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.
Coral Springs PD had busted a woman making a fraudulent bank transaction. In turn, the woman said police should look at New, a pasty-faced then-31-year-old with a half-dozen arrests for theft and drug possession hanging from her record. New was the go-to girl for a crew that was breaking into cars and using the IDs for bank fraud, the tipster said, who added that New got picked up every day to scam.
New would prove to be Rosenberg's skeleton key for understanding the whole shakedown.
Rosenberg and other detectives posted up outside New's Hallandale Beach home. As the tipster had predicted, two women swung by to pick New up one day in September. The three drove to Coral Springs, where they stopped at a Walgreens. From his own car, Rosenberg watched as the women used a spray hair dye to darken New's blond locks in the back seat of their car. Then they went to a Burdines (now Macy's) in the Coral Square Mall, where New opened a store credit card with a stolen ID, quickly spending the plastic's $1,600 automatic credit. The crew also hit up a Union Planter's Bank on University Drive where they attempted to access the accounts of another victim.
Rosenberg arrested the three right there for identity theft. At the station, New confessed. She admitted that she worked in a crew run by A.D. Hampton, a 29-year-old topped with a field of short dreadlocks who had previous arrests for grand theft, battery, and drug possession, among others. New said Hampton had recruited her for the scam.
"He was like, 'Do you want to make some real money?'" New told police. "I said, 'How much money are we talking about?' He was like, 'Three thousand a day.' I said, 'That's my kind of thing. What do I have to do?' He said, 'Nothing like tricking; alls you have to do is go through banks.'"
New sketched out the organization. "Jackboys" were responsible for breaking into cars. They would smash up spark plugs, keeping the pieces in their mouths, then pop the windows with the fragments, cracking the glass. "They wrap something around their arm and break it," New explained. The jackboys hit gyms and daycare centers. "They like Starbucks," New said. "Women like to hurry and rush in and leave their purses in the car with the door open." The jackboys were careful to use ordinary vehicles that wouldn't draw attention. "They never use the cars with the rims. No flashy cars."
The aim was to scoop up as much of the sensitive personal information from a victim as possible. "We want your social security card," New explained, "'cause you've got to have that number to get the information from the bank. We're going to look for credit cards that have your bank emblem on it, 'cause we're going to know what bank you go to so we don't have to call all the banks. Then I call all the credit cards, the numbers on the back, and put in your account number and see what your credit is on the cards. How we test them to see if they're still on or if they've been reported is by going to a gas station and just slide it through. If it says 'See Attendant,' we know it's burnt. And then we have to keep the ID, the social security card, and one major credit card, 'cause you need the second form of ID to do the check."
New's role was as a "casher." Taking a stolen ID from one victim and a stolen check from another victim, she would write a check to the name of the person on the ID -- and then dress like that person and go cash the check.
The charade involved theater-major panache. Cashers dressed up in wigs, dyed their hair, and donned makeup to pull off the scam. "I even played a black lady and a Chinese lady," New bragged to cops in her interrogation. "The wigs make it."
The crew had a set payment plan for cashers: If they cashed checks between $1,800 and $2,500, they walked away with $400; checks between $1,000 and $1,800 got the casher $200. Another scam had the casher walking into stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy's to open new cards and immediately buy merchandise; the bill would be sent to the victim weeks later.
"If you had to put a dollar amount on it, of what you got paid, how much do you think you made?" a Coral Springs detective asked at one point during the interrogation. New thought. "In the hundreds... of thousands."
"Two hundred thousand?" the detective asked. "Or more?"
"Probably more. I was spending $700 to $1,500 a day on drugs."
"Three hundred thousand?"
"I would say $375,000 to $400,000."
"In the first week, I made $15,000," New tosses off later in the interview.
"Damn," the surprised detective answered. "For yourself or for the crew?"
New wasn't shy about aiming a finger at her conspirators. She told Rosenberg that Hampton had a garbage bag of stolen drivers' licenses at his house. "How big?" the detective asked.
"Like a 50-gallon bag full."
Rosenberg scrambled to get a search warrant for Hampton's address. Hours after he'd scoped New's place, he was knocking on the ringleader's door in Lauderhill. Rosenberg hadn't even slept; his discovery turned into one continuous, adrenaline-juiced, 31-hour shift. "In the first week, I made $15,000," New tosses off later in the interview.
Rosenberg and Lauderhill cops poured through Hampton's house late at night on September 30, 2004. "We found the garbage bag in a closet in the baby's room," he says. "There were also IDs and checks just all over the house. It was the first time we'd come across something like that."
