By Joe Johnson
Athens-Clarke County police this week obtained over a dozen arrest warrants for an alleged member of the so-called Felony Lane Gang, for her alleged involvement in a series of thefts from vehicles in Athens in recent months.
On Monday, police obtained warrants charging 28-year-old Emma Patrice McIlwain of Punta Gorda, Fla. With three counts of identity fraud, five counts of first-degree forgery, four counts of theft by deception, and one count each of criminal attempt to commit theft by deception, financial transaction card theft, and theft by receiving stolen property.
The gang, which is based somewhere out of state sends out crews that break into vehicles containing unattended purses, according to published reports from across the country.
According to Athens-Clarke County police detective Nathaniel Franco, Felony Lane Gang crews have targeted Athens several times over the past year. These crews select parks, daycares, gyms, and other public places where purses or wallets are commonly left in vehicles. A crew member breaks the vehicle window, grabs a purse or wallet, and then leaves the area in a rented car, frequently with a stolen tag.
“These gangs operate in broad daylight and wait for individuals to leave their vehicle to pick up children, take a walk, or workout,” Franco said. “It is important to always remove valuable items from your vehicle. If you are a victim, you should contact the ACCPD but also remember to reach out to your bank and credit card companies, as well as keep a close eye on your accounts to prevent fraudulent transactions.”
They target parking lots of businesses that are frequented by females who are known to leave purses unattended in their vehicles.
The thieves then use stolen bank cards to purchase gift cards at grocery stores and use stolen identity documents to forge checks, which they cash at banks, “using the (drive-thru) teller lane with the least visibility -- the felony lane," said Franco, the lead investigator for the case.
He said that McIlwain will need to take care of her charges in Montana before she can be extradited for prosecution in Athens.
McIlwain, who committed her alleged crimes in late October, was arrested last month in Butte, Montana while possessing stolen identity information and forged checks in cases unrelated to the crimes in Athens, police said.
Franco identified and linked McIlwain to the Athens incidents with assistance from the FBI and detectives in Butte.
Franco said he determined that members of the Felony Lane Gang first visited Athens in September, when McIlwain’s associates stole credit cards, checks, and identity documents from a victim’s car in Ben Burton Park.
The detective subsequently confirmed that in October, McIlwaine used the stolen documents to withdraw almost $22,000 from banks in Winder, Watkinsville, and Athens, including from the victim’s bank account.
In a related incident, a Felony Lane Gang member used identity documents stolen from a parked car in Southeast Clarke Park on September 17, 2019, in fraudulent transactions in Charleston, SC.
Franco said he suspects members of a Felony Lane Gang crew were responsible for seven vehicle break-ins that occurred in a two-hour period the night of Nov. 18, in which most of the vehicles were entered by having their windows smashed out.
All the incidents occurred in the parking lots of fitness centers, a daycare center and a grocery store along Atlanta Highway.
In the meantime, the detective said he continued to work the cases.
“I may be able to link other members of (McIlwain's) group to crimes in Athens,” Franco said. “Any new information I develop will be looked into.”