FBI: Felony Lane Gang has been terrorizing moms across US for years

Tresa Baldas, Detroit Free Press
Toni Huizar, Amber Dunlap, Tiphanie Sager, all of Florida, were arrested in Indiana on Feb. 24, 2019, after allegedly taunting police to "do ya job [expletive]" on Instagram.

DETROIT – It was broad daylight when Christina Smith rolled through banks across metro Detroit, cashing thousand-dollar checks with stolen IDs, court records show.

Some days she hit four banks in a row.

But surveillance cameras were rolling. And before long, the FBI was on to Smith, who unwittingly outed herself: She had worn sunglasses during some of her bank scams – the same pair she wore in a photograph that turned up on Facebook.

Smith, 40, a mother of four who admitted to preying on moms by stealing their identities to cash fake checks, was sentenced to two years in prison in December for crimes she committed while running with a gang whose affinity for social media may be working against it.

The Felony Lane Gang, a longtime thorn in the FBI's side that originated in Florida a decade ago, has been targeting moms across the country for years, stealing their purses and using their IDs and credit cards to commit more crimes, like cashing bogus checks or going on shopping sprees with stolen credit cards. The men do the smash-n-grabs. The women cash the checks, often wearing wigs while sitting in the farthest drive-thru lane to avoid detection – which is where the "Felony Lane Gang" gets its name from.

But like the rest of America, authorities note, these gang members also live on social media – and it's costing them.

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Over the last five years, more than 1,500 Felony Lane Gang members have been identified and arrested nationwide, according to the Felony Lane Gang Task Force, which uses Facebook to help police nationwide catch these traveling thieves. In Detroit, at least 26 members have been prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office in recent years.

The FBI has ensnared many of these members, in part by monitoring their social media accounts. Selfies are also getting these bandits into trouble.

Take the case of two FLG members who were arrested in Clinton Township near Detroit after the rental vehicle they were in flipped over as they were fleeing the scene of a car break-in. Police seized five cellphones from the car. On them were several selfies of two more Felony Lane Gang members displaying large amounts of cash. The cellphones also contained photographs of stolen driver's licenses and Social Security cards, records show.

Both men in the selfies were arrested, charged and convicted in Michigan and are now serving nearly five-year prison sentences.

Instagram braggers

Social media post, allegedly made by three female Felony Lane Gang members, who police say taunted them on Instagram to "do ya job."

Instagram is another popular outlet for boastful Felony Lane Gang members.

Consider three Florida women who were arrested in Indiana last year after daring authorities on Instagram to "do ya job (expletive)." The women were believed to be Felony Lane Gang members, police said, and had warrants out for their arrest for a series of thefts in Georgia.

According to Indiana State Police, the women were arrested on Feb. 24 about 15 miles outside Indianapolis following a police chase. State troopers searched the rented Nissan the women were traveling in and found a "substantial amount of credit cards" inside, along with checkbooks, Social Security cards and identification cards, which were determined to be stolen.

According to police, about a month before their arrest, the women went on social media to brag about their crimes as well as to taunt the police who were searching for them.

"That is exactly what Trooper Christopher Walts did," Indiana State Police said. "He did his job by putting these fugitives in jail after a short police chase."

All three women were charged, convicted of theft and sentenced to a year in prison.

Stolen items seized from a car involved in a 2019 police chase in Indiana. The women in the car were allegedly Felony Lane Gang members who had taunted police on Instagram.

'Master Splinter' busted on Facebook

Facebook has also proved helpful to the FBI, which, given its law enforcement powers, can subpoena the social media giant for information not readily available to the public. But sometimes, the information is just out there in the open, and the feds are quick to use it.

Take the case of "Master Splinter."

According to court documents, a woman who was recruited by the Felony Lane Gang to cash checks helped lead the FBI to an FLG member who was wanted for a two-year-long bank scheme. She told the FBI that one of the members who recruited her was called "T" and had a Facebook page under the name "Master Splinter."

The FBI checked Facebook, and learned that "Master Splinter" was a man named Tedgrick Montgomery, who was wanted for bank crimes in 2015 and 2016. He was eventually arrested, charged and convicted for fraud. He is currently serving a four-year prison sentence.

Then there's the case of Smith, the mother whose sunglasses outed her. According to court records, Facebook posts helped the FBI bust Smith and three of her Felony Lane Gang cohorts. Here's how:

In July 2018, court records show, Smith cashed $1,000 checks at 13 different banks using a stolen driver's license. In six days, she scammed bank tellers in Bloomfield Hills, Lathrup Village, Ann Arbor, Redford, Royal Oak, Detroit, Eastpointe, Warren and Sterling Heights.

Bank surveillance video captured some of these events.

But it wasn't until investigators reviewed Facebook that Smith was arrested.

On July 17, 2018, a detective in Toledo reviewed the Facebook page of a woman named Makeia Stewart, who had posted photos on her page that raised eyebrows. One of them was of her and Smith – who was caught on bank surveillance video that same day in Southgate, trying to cash a $1,000 check using a stolen license.

Smith was wearing the same pair of sunglasses in the Facebook photo as she was during her bank scam.

