An abandoned car, its doors wide open, and a purse lying on the street in a quiet Eagan neighborhood were the first clues that something was amiss.
Within months, detectives had linked more than 140 crimes in an area stretching from the south metro to Orono to Big Lake. A ring of thieves had broken into cars and homes, stealing whatever they found — laptops, purses, credit cards, guns and the cars themselves.
But when a thief left behind a cellphone — complete with texts, photos and videos regaling the thieves' exploits — the gang's metrowide crime spree began to unravel.
In April, Eagan police officers linked the abandoned car to its owners, who lived just a few blocks away from where the car was found, Eagan detective Dan Spiess said. There they discovered that the owners' van, which had been parked in their driveway, also had been stolen, along with a couple of laptops, cellphones and a purse that had been left in the kitchen.
Hours later, Minneapolis police recovered the van, in which a suspect's cellphone had been left behind. The information gleaned from the cellphone helped link the suspect and his buddies to at least a dozen other vehicle thefts, Spiess said.
But it was a stolen laptop that help detectives connect the dots for an even bigger case.
When the suspect turned it on at his address, an anti-theft device on the laptop took his photo and provided GPS coordinates and an IP address that led detectives to Nijel J. Meux, a 20-year-old man living in the 5100 block of N. Aldrich Avenue.
With information from Minneapolis police, investigators discovered that Meux's home was a hangout for a gang known as the Irv Boys. Eventually, detectives began linking more and more crimes across the metro to this group, Spiess said.
"On the night the Eagan home was burglarized, there were five other thefts from motor vehicles in that area," he said. Similar crimes were happening in other cities and soon detectives began piecing the cases together, Spiess said.
"When you have a rash of these things happening, multiple times a week, it raises red flags," he said. "It wasn't just a random group in every neighborhood affecting the metro area."
Soon investigators could "connect the dots with a lot of other agencies" based on the how the gang members operated. Investigators estimate that 50 to 70 people, most of whom are juveniles and are at least affiliated with the Irv Boys, are responsible for more than 140 incidents in 36 cities over a four-month period.
"They were crimes of opportunity," Spiess said. They found unlocked cars and sometimes used garage door openers to enter homes in which inside service doors were unlocked, giving them access into homes. "Those are things we sometimes get lackadaisical about," he said.
Meux was charged Monday in Dakota County District Court with first-degree burglary in connection with the theft of two vehicles from the Eagan couple's garage and valuables from inside the home. Meux was charged by summons and remains free ahead of a Jan. 6 court appearance. A message seeking his response to the allegations was not returned.
Three 16-year-olds also were charged in the late-night burglary, according to the criminal complaint against Meux.
The teens often focused the thefts on credit cards, guns, money, purses, cellphones and other electronics. Most of the stolen items were brought to Irv Boys ringleader Taje Smith-Perry, 18, who would have them "turned around and sold, and that financed the gang," Spiess said.
Smith-Perry is in prison for shooting another 18-year-old in the neck in late May in north Minneapolis. He was arrested early the next month in the company of fellow Irv Boys, according to charges.
Under questioning by police about the gang-related shooting, Smith-Perry described himself as leader of the Irv Boys. He said his gang carried out burglaries and robberies, stealing guns, cars and other items.
According to the complaint, Smith-Perry, who has an extensive and sometimes violent criminal history as a juvenile, "confessed that he trains and leads other gang members, including juveniles, to commit burglaries in order to further the gang's burglary 'empire' and that he benefits monetarily."
In connection with the May shooting, Smith-Perry agreed to a plea deal in which he pleaded guilty to first-degree assault and had attempted murder and weapons counts dropped. In September, he started serving a sentence that will have him locked up for another four years.
Breaking the case "was huge," Spiess said, noting that the busts have put a dent in the Irv Boys operation.
"I don't want to say they completely stopped because maybe they've changed up their game," he added. "But we definitely had an impact."
paul.walsh @startribune.com 612-673-4482 email@example.com 612-673-4788