The Waldo County YMCA was targeted by a string of thefts in December, when eight cars were broken into. Credit: Kay Neufeld / BDN

Police have connected a string of thefts in York from early January to car break-ins at the Waldo County YMCA last December. All are believed to be the work of the Felony Lane Gang, an organized theft ring that emerged in 2015, police said.

This comes a month after similar car break-ins happened at YMCAs in Waldo and Hancock counties.

In the latest incidents, three cars were broken into at York Middle School on Jan. 12, according to York Detective Sgt. Thomas Cryan. Around the same time, police found items in a York dumpster that belong to a woman from Richmond who was robbed earlier in January

“This time of year, it’s fairly quiet. Three vehicles in one location that’s related to some other event outside of this area is not normal,” Cryan said.

Officials say the gang to blame is linked to a country-wide theft operation that has targeted cars in parking lots for at least seven years. While police in Belfast, Blue Hill and York are no closer to identifying suspects in these incidents, some officials say they have figured out the gang’s modus operandi.

“Women from, we believe, homeless shelters are approached. They’re offered a sum of money,” Belfast Detective Sergeant Daniel Fitzpatrick said.

Thieves from the gang typically steal wallets, checkbooks and identification cards in order to assume someone else’s identity and cash checks — often at banks in a different state. Cryan said the gang is named after its method of cashing checks in the drive-thru lane farthest from the building of a bank to limit exposure to security cameras and bank tellers.

The women are able to successfully cash checks and evade authorities because they change their physical appearances and disguise themselves with clothing and jewelry, Fitzpatrick said. Cryan has also noticed that most victims of the Felony Lane Gang are women.

The Felony Lane Gang isn’t new to Belfast, nor Maine at large. It first popped up in Belfast in 2015 with a similar cluster of break-ins. That was the last time Fitzpatrick, the city’s lead investigator on this case, can remember the gang targeting Belfast. The gang is spread across the country, Fitzpatrick said.

“They come in waves. When they start, they run up the whole coast and then they turn around and go back down,” Fitzpatrick said.

The Belfast and York police departments have been collaborating with law enforcement agencies across Maine, New England and the Midwest. Authorities have been able to catch members of the gang in previous incidents, according to the Portsmouth Herald, but they’ve struggled to stamp it out completely over the years. Now, however, authorities are beginning to connect the dots and figure out the gang’s technique.

The Belfast Police Department was able to track the YMCA thefts down to southern Maine, where some checks stolen from Waldo County residents were cashed. The York Police Department also has security camera footage with the same vehicles from other incidents elsewhere in the state.

However, Fitzpatrick and Cryan said the Belfast and York police departments have yet to identify suspects in these incidents.

“They have been non violent in their crime. Obviously, nobody’s ever been hurt which is part of our problem — we’ve never actually really seen them,” Fitzpatrick said.

Even so, banks are doing what they can to prevent these incidents. Kennebunk Savings and Atlantic Credit Union have put limits on the amount of money from a check that can be cashed in a drive thru, Cryan said. They are also paying closer attention to signs of identity theft and disguises.

Belfast police officers are also changing their patrol routes to keep an eye on parking lots that don’t usually need a police presence — though Fitpzatrick believes the gang hasn’t yet returned to the city.

“We would know if people’s windows were smashed in again,” he said.