Sourdough Trail

A family leaves their car behind as they head up Sourdough Canyon Trail Friday, May 22, 2020, in Bozeman. The trailhead was one of multiple Bozeman locations to be targeted by the Felony Lane Gang of Florida.

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The car break-ins started at the end of last month.

On April 30, Gallatin County law enforcement received reports of items stolen from several cars with smashed windows.

Police had received other theft reports that day. A drum set was stolen. A caller reported someone was shoplifting. A landlord claimed a tenant was stealing from them. The first call for a car break-in came in at 4 p.m.

A woman reported her car’s window was smashed at the Bozeman Softball Complex, court documents say. Her purse, backpacks, a vest and a watch were taken. So was her credit card, driver’s license and three checks.

Dispatchers received six more calls from people whose cars were broken into at Sourdough Trailhead, Lindley Park, Peet’s Hill, Bozeman Pond and Cherry River Fishing Access. Purses, wallets, bank cards and driver’s licenses were gone. One caller said his Social Security card was stolen.

The next morning, similar reports came in for three cars at the Bozeman Sports Complex.

Detectives recognized the trend of break-ins as a play from a group called the Felony Lane Gang, a Florida-based crime ring that has gained national attention for its “smash and grabs.” Police believe this isn’t the first time the organized crime ring has hit Bozeman and likely not the last.

The group, based in Fort Lauderdale, travels across the country stealing things from cars, according to the FBI’s website. The gang cashes checks using drive-through lanes at banks. They pick the one farthest from video cameras and bank tellers — hence “felony lane.”

In 2012, a grand jury in Pennsylvania indicted 10 people the FBI believed to be leaders of the gang on charges of conspiracy to commit fraud, bank fraud, wire fraud and aggravated identify theft. The charges stemmed from car break-ins and the stolen identities of more than 100 people in Pennsylvania in the fall of 2012, according to the FBI. The group targeted 25 state parks and recreation centers there where victims left purses, wallets and checkbooks in their car.

All 10 pleaded guilty.

Bozeman police detective Robert Vanuka investigated the break-ins in Gallatin County and said the assailants moves were “like textbook.” Police have said the burglaries were connected to the Felony Lane Gang.

Vanuka likened the gang’s methods to a fast food franchise, like McDonald’s.

“It’s like a proven strategy … If you just model it, it theoretically works,” he said.

And a place like Bozeman is a prime target for the group because of its proximity to Interstate 90. The city is on the way to places like Seattle, Salt Lake City and Denver.

“They come in, they hit hard and then move on,” Vanuka said.

The crews are organized. A group of people smash car windows and grab whatever they can. Those items then get handed over to someone who Vanuka said “was down on their luck” to cash fraudulent checks or open bank accounts in exchange for money.

The hits typically happen near the end of the week. By the time the checks bounce, Vanuka said, it’s the start of another week.

“That’s what usually happens is, by the time we figure out what’s going on, they’re gone,” Vanuka said.

Vanuka said it’s a numbers game — they hit as many cars as they can.

“We’re talking tens of thousands of dollars weekly, if not daily,” he said.

Vanuka recognized the plays from the recent hits in Bozeman and started piecing together the puzzle.

A man whose car was burglarized at the Cherry River Fishing Access said he caught a glimpse of a man with short facial hair sitting inside a Toyota RAV4 in the parking lot, according to charging documents. The witness said he then went for a walk. When he returned, court documents say, the window of his car was smashed and the RAV4 was gone.

Another witness saw a newer black sedan drive slowly through the Bozeman Sports Park parking lot around the same time the thefts happened. The witness reported seeing several car doors there open and close, according to charging documents. The car then left.

On May 1, the second day of the spree, a deputy found a car matching the witnesses’ descriptions of the sedan. The deputy saw the driver of the car fail to signal a turn and stopped it.

Andrea Latie Monroe was the driver. Xavier Avanti Taylor was in the passenger seat.

Both told Vanuka they flew to Salt Lake City from Florida and drove to Bozeman with a rental car to visit family and friends, court documents say. Taylor said they were staying at an Airbnb but couldn’t remember its address.

The detectives released Taylor and Monroe after finding a Walmart receipt for a five-in-one tool and no stolen items in the car, court documents say. But detectives followed them back to their vacation rental, on West Shore Drive near Belgrade.

They sent a photo of the car to a witness, asking if it was the same one seen at the sports complex. The witness said it was.

The detectives requested a search warrant for the house and arrested Taylor, Monroe, and Joshua David Blair and Elmer Denaro Ellison, who were also at the rental.

During the search, deputies found stolen items from the break-ins hidden in trash cans and inside packed luggage waiting at the front door of the house, court documents say. Police said they found seven wigs scattered under a refrigerator and a couch, a Colorado license plate under a rug and stolen IDs and credit cards.

The four each face charges of conspiracy to commit theft, criminal mischief and tampering with evidence, all felonies. Blair faces an additional felony count of tampering with or fabricating physical evidence.

Blair told detectives he, Ellison and Taylor were like family, but that he had just met Monroe. When asked why they left Florida during a pandemic, court documents say, Blair responded he “wanted to get out of town and Taylor has an aunt here.”

Elizabeth Musick, Blair’s attorney, said Blair has no criminal history nor any knowledge or connection with the felony lane gang. She said his is a victim in this case because of the others past criminal history.

“He maintains his innocence concerning the allegations that he was involved in any way with the car break-ins that happened here in Bozeman,” Musick said.

Blair, Ellison and Taylor have each pleaded not guilty to the charges. A court appearance for Monroe to enter a plea had not been scheduled as of Friday.

They are each being held on $500,000 bail at the Gallatin County jail.

A large amount of evidence was recovered from the house and cars, and the investigation is still ongoing. Vanuka said officers got lucky with good information and being able to identify a suspect that led to others.

Vanuka said these types of crimes are becoming more frequent. He said the gang has a model that works.

“We haven’t been able to stop it. Unfortunately, you really can’t at this particular point,” Vanuka said.

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Freddy Monares can be reached at fmonares@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2630.

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