Man, 18, known as high-ranking member of theft ring, deputies say

Man, 18, known as high-ranking member of theft ring, deputies say

Steven Ferguson was spotted trying to break into cars belonging to mourners attending a funeral service at a North Lauderdale cemetery, authorities said.

But long before he was arrested Sunday afternoon outside the cemetery, law enforcement officials throughout Florida knew him as more than just a car burglary suspect looking for easy pickings, officials said.

Ferguson is only 18, but he is considered a high-ranking member of one of South Florida’s notorious “Felony Lane” gangs, groups of thieves who drive to small, unsuspecting towns in other states to conduct crime sprees, the Broward Sheriff’s Office said.

The Pompano Beach man’s arrest is likely to yield arrests and additional charges in other unsolved cases in Virginia, Georgia and South Carolina, officials said. The arrest also sheds insight into how such burglary and identity theft rings operate, they said.

“Instead of selling drugs at the corner, they are learning these white-collar crimes and identity thefts,” said Broward sheriff’s Sgt. Tom O’Brien, who heads the agency’s criminal investigations at the airport. “It’s an epidemic.”

Although Ferguson was arrested this week, law enforcement officers and bankers across the state learned about Ferguson last week in Orlando during a training seminar about felony lane gangs, Broward sheriff’s Deputy Jonathan Korman said at Ferguson’s court hearing this week.

Not only was he mentioned by name at the seminar, “he was on top of the flow chart,” Korman said. “And everyone else branched down from Steven Ferguson.”

Even though “felony lane gang” suggests one group, it actually is more than one ring of thieves carrying out such crimes, officials said.

In most cases, those arrested have South Florida addresses and travel in rental cars. They target cars parked at state parks, day care centers, gyms, supermarkets and cemeteries. Their loot usually includes wallets or purses containing credit and debit cards and checkbooks.

The thieves later drive to the victims’ banks to cash stolen checks, often wearing wigs and sunglasses for disguises. They often use the farthest drive-through teller lanes to avoid surveillance cameras. Thus the term “felony lane.”

Such patterns were evident in recent cases involving Ferguson and a Pompano Beach woman with a drug history who was recruited for crime because of her blonde looks, according to officials and court records.

The case against Ferguson began to unravel on Sept. 8, when he and the woman, Dawn Walsh, 39, were caught on video using a Davie woman’s stolen IDs to open a bank and credit card account, an arrest report said.

The Davie woman told investigators her purse was stolen from her car Aug. 27, when she visited Happy Tails Dog Park in Plantation.

An hour after opening a credit card account using the woman’s Social Security card and driver’s license, Ferguson and Walsh were seen on surveillance video renting a Mercedes-Benz E350 at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, officials said.

Walsh was wearing a wig, they said.

“From what I understand, [Walsh] is a person who receives the documents stolen from vehicles,” Korman said. “The gang tries to pick out a person who best resembles the person whose documents are stolen.”

Weeks later, police authorities in York County, Va., contacted the Broward Sheriff’s Office after a spate of car burglaries at day care centers. The car being used in the burglaries was the same Mercedes-Benz that Ferguson and Walsh were seen renting, officials said.

Officials in Virginia engaged in a police chase with the Mercedes-Benz, but lost them. The car later was found abandoned at a hotel in York County, according to a report.

On Sept. 18, Ferguson, Shaw and three others were riding in a rented GMC Yukon and were pulled over for a routine traffic stop in South Carolina. The group had approximately $38,000 in cash and small amounts of drugs among them, officials said. Ferguson and Walsh were charged on minor drug possession charges and later bonded out, records show.

Investigators said they suspect the group was returning to South Florida after embarking on a multi-state crime spree.

Using the case involving the car break-in at the Plantation dog park, the Broward Sheriff’s Office arrested Walsh on a warrant as she was walking out of an abandoned home in Oakland Park.

Ferguson was arrested Sunday outside the Star of David Memorial Gardens and Cemetery in North Lauderdale as he allegedly tried to flee in a rented Lexus SUV.

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