Later, they'd determine that more than 600 IDs were in the bag.
Like New, Hampton rolled over easy, admitting he ran the organized con. "He didn't realize," Rosenberg quips today, "that he was putting himself down as an organized leader for a federal case."
Similarly, Rosenberg didn't realize he'd just taken down the first of four organized rings he would wrestle with over the next five years. When he was interviewed, Hampton dangled a clue for Rosenberg's next big bust. The con said he'd learned everything he knew from a woman named Janice.
The first investigation had another significant impact -- a historical one. While Rosenberg and other detectives were sitting around in an intel meeting talking about the operation they were planning, they spitballed ideas for names. All good police investigations need a name -- Operation Such and Such. "They would use the last lane of the bank drive-through to commit the felony," Rosenberg says.
So: Operation Felony Lane.
Carlos Irvin, a heavy-set transvestite with sunken eyes, sat slumped in a chair in an interrogation room at the Coral Springs Police Department. A large purse was parked in his lap. It was 2005.
"What retailers do you find easiest to do?" a Coral Springs detective asked. "To manipulate for instant credit?"
Irvin scrunched his face. "Sound Advice, Best Buy, Circuit City, Lowe's, Home Depot, Walmart," he said as casually as reading off a shopping list.
"What about Target?"
His head snaps back a hell-no shake. "I don't play with Target."
Irvin was another downed chess piece for Rosenberg and other detectives working on Felony Lane cases. The garbage bag of IDs found at Hampton's home made officials realize this was a larger problem than anyone had initially suspected. The U.S. Secret Service, which investigates financial crimes, got in on the action, and a task force was set up to investigate. With the needed resources and manpower, Rosenberg and others turned toward the leading ladies. Irvin was key to getting at a queen.
As they made more arrests in South Florida -- catching people in the middle of trying to pass forged checks or with stolen identification -- investigators kept hearing two names: Sebrina and Janice. Janice and Sebrina. Everyone said they were learning the scam from them. The cops began referring to the pair as the "Godmothers."
It also turned out that jackboys weren't the only source for stolen IDs. Crews were dealing with counterfeiters who would take a victim's name and personal information and cook up a fake driver's license with a photo of a criminal check casher. When one of these counterfeiters was busted, he turned informant, telling Rosenberg he should pay attention to Sew It or Grow It, a Fort Lauderdale beauty salon on NW 19th Street, in the shadow of an I-95 overpass. Court records indicated Sebrina Smith owned the store.
Then 35, Smith already had a criminal record for forgery and grand theft. Rosenberg set up surveillance outside the business. "FedEx packages were always going back and forth," he says. "A lot of packages. We just posted up at the shop and watched who was coming in and out." Later, investigators would determine Smith was using a man named Sherwin Hue to produce counterfeit Florida drivers' licenses or employee ID cards. The items were being shipped to the store.
Rosenberg also watched a number of transvestites coming through the store, he says. They got in on the action because they could pass for male or female.
This crew was pioneering by taking its show on the road. Police tracked Smith and an accomplice as they paid cash for tickets to Nashville, Tennessee, where they committed more bank fraud. Smith's crew was also adept at fraudulently conning instant credit from department stores. Walking into a store, the scammers could use the fake IDs to establish lines of credit and walk out with items. It was a slam dunk. "See Burdines and Macy's, it's commission," Smith told investigators after her arrest. "[The salespeople] are [getting paid] on commission, so they are offering it to you anyways. They don't care if you don't have a second form of ID or nothing. They're going to do it regardless."
Thanks to the work of the task force, in 2005, a federal indictment landed against Smith, Irvin, and eight others. The charges included conspiracy, bank fraud, and identity theft. Authorities determined the crew had bilked around $4 million.
The second Godmother would be harder to get.
If a letter later filed in federal court from a family member is to be believed, Janice Coachman, born in 1970, was cornered into scamming by bad breaks and easy opportunity. The letter writer -- a nephew whom Coachman raised along with her own three kids -- described the Godmother's Fort Lauderdale childhood as "very impoverished, somewhat dysfunctional, abusive, and dream shattered." Unable to finish high school because of teen pregnancy, Coachman fell into a "physically and verbally abusive" marriage and motherhood all before age 21.
