BIDDEFORD — You leave your purse in the car, covering it up with a jacket, before you step out to you watch your child or grandchild play a team sport. Perhaps you’re at the gym, or walking on one of the city’s trails, and decide to leave your handbag “safely” in the locked vehicle. 

Except, it isn’t safe. You return to the car, and see that the window is smashed and your handbag is gone — and with it your check book, bank cards, identification and more. Months later, someone uses it.

Biddeford Police were among several local law enforcement agencies that investigated a spate of ‘smash-and-grab’ vehicle burglaries that resulted in significant financial theft over the last couple of years. The local departments were thanked by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of New York for their roles in a wider investigation that led to the indictment of nine men on an array of charges. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald file photo

Yes, it can happen here — and has. And that is why Biddeford Police, their counterparts in Saco, Sanford, Scarborough and in other Maine locales, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Maine and the FBI regional office in Portland, are earning kudos for their efforts in investigating cases that ultimately led to a 13-count indictment in New York of nine people involved with the so called “Felony Lane Gang.”

Biddeford Police Sgt. Steve Gorton said the department has investigated several local incidents. 

The smash-and-grab thieves came through Biddeford a couple of years ago, said Gorton in a recent telephone interview, and later made another sweep, all part of a larger operation up and down the I-95 corridor. 

“It is part of a combined ongoing investigation,” said Gorton, a police department veteran of nearly 25 years who heads Biddeford’s Community Policing and Engagement Team. “We’ve had several incidents … with some pretty intense financial victimization.” 

The indictments allege that the mobile identity theft ring traveled across the country breaking into cars, often targeting those parked by women at locations like health and fitness centers, daycares, outdoor recreational parks, and dog parks, according to a news release issued by Acting U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of New York Antoinette T. Bacon.  

Each of the men indicted earlier this month, most from Fort LauderdaleFlorida, and others from New York, face up to 30 years in prison if convicted. 

Women figured largely in the scheme — targets were often women who left their handbags in their cars, women also took part in the crimes, according to federal authorities, though no women are among the nine under indictment. 

Bacon said the leaders of the scheme recruited women, whom they often referred to as “faces,” to impersonate the smash-and-grab victims in drive-through bank lanes. She said the recruited check cashers were almost always suffering from illegal drug use and were paid, at least partially, in narcotics. 

Over the last few years, several people, all connected to the same operation, came through the Biddeford area and conducted smash-and-grabs, Gorton said. There were arrests. Then, months later, the check cashing crews arrived. The losses to victims locally add up to “tens of thousands” of dollars, he said. 

And that’s not all. 

“There’s the human element. .., (someone) broke their window and took their personal information,” said Gorton. Not only are the checkbook and credit cards gone — so is the house key. And people worry and feel anxious and victimized. 

The scenario that played out in Biddeford and in other Maine communities also took place in cities and towns across the nation. Back in March, three alleged Felony Lane Gang members were indicted in Portland, Oregon, according to the US attorney there. 

Nationwide, according to Bacon, the financial losses exceed $1.5 million. Defendants were collectively involved in more than 700 smash-and-grab thefts and approximately 1,000 fraudulent bank transactions in the Northern District of New York and all over the country, she said. 

It feels good to be a part of the wider investigation that is bringing some gang members to justice,  Gorton said. The nine indictments in New York are “awesome,” he said, and bring a certain satisfaction — but he noted there are several victims who are out a significant amount of money. 

“It has really impacted people locally,” said Gorton. “And while nine people have been indicted in New York, we haven’t fixed this problem forever. Be conscious that there may be different people working the same model.” 

  

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