They posed as friendly female employees eager to help older women visiting from out of state, guiding them, police said, into bathroom stalls at rest stops along Interstate 95 in Harford and Cecil counties, and possibly others in New Jersey.
But authorities say the good-will ambassadors were conspirators in an elaborate theft scheme. Police said one participant diverted the women's attention while another hid in a neighboring stall and plucked wallets and credit cards from purses hanging on hooks or stuffed behind toilets.
The unsuspecting victims left the rest areas with their handbags and had no idea their cards were missing. Most didn't realize anything was amiss until they were miles down the highway.
Maryland State Police dubbed it the case of the "Bathroom Bandits" and have arrested two suspects and obtained an arrest warrant for another. The suspects have been implicated in thefts from three women between December and February.
Department spokesman Gregory M. Shipley said detectives "believe many more victims are out there" in the two states.
Arrested were Ishia Biff Cason, 31, of the 1700 block of Carswell St., and Yvette Andrea Jones, 46, of the 2900 block of Falstaff Road. Each has been charged with multiple counts of theft, credit card fraud and identity theft.
Investigators said the stolen credit cards were used to buy more than $16,000 worth of gift cards and merchandise during hourslong shopping sprees that on one day spanned 10 stores from Owings Mills to Baltimore.
Court documents show wide-ranging spending habits — an American Express card was used to buy a bottled $2.76 Starbucks Frappuccino coffee drink at a pizza shop in Parkville then used at Wear It's At resale boutique in Reisterstown for two black mink coats, each costing $2,962.
According to police, two Wii computer consoles were purchased from a Toys 'R' Us in Rosedale, two cans of Pedigree dog food from a PetCo in Essex, $85 worth of gas from a shop in Parkville and lingerie from a Victoria's Secret in Owings Mills. Police said a string of drugstores were hit on York and Reisterstown roads on one afternoon in January, with thousands of dollars in gift cards purchased.
Using gift cards could limit the use of credit cards, police said, lessening the chance that the purchases would be detected by the credit card company, which could cut off spending. "In effect, they laundered the credit cards," Shipley said, "by converting them into cash."
Police said in court documents that they captured one of the suspects using the stolen credit cards on store surveillance tape, and that one of the victims identified the woman in a photo array. Police said they seized from one suspect's home two fur coats, three flat-screen televisions, jewelry, video game consoles, computers, 50 pairs of shoes and lingerie.
Shipley said an officer on the raid this week saw a suspect's boyfriend wearing a $400 pair of prescription sunglasses he knew from receipts had been bought with a fraudulently obtained gift card. The spokesman said the officer took the glasses off the man's head.
Police said they're working with managers at the Maryland House in Harford County and the Chesapeake House in Cecil County to boost security. They noted that the suspects, though posing as rest stop workers, wore typical street clothes with no name tags.
"People need to be aware that someone coming up and acting nice to them isn't necessarily what it seems," Shipley said. "It's a shame, but people have to be cautious."
Both suspects have criminal records. Jones was convicted of credit card theft in 1995 and given an 18-month suspended sentence in Baltimore County. Cason has an extensive criminal record with convictions for assault, theft and marijuana possession.
In 1994, when Cason was 14 years old, she was charged as an adult with fatally stabbing a 16-year-old girl in the back during a neighborhood dispute on Druid Park Lake Drive in Baltimore. The court file is no longer available, which typically happens when cases are remanded to the juvenile system, where they are sealed. Regardless of the outcome in juvenile court, Cason would have been released from custody by her 21st birthday.
Cason was released this week on $150,000 bail on the theft charges, but could not be reached for comment.
Richard Scott, a former Baltimore County prosecutor and a defense attorney who represented Cason on two prior cases called her a "nice girl" who has children. He did not know the facts of the current case, or the outcome of her murder charge of 1994.
Maryland State Police described the thefts as egregious and elaborate, with participants shuttling between rest stops in a Porsche and a Toyota Camry and targeting cars occupied by older women in vehicles with out-of-state plates — people in unfamiliar surroundings who might not return for a court case.