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March 19, 2014Philadelphia, PA, United StatesFinancial Crimes

Leader of Florida's million dollar 'Felony Lane Gang' sentenced to more than 15 years in prison

PHILADELPHIA – The leader of the "Felony Lane Gang" conspiracy was sentenced March 18 to 188 months in prison. The sentencing follows an investigation conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), HSI’s Bulk Cash Smuggling Center, the U.S. Secret Service, the Pennsylvania State Police, the FBI, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and other state and local investigative agencies.

Travis J. Russ, 32, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was sentenced Tuesday by U.S. District Senior Judge William Caldwell for his leadership role in a car break-in and bank fraud crew that stole more than a million dollars in the five years it was in operation. Testimony presented at Russ’s sentencing showed that the crew stole millions of dollars from banks using stolen checks and identification. At the sentencing, Russ was identified as the leader of the group of thieves. Russ was implicated in committing this scheme for more than five years and victimizing more than 250 people in the course of his fraud scheme, dubbed the "Felony Lane Gang."

The "Felony Lane Gang" is a group of thieves based in Fort Lauderdale that travels across the United States stealing identities and checkbooks from unattended cars ("smash and grabs"). With the stolen checkbooks and driver’s licenses, the gang cashes checks using the drive through lane of banks. The lane farthest from video cameras and tellers has been dubbed the "felony lane" because of the ease with which false identities can be used to cash checks.

"Yesterday’s sentencing is the result of the teamwork between HSI Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania State Police and the U.S. Attorney’s Office along with our local, state and federal law enforcement partners to disrupt a Florida organized theft ring that victimized Pennsylvania and Ohio residents in a scheme to line their own pockets,"said John Kelleghan, special agent in charge for HSI Philadelphia. "The ring would use stolen identity documents to remove funds from victims’ credit cards, debit cards or personal bank checking accounts. HSI will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to dismantle multistate identity theft rings that are jeopardizing the financial livelihood of vulnerable Americans and exploiting the integrity of our banking system."

In December 2012, a grand jury returned a four-count indictment charging 10 people with conspiracy to commit fraud, bank fraud, wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. All of those who were charged entered guilty pleas, and the majority of them have been sentenced:

  • Sylvester Joseph, 26, of Derrfield, Fla. – identified as a leader and pending sentencing;
  • Jarrett Hobbs, 31, of Fort Lauderdale – identified as a leader and pending sentencing;
  • Khiante Thompson, 20, of Fla. – 14 months in prison;
  • Phillip Etienne, 31, of Margate, Fla. – 46 months in prison;
  • Willie L. Ogiste, 35, of Fort Lauderdale – pending sentencing;
  • Teresa L. Brimhall, 45, of Oakland Park, Fla. – sentenced to 18 months in prison;
  • April Ainsworth, 26, of Richmond, Texas – sentenced to 36 months in prison;
  • Colleen Shelly, age 49, of Lauderdale Lakes, Fla. – sentenced to 11 months in prison; and
  • Wendy Snyder-Lucas, 31, of Fort Lauderdale – sentenced to 11 months in prison.

The 10 persons charged in this indictment struck Pennsylvania from August to October 2012. During that time, they broke into and/or stole the identities of more than 100 people. In addition, the group targeted state parks where victims left purses, wallets and checkbooks in their cars while using the recreation facilities. The "smash and grabs" occurred at approximately 25 different state parks and recreation centers in and around Central Pennsylvania.

This group used stolen checks and identification to obtain funds from banks and credit unions. According to the indictment, a conspirator, disguised as the account holder, used the drive-through lane at the account holder’s bank, submitted to the teller a forged check with the stolen identification of the victim, and received the funds. Through this process, these conspirators successfully compromised numerous accounts and stole tens of thousands of dollars in funds from the victims.

The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael A. Consiglio in the middle district of Pennsylvania.