LAND O'LAKES — The thieves who target purses inside vehicles parked at day care centers have returned, authorities say, this time smashing a car window at a Land O'Lakes school.
Authorities suspect it is the work of a highly organized ring that deputies have dubbed "Felony Lane," because they typically use the far lanes of bank drive-through windows so they won't be recognized when they clean out victims' accounts.
On Dec. 1, a woman dropped off her child at Sanders Elementary School. By the time she returned only two minutes later, her window was smashed and her purse was missing.
"All schools are encouraged to increase supervision in the morning at the (before and after school) programs and other times when parents are dropping off children," Pasco sheriff's Lt. Brian Prescott wrote in a memo to school officials. "Those schools just above the (Pasco-Hillsborough) county line are asked to be especially vigilant. The Pasco Sheriff's Office is conducting surveillance within our manpower limits, but we have reason to believe this criminal network has countersurveillance looking for law enforcement."
Prescott said the ring operates like this:
A group of men in dreadlocks set up surveillance at a school or day care center. They wait for parents to leave their vehicles to take their children inside, then they smash the window, steal a purse and flee. They hand off bank and credit cards to female accomplices, who immediately rush to banks across the Hillsborough County line and empty the victim's account.
Crime Stoppers of Tampa Bay is offering a reward of up to $1,000 for information that leads to the identification of a woman who fraudulently used a credit card that was stolen during one of the burglaries. The stolen credit card was used at 9 p.m. Nov. 25 at a Sweetbay supermarket at 7095 W Waters Ave. in Tampa and a half hour later at Wal-Mart, 7011 W Waters Ave.
The woman is in her 30s, weighs at least 300 pounds and has long, dark, straight hair. She was last seen wearing a black nylon jacket with white stripes on the sleeves, a black T-shirt with a large, white "G" on the front, black spandex pants and white sneakers. She was carrying a large, brown Coach purse.
The ring first struck around the Collier Parkway and State Road 54 area in August. Deputies back then confirmed two break-ins outside day care centers.
At Center Academy on U.S. 41, authorities said, three men in a black sport utility vehicle were caught red-handed taking a purse from the back passenger seat of an unlocked car as a woman dashed inside to drop off her child's medicine.
She came out to confront the thieves, who tried to run over her with the SUV, authorities said. While they were fleeing, a purse hit the ground. It turned out to have been stolen from the mother of a prekindergarten student at nearby Kids' Stuff on Lake Floyd Road.
Prescott asked school employees who observe suspicious people or vehicles near their school to notify law enforcement immediately.
"If a school employee should encounter one of these crimes in progress, they should not intervene in any way and should take immediate steps to ensure their personal safety and the safety of others in the area," Prescott said.
Sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll urged everyone to lock all doors, roll up all windows and not leave valuables in vehicles. It takes only about 30 seconds for someone to grab something from an unlocked car, he said.
Lisa Buie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4604.