It played out in a Bordentown Township gym parking lot last week, when a woman returning from a workout session found her car's windows smashed in. A bag left on the passenger's seat two hours earlier was missing.

A month earlier, a similar scene unfolded in Camden County.

The recent spate of smash-and-grab crimes in South Jersey is being tied to the "Felony Lane Gang," a multi-state organization that targets vehicles in gym and school parking lots.

Throughout the country, officials say, members follow a pattern: Scope out vehicles with purses, identification, or checkbooks in plain sight, then shatter the windows to get at them

They then use the stolen ID to cash the checks in the outside-lane of drive-thru banks — dubbed the felony lane — to evade video cameras and tellers, officials say.

The thieves typically target gym or school  parking lots, they say, because those are places where people are most likely to leave valuables in their cars.

Police are searching for suspected members of a nationwide car burglary gang after a vehicle was broken into in a Bordentown Township gym parking lot.
Bordentown Township Police Department
Police are searching for suspected members of a nationwide car burglary gang after a vehicle was broken into in a Bordentown Township gym parking lot.

Bordentown Township police are the latest to issue an alert to residents about the group of bandits. Last week, police said, gang members broke into a car in a gym lot and took a bag on the passenger's seat. Two days later, a person tried to cash a check in a Bordentown Township bank that was stolen from a car in Pennsylvania.

They anticipate more break-ins to occur before the gang leaves the area.

Catching the thieves can be difficult once they flee the scene, said Sgt. Sal Guido.

Members often rent cars and duplicate driver's licenses using stolen identification to carry out their crimes incognito. Officials in Bordentown Township are waiting for surveillance video of the incident, but have put out a warning to residents to hide valuable items from plain view.

The smash-and-grabs are well-coordinated, Guido said, with one person driving the rental car and the passenger searching for cars to break into. Suspects sometimes recruit homeless people for assistance in the scheme and use social media to locate co-conspirators.

"It's a pretty sophisticated operation," he said. "It can happen quickly. They drive around and smash cars that have bags visible, and then they're gone."

Similar smash-and-grab incidents have occurred in Ewing, Hamilton, Robbinsville, Ocean County, and Voorhees, officials said.

Last year, Voorhees saw about six smash-and-grab incidents. Most recently, police apprehended a man and woman in December after they smashed a car window in a shopping plaza and stole a purse, said Detective Mike Perez.

The pair of thieves parked their rented car in the fire lane before breaking into the vehicle. Perez spotted the car's model and the first three characters of its license plate, which he input into a nationwide database that eventually led to the two suspects from Florida.

"(The gang members) usually work their way up the East Coast, so we communicate with other local police departments in different states," Perez said.

Based in Florida, the gang began its criminal work around 2007, according to the FBI.

In 2012, a grand jury indicted 10 people involved with the gang on charges involving wire fraud and aggravated identity theft after they broke into 100 cars and targeted 25 state parks in central Pennsylvania. They were all convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 11 months to 15½ years.

Three suspected members — one from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and two from New Jersey — were arrested in December in New York after attempting to use stolen documents to withdraw money from a credit union.

Police have been using social media in an effort to identify suspects and to warn residents to keep bags and other valuables out of clear view before locking their cars.