Butler County has apparently not been spared from a roving band of thieves with its roots in Florida and its reach as far west as Nebraska.
Butler Township police last week charged one suspected member of the “Felony Lane Gang” with cashing several stolen checks worth a combined $16,000 in September.
The smash-and-grab theft crew uses a similar manner of crime — breaking into unoccupied cars at parks, shopping centers and churches near interstates, according to authorities.
They target purses, wallets or glove boxes that contain checkbooks, credit cards and other personal identifi cation.
The crooks quickly head to bank branches with drivethrough windows. Sometimes they don disguises such as wigs and sunglasses and cash the stolen checks, investigators said.
Gang members use the lane farthest from the teller window, known as the “felony lane,” because that is usually the most diffi cult place for tellers to make positive identifi cation of a person. The crew, which number in the dozens, sprang up in south Florida in 2007, Pennsylvania State Police say, and has since crisscrossed the nation committing crimes up and down the East Coast and in the Midwest. Earlier this year, investigators suspect the network turned up in eastern Pennsylvania. In September, the gang found Butler County.
“I knew nothing about this outfi t before then,” Butler Township Detective Sgt. Nathan Teslik admitted, “but State Police and others did.” Teslik got an arrest warrant Oct. 24 for one gang member, 26-year-old April D. Ainsworth of Richmond, Texas, who faces 24 felony charges in connection with a Sept. 16 crime spree.
“We've only charged her,” Teslik said, “but we believe she had help.” Ainsworth is in the Dauphin County Prison on $2.35 million bail. She faces numerous charges
in that county as well as in Centre, Cumberland and Franklin counties.
With her at the Dauphin County Prison are two other suspected gang members.
Crime spree here
Butler Township police suspect the Felony Lane Gang struck shortly after 1 p.m. Sept. 16 at Moraine State Park in Muddy Creek Township, where a thief smashed the window of a car and stole a New Castle woman's purse.
Park rangers later learned that the same day a Slippery Rock woman's car was broken into and her purse was stolen. It contained checks, credit and debit cards and other ID, Teslik said.
Several hours later and 50 miles northwest, a minivan parked near the boat launch at Pymatuning
State Park in Ashtabula County, Ohio, was broken into. A purse containing a checkbook and other items was taken.
On Sept. 20 at 10:43 a.m., two of the stolen checks from different victims were cashed at the Nex-Tier Bank branch at the
Moraine Pointe Plaza in Butler Township.
The check casher for identifi cation used the driver's license of the Slippery Rock woman whose purse was stolen from her vehicle at Moraine State
Park. She is a NexTier Bank customer, Teslik noted.
Thirty-nine minutes later, the exact same checkcashing scenario happened at the NexTier Bank branch in Lyndora.
It repeated itself two more times that day, at 12:05 p.m. at the NexTier Bank branch in the Clearview Mall, Center Township, and at 12:43 p.m. at the NexTier Bank branch in Chicora.
At each bank, two checks were cashed. Each check, eight in all, was for $2,000.
Video surveillance cameras at the banks captured the crimes and provided police with the precise timeline, Teslik said. The video helped investigators identify Ainsworth as the
“State police were familiar with the Felony Lane Gang and recognized (Ainsworth) as the person cashing the checks,” Teslik said.
Teslik said Ainsworth that day was accompanied by another person, who authorities have not identified.
Police suspect but don't know for certain that other gang members were responsible for breaking into the vehicles Sept. 16 and stealing the women's
District Judge Kevin O'Donnell issued an arrest warrant Oct. 24 for Ainsworth on eight counts each of identity theft and forgery, and four counts each of theft by deception and receiving stolen property. Butler Township police then filed a detainer for the defendant with the Dauphin County Prison; however, they have no timetable for when she would appear here for her court hearing. “There's no plan,” Teslik said. “We'll wait our turn.”
Other gang activity
Days and weeks before Butler Township police charged Ainsworth, municipal and state police in central and eastern Pennsylvania filed their own identity theft case against her.
Authorities believe those crimes in nine separate cases could be the work of the Felony Lane Gang.
Investigators believe that between Aug. 6 and Sept. 17, Ainsworth and her crew broke into more than 20 cars at state parks in Perry, Cumberland, Franklin and Centre counties.
The suspects allegedly stole checks, bank cards and other personal ID, which were allegedly passed on to Ainsworth, who cashed the checks, making off with thousands of dollars.
“She presented stolen checks from different accounts in the names of two individuals,” State College police Detective Ralph Ralston Jr. said. He charged Ainsworth on Oct.
“She used the stolen identifi cation of a third person from State College to cash two checks, each for $2,000.”
Tellers at two other banks refused her attempt to cash additional stolen checks, Ralston said.
During their investigation, State College police learned from State Police at the Newport barracks in Perry County of Ainsworth's possible connection to the Felony Lane
“That was the first I heard about it,” Ralston said.
A short time later, he learned that Ainsworth and two accomplices, Willie L. Ogiste, 35, of Lauderdale Lakes, Fla., and Teresa L. Brimhall, 45, of East Lauderdale, Fla., had been arrested Sept. 25 in Boone County, Ky.
The trio were extradited last month to Pennsylvania and arraigned at magistrate offi ces for alleged crimes committed in several counties, including Centre.
Ogiste and Brimhall are in the Dauphin County Prison on $400,000 bail and $250,000 bail, respectively. Ralston got a chance to interview Ainsworth on Oct. 25. He declined to discuss what she revealed.
Lt. Charles Ringer of Newport State Police said the affected jurisdictions in Pennsylvania are sharing information about their cases. Ringer also has talked to Florida authorities to learn more about the Felony Lane Gang.
“I’ve also spoken to several federal agencies,” he said.
Ringer refused to identify those agencies but other investigators acknowledged the FBI and Secret Service are interested in the investigation as a possible organized crime operation.
Teslik said he was advised that he may be getting a call from the FBI, after he fi led his case against Ainsworth.
Meanwhile, Ringer stressed that the investigation in Pennsylvania is “in its infancy” and that no determination has been reached about whether the crimes for which Ainsworth is charged are the work of the Felony Lane Gang.
He did not rule out that other groups have grown out of the original gang.
“We don’t know if these are copy cats, part of a broad organized crime ring or some kind of splinter group,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to determine. Beyond that, I have no further comment.”