The next day, Smith was arrested outside a fast food restaurant in Toledo while entering a Kia Sorento with two other men. Police found a blond wig in the car, which was the same vehicle captured on bank surveillance video in Michigan, where she had cashed stolen checks, authorities said.

One of the men with Smith fled the scene. The other was arrested: Jamar Dukes, another Felony Lane Gang member who was charged and is currently awaiting trial. His picture also turned up on the same Facebook page that Smith's did.

Turned out, Smith, Duke and Stewart – the woman who had posted their photos on Facebook – were all part of the same Felony Lane Gang cell, which typically consists of several men and at least one woman who impersonates victims and cashes bad checks.

Smith was among these impersonators and collected about $150 per stolen check she successfully cashed – a role her lawyer said was minor compared to the others.

"(Smith) did not devise, orchestrate or recruit others to participate in this scheme. Nor was she responsible for obtaining the identifications and checkbooks," her attorney, David Tholen, argued in court documents, adding Smith wasn't involved in the break-ins and "handed over" all the money she got at the banks to others.

As for why Smith committed the crimes, Tholen did not explain, beyond saying she is "remorseful for what she did and she accepts responsibility for her actions." He also wrote that she had a tough childhood growing up, was raised by a grandmother, was shot once by a boyfriend, yet still managed to hold down a job at a tax service for years – a job her boss plans to give back to her when she gets out of prison.

Meanwhile, Smith's accomplices are still awaiting trial.

Stewart, who is accused of splitting bad checks with a cohort, is currently out on bond awaiting trial on identity theft and bank fraud charges. Her accused partner-in-crime, Anthony Horne, is currently locked up awaiting trial on similar charges.

A third woman, Anita Becerra, who the FBI says was part of the same cell and admitted to impersonating women to cash stolen checks, was charged on Jan. 13 in a document known as an information, which typically means a defendant has agreed to cut a deal rather than go to trial, and is cooperating.

While many investigative tools and intelligence sources were used to bust this alleged cell, it was Facebook that helped the FBI link all the defendants.

"There is no question social media has become a useful investigative tool for law enforcement. People increasingly live their lives online and law enforcement regularly receives tips based on that publicly available information," said Detroit's FBI spokesperson, Mara Schneider, who encourages the public to report any suspicious behavior or activity they see – in person or online – to the FBI or local law enforcement.

Sometimes, police note, it's hard to catch Felony Lane Gang members, given their tactics: High speed chases are their mode of operation because they know most police will decide to end the chase in the interest of public safety.

So the hunt continues.

'Cases are connected'

When the Felony Lane Gang first surfaced a decade ago, the cases initially were handled as individual burglaries.

It took a few years before law enforcement would learn that it was an organized criminal organization that crossed state lines and collectively made millions. But eventually, they caught on. And word spread that a traveling syndicate of thieves was targeting moms at day cares, gyms, schools.

"Credit card fraud and identity theft isn’t a victimless crime – it’s actually a very serious crime. This gang of thieves used force to break into homes and cars to steal private information from innocent victims,” said U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider. “These cases should serve as reminders to everyone to take steps to protect your homes and personal information from would-be criminals."

About 5½ years ago, the Felony Lane Gang Task Force was formed, with a goal of helping police catch the thieves and eventually wipe out the organization. It was started by victims, and has since been supported by Crimestoppers and local police departments across the country who share wanted photos of suspected Felony Lane Gang members on the group's Facebook page.

In 5½ years, the task force says, it has helped law enforcement capture and identity more than 1,500 Felony Lane Gang members.

But there are still plenty more out there wreaking havoc on America. In January alone, police departments in Texas, Florida, New York and Iowa posted incidents involving Felony Lane Gang members. For example:

On Tuesday, the Marion County, Florida, Sheriff's Office announced that it captured a Felony Lane suspect with the help of a K-9 that was choked in the process. The suspect had smashed the window of a car parked at a day care, stole a purse and bank cards, went shopping at Walmart before police caught up with him. They tried to pull him over, but the suspect fled at high speeds, crashed and then ran away. A police dog eventually caught up with the suspect, who tried to choke the dog until police tasered him, arrested him and took him to jail.

In Pennsylvania, Scott Township Police on Jan. 7 asked for help in identifying the driver of a white Jeep Grand Cherokee who is wanted for smash and grabs from vehicles in the Pittsburgh area. Police say he used stolen IDs to cash several thousands of dollars in checks at banks throughout Pittsburgh. A photo of the suspect was posted on Facebook.

In New York, one man died and two others were injured Monday after the car they were in crashed into a tree following a high speed police chase in Genesee County. The driver who was killed in the incident was believed to be a member of the Felony Lane Gang. He and three other suspected members were arrested a year earlier in Greenburgh, New York, where police said they were found with 25 stolen driver’s licenses from multiple states, stolen personal checks and 54 stolen debit/credit cards.

Still, authorities believe they are making some headway with this criminal organization, noting its acts were initially filed away as local burglaries – but not anymore.

"These cases are connected ... very well connected," the Felony Lane Gang Task Force states. "And this page is working hard to put the puzzle pieces together. "

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: FBI: Felony Lane Gang has targeted moms across the US for years