearby office. While at work as a service department manager for a security company, Street realized she didn't have her purse. Probably left it home, she figured. But when she got home, she couldn't find it. Street pulled up her banking activity online. There was a $2,400 withdrawal pending on her Chase savings account. She rewound a play-by-play of her busy morning.
"I'd left the purse in the car and didn't lock it," she explains today. "Shame on me."
She'd just had a visit from some out-of-towners from South Florida.
Street wasn't alone. About an hour and a half south, purses were plucked from cars at the Gig Harbor Academy, a posh private elementary school on ten acres of wilderness. In downtown Seattle, a similar robbery was reported at the University of Washington Medical Center. At a local YMCA, an LA Fitness gym and a Montessori school, the same story. In each case, thieves were able to hoover out the checking and savings accounts belonging to victims, all women. Although it would take police months to puzzle out the situation, eventually they'd trace the crime wave back to a man and woman running a rental car up and down Interstate 5, the highway sewing Seattle to Tacoma. Working overtime for 16 days, the duo scammed more than $48,000 from a half dozen victims. Both criminals called Broward County home.
Every week, hustlers, hoods, prostitutes, and drug addicts from the Fort Lauderdale area are picked up in just about every corner of the country for running a scam copied from the same playbook. Dubbed the "Felony Lane Gang" by police, these organized crews target unsuspecting victims and steal their drivers' licenses and bank cards or checks. Then, frequently using hair dye and wigs, they or their coconspirators dress up like the victims to gain access to accounts. The crews systematically suck away the victims' funds, sometimes with the help of corrupt allies working inside tag agencies and banks. Just in the past year, 954ers have been busted in Virginia, Ohio, Arkansas, Maine, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Texas. "Why don't they stay down there and break into your cars?" a Lone Star State police official recently wondered aloud.
But the name is a bit of a misnomer. "Gang" suggests a single crime boss somewhere stroking a Siamese cat and directing his minions from a secret lair, or a legion of thugs with some sort of hierarchy. Today, crews pulling off this scam are unconnected bands of drifters laying siege to different corners of the country. Likely, millions of dollars a year are lost to these crews. In the words of a Broward cop who investigated the scheme, it's a national "epidemic," with local police and even the FBI trying to play catch-up. It's gotten to the point that financial institutions now budget for the loss. "We call it bank robbery without a gun," the detective says.
All thanks to Broward. The scam was founded and popularized here by enterprising hustlers from Fort Lauderdale, including a pair of crafty women known to local law enforcement as the "Godmothers." A special task force eventually mopped up early incarnations of the "gang," but Felony Lane lives on. It may be Broward County's single greatest contribution to the criminal underworld.
Police from several local departments were powwowing in Boca Raton, a regional intel meeting for sharing tips. It was 2004. The conversation shifted to a string of recent car break-ins in gym and restaurant parking lots; purses were being snatched. A high-energy young detective with a cue-ball shaved head and biceps stretching his shirt sleeves spoke up. Randy Rosenberg had a couple of similar cases sitting on his desk back at the Coral Springs Police Department. He suggested it might be an organized criminal effort worth going after.
"Everyone looked at me like I had ten heads," Rosenberg recalls. Most of his peers thought the crimes were random burglaries. "A lot of people don't want to get involved in this because it's so complicated. I had no idea what I was getting into."
Rosenberg would soon be pulling strands out of a tangled ball of yarn. But his hustle in the mid-aughts pointed the first spotlight at the Felony Lane activity. He helped reveal that these weren't one-off heists but criminal outfits with organized depth charts.
At first, all Rosenberg had was a name: Jennifer New.