Her work options were slim. "It had all overwhelmed her to the point when she didn't have the urge to want to work hard for a mere six dollars an hour considering the fact that her life outside work was stressful enough," the nephew later wrote. After her marriage ended, with no job, four mouths to feed, and living at her mother's house, Coachman "heard about a scheme... that was popular in her neighborhood around the early 1990s about earning money an easy and quicker way opposed to working long hours," the nephew wrote. "Being naive and just really wanting to provide a better life for her children and live in her own home, she immediately got involved."
From here, Coachman would go on to become, in the words of one of her later codefendants, "the leader of an organized group that commits bank fraud throughout the Southeastern United States."
Between 1992 and 2001, she'd racked up an impressive file of criminal charges in Broward, from delivery of cocaine to forgery to grand theft. But by the time Rosenberg sighted his efforts on Coachman, she was smart enough to put buffers between herself and the criminal action.
"Janice was so insulated," Rosenberg explains. "You wouldn't catch Janice in a bank cashing a check or in a drive-through. She would be doing countersurveillance, parked in the bank parking lot watching what happened."
Like a crime-boss Bill Belichick, Coachman was crafty at innovating the playbook. She persuaded -- or bribed -- people working inside institutions to hand over victims' personal information. For example, if a jackboy brought her a stolen driver's license, Coachman would contact a source who worked at a Plantation tag agency. For $100 a pop, the source would punch the driver's license number into the system and pull up a social security number.
Coachman also had people inside the banks. Court documents show that police caught a BankAtlantic teller on security video in December 2008 logging into a customer's account without permission. When confronted about the access, the employee admitted Coachman had texted her for information about the account. The teller was dating Coachman's son. Coachman's own success working the scam put a target on her back. According to her nephew, "threats about harming her and her children came rolling in from anonymous callers, her home had been broken into on several occasions one time in which her daughter was held at gunpoint, and cops began to harass her whole family." But nothing stopped her. "She was determined to make a better life for her children... This was not a woman who made mistakes for fun; she made mistakes with purposes behind them." By the time Rosenberg and the task force lassoed Coachman's crew in 2009, the federal indictment listed ten defendants. They pinned the crew to $1 million in stolen funds. All told, the task force landed 55 federal indictments between 2004 and 2009.
The techniques and schemes pioneered in Broward in the mid-2000s are now some of the crime world's best practices.
The Felony Lane busts were career-makers for Rosenberg. In 2008, he was transferred to homicide and robbery investigations, then promoted to sergeant a year later. But talking about his task-force work today, his recollections are still shot through with excitement. "I loved it," he admits. "You're not just investigating a burglary. You're dealing with drugs, fraud, surveillance, informants, search warrants. You're dealing with so many levels of police work; it really was a multifaceted case."
Ironically, the aggressive response to Felony Lane activity in the late '00s is probably why it's now being exported elsewhere. Broward got too hot for the operators, so they went packing, not in organized crews but in smaller outfits. If the Felony Lane Gang had once been a single felonious sea beast, poking different tentacles at unsuspecting victims, today those tentacles have broken off and evolved with minds of their own.
Last August, law enforcement officials in Austin, Texas, were tipped off by a confidential informant that a Felony Lane Gang from Florida was working the region. The tipster gave police the address of a Super 8 motel. A surveillance team spotted a white Kia Sorrento that had been recently caught on security video, its occupants suspected of breaking into cars at a daycare.
Austin Police spotted three people pile into the Sorrento. One was a scraggly woman, a local named Tabatha Emerich. But the two others -- Taneisha Story and Johntavias Brown -- were straight outta the 954. Story had previous arrests in Broward for robbery and petit theft. Brown's Florida record included attempted robbery with a weapon, grand theft, firearm possession, and drug possession.
Austin Police followed the three as they steered for a Comerica Bank drive-through. Police called the bank right then, learning that Emerich was trying to pass a stolen check with a stolen ID. While the teller delayed the car at the bank, law enforcement approached. The fraudsters, however, drove off to a nearby parking lot. When an officer stepped out of an unmarked car pulled up to confront the crew, Story gunned the car in reverse, bashing the law enforcement vehicle. Down the road, the car blasted into an SUV before bursting into flames. Two of the women were arrested on the scene. Brown took off on foot but was scooped up later by police.
When she was interrogated, Emerich explained how they operated. She said Brown would fill out the forged checks, then sit in the back seat of the car with a stopwatch as Emerich tried to cash them. If it took too long, Brown would tell her to drive off. Story was the "makeup artist," tasked with fitting wigs and making Emerich look like the women in the stolen IDs.
Police later linked the three to 24 break-in cases and estimated they'd scammed $80,000 to $100,000. All three are facing charges of forgery, fraudulent use of identifying information, and engaging in organized crime.
