GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Federal authorities arrested eight Florida residents in Grand Rapids late last month in connection to a string of smash-and-grab purse thefts and subsequent bank frauds. The feds say the suspects were pulling what’s referred to as the “Felony Lane” scheme.
The suspects — 21-year-old Taylor Hamilton, 38-year-old Jelcorby Kent, 35-year-old Amber King, 22-year-old Taylor Lawhead, 23-year-old Tyrone McGowan, 28-year-old John Newton, 21-year-old Xavier Romer and 22-year-old Virquan Smith — each face charges of conspiracy to commit bank fraud, bank fraud and aggravated identity theft.
The “Felony Lane” scheme works like this: The crooks stake out locations where women may be likely to leave their purse in their car, like parks, day cares or gyms, and then break into likely-looking vehicles and steal the purses. The women involved in the scheme then go to a bank drive-thru wearing a disguise to make them look more like the victims. They pick the drive-thru lane farthest from the bank — known as the “felony lane,” which gives the scheme its name — so it will be harder for tellers to see they’re fakes. They use bank cards, checkbooks and IDs to withdraw money from victims’ accounts.
There are multiple groups pulling the Felony Lane scheme in the eastern U.S., authorities say, usually based in or around Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Two other such groups have been prosecuted in West Michigan in recent years, according to a federal criminal complaint written by an FBI agent.
The criminal complaints says the most recent investigation started Jan. 23 when three women’s purses were stolen from their vehicles outside a gym in Milford, which is in southeast Michigan.
Authorities quickly suspected a Felony Lane gang. They started keeping an eye out for cars rented out of Fort Lauderdale and soon found one at a southeast Michigan hotel. The FBI started watching that car and tailed it to Grand Rapids on Jan. 31.
Once in West Michigan, the suspects stopped at an area store that sells wigs. The feds say they saw Romer come out of that store and go up to a minivan that had previously been reported as suspicious in Wixom, near Milford.
Both vehicles then went to four West Michigan Chase Bank branches. Each time, the minivan would go through the drive-thru while the people in the rental car parked nearby to keep watch.
At the fourth bank, police went up to both vehicles and arrested all eight suspects — the women from the minivan and the men from the rental car.
According to the criminal complaint, when authorities searched the cars, they found “a large quantity of cash,” items belonging to the women from Milford, and IDs or credit cards belonging to a total of 19 people.
Authorities say Hamilton impersonated one of the Milford women at the banks, withdrawing a total of $6,600 from the first three banks. The suspects were arrested before a transaction was conducted at the fourth bank.
The charges against the eight suspects arrested in Grand Rapids were filed in federal court Monday. No further court dates have been set. If convicted, they could each spend up to 32 years in prison.
But with more than one Felony Lane gang operating, it’s important to remain vigilant. The Kent County Sheriff’s Department says it has seen an increase in larcenies.
“The YMCA in Belmont, we had several vehicles that had got broken into there that were also unlocked vehicles with valuables. We’re almost positive that it’s related to that, as well,” Plainfield Community Policing Officer Mandy Trevino said.
So how do you protect yourself?
“You want to make sure that you’re parked in a well-lit area, also make sure your windows are completely rolled up, your doors are locked. Take all your valuables with you,” Trevino said.
–24 Hour News 8’s Sarah Hurwitz contributed to this report.