Authorities up in Idaho didn't have as much luck roping in all the conspirators when a Felony Lane crew barged into the Boise area.
Last August 13, the Ada County Sheriff's Office got a call from a Mountain West Bank branch in the small town of Eagle. A dark Toyota Corolla was idling in the far lane of the drive-through. The woman behind the wheel was trying to cash a $2,340 check made out to her. She flashed an Idaho driver's license and a Mountain West checking card. But the teller recognized the driver and her friend: Two days earlier, they'd cashed a check that turned out to be fraudulent.
When deputies arrested the two women at the bank, both were wearing wigs. The Corolla turned out to be stolen from Hollywood, Florida. Danielle Cook, age 28, of Pembroke Pines had a clean record. Jennifer Gallagher from Margate, age 31, had a number of petit theft charges on her record as well as a recent charge of possession of hydromorphone.
When Cook was questioned, she told investigators she had been recruited in South Florida to "make money." An admitted drug addict in need of cash, she'd agreed, then hopped in the Toyota with two guys whom she knew only by their first names. They drove cross-country. Cook explained she and Gallagher were told to wear wigs and hit the farthest lane from the bank. They were promised 10 percent of the overall take.
"The people behind these groups tend to prey on vulnerable women who are desperate for money, and Danielle was definitely in that situation," says Craig Durham, Cook's attorney. "The girls that are involved in this basically don't have any decision-making whatsoever. My understanding is, you get involved, and the next thing you know, you're not free to leave, so you do what you're told."
IDs and checks that the women had been using had been stolen out of parking lots at gyms. Police determined that Gallagher and Cook had cashed a dozen fraudulent checks in a three-day run for a total of $26,502. One day, the pair hit seven banks. Both women face bank fraud and aggravated identity theft charges. "Obviously she made choices that have consequences, and she's going to face those, but I think there was less culpability than the ones who directed this thing," Durham says. The men were never found.
The rash of robberies and ID thefts along the Seattle-Tacoma, Washington, area in the fall of 2013 was eventually cleared up -- unfortunately, not in time to collar the assailants.
In Seattle, a Good Samaritan found AAA and insurance cards from four women in the trash at a gas station. He looked up the victims, who met and swapped stories. The same guy or girl must have broken into their cars, they concluded; taken the IDs, checks, and credit cards; and dumped the rest. Working backward, police eventually realized eight female victims had been scammed in a 15-day crime spree targeted at schools, daycares, and gyms. In late October, investigators saw the perp on a bank security cam cashing a forged check: a buzz-headed guy with "Gucci" inked across his neck, behind the wheel of a light-colored Chevy Tahoe. Police circulated the suspect's picture nationwide, as well as that of a brown-haired female accomplice in her 20s.
In the first week of November, police in Fort Lauderdale matched the pictures to 40-year-old Ronald Rhoda and 23-year-old Alexa Durkee. The former's criminal file in Broward County was fat with multiple possession-of-cocaine charges as well as conspiracy to sell and grand-theft arrests. By the time Washington state law enforcement swore out arrest warrants in November 2013 -- for identity theft and forgery of checks -- for Rhoda and Durkee, the couple probably weren't even in the same time zone. Durkee has never been arrested on the charges. Rhoda, however, was nabbed in Williamsburg, Virginia, in March 2014 for identity theft, forgery, grand larceny, and conspiracy to commit grand larceny, among other charges. He was pulling the same old Felony Lane scam.
None of this comes as much of a surprise to Rosenberg. For one, unless the arrests are part of a federal indictment, most of the collars related to Felony Lane will end up with a handful of years in jail at most. Even the federal cases don't carry too much of a sentence. "Godmother" Sebrina Smith was given 56 months, Carlos Irvin 77 months, and A.D. Hampton 78 months. All three picked up later fraud charges. Janice Coachman was given a ten-year prison sentence. She's still inside. None of the four could be reached for comment.
Rosenberg is also quick to point out that banks aren't exactly aggressive in their own security measures. If tellers quizzed every customer to confirm their identity, customers might take their business elsewhere. "Customer service," Rosenberg shrugs. As such, almost every bank has budgeted for loss due to fraud, and victims typically get their money back -- the costs are spread to all the bank customers through rising fees. The crews taken down by the task force alone were responsible for $6 million in thefts. That level of institutional acceptance keeps Felony Lane going.
"I don't think it'll ever go away," the detective says. "I don't know how you stop it."
Send your story tips to the author, Kyle Swenson.
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