Members of gang suspected in thefts European ring linked to 3 robberies where ATMs were destroyed

March 24, 1998|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

A gang of sledgehammer-wielding masked men have smashed their way into three Maryland ATMs and carted away hordes of cash, prompting the FBI to investigate the group's possible link to an eastern European crime ring.

The men, dressed in black and targeting automated teller machines in businesses, struck early Sunday morning at the Weis Markets in Westminster. A woman who was working in the early morning making bread was tied up while the men demolished the steel frame around the cash machine, the FBI said.

They disabled an alarm on the ATM and posted lookouts around the building to watch for trouble, investigators said.

"This is similar to the other robberies we've had in that it was a very professional job, done with almost military precision," said Larry Faust, an FBI spokesman in Baltimore. "They seem to be scoping the businesses out beforehand in order to do some intelligence gathering."

The group is believed to have broken into a Harford County convenience store ATM on Oct. 28 and a Frederick County Safeway ATM on Christmas Eve. In each case the men escaped with several thousand dollars.

Although the FBI would not disclose the exact amounts taken, the group is likely stealing large amounts based on how ATMs are typically stocked. An expert in ATM security recently disclosed that cash in ATMs ranges from $15,000 in small machines to as much as $250,000 in larger, more widely used machines.

Investigators believe the Maryland incidents are linked to an eastern European crime ring that the FBI calls YACS, for Yugoslavian-Albanian-Croatian-Serbian, the nationalities of some of the group's members. The group has committed more than 1,000 burglaries nationwide, including thefts at numerous jewelry stores and businesses with ATMs.

$50 million stolen

The group, with hundreds of members, surfaced in the United States in 1989 after the collapse of the Soviet bloc countries. The FBI and police authorities have estimated that the ring has stolen $50 million in thefts nationwide.

Faust said the group's possible appearance in Maryland might be because of stepped-up efforts by law enforcement officers in New York and other large cities that have made stopping the gang a priority.

"Things have gotten a little hot for them in the New York area, so they seem to have moved down here for awhile," Faust said. Other recent incidents involving the gang have been reported in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the FBI said.

An employee at the Weis Markets in Westminster referred a reporter to the chain's corporate offices in Virginia, where no one was available for comment last night.

Employee surprised thieves

The Weis incident differed from the other two Maryland thefts in that the burglars confronted someone. The other burglaries, committed by about six men, were in the middle of the night at businesses where no one was working. The employee at the Weis market -- who was making bread at 3: 30 a.m. -- was probably a surprise to the burglars, the FBI said. She was bound with a cord by men with foreign accents, investigators said.

She freed herself after the men hammered their way into the ATM. She was not injured.

No arrests made

Local police and the FBI said no arrests have been made in the Maryland cases. The YACS group is suspected because of the brazen style of the burglaries and because ATMs within businesses are being targeted, the FBI said.

The group's main form of theft is destroying ATMs, according to numerous newspaper accounts of YACS activities. In Florida, a YACS ring is alleged to have used a concrete saw to break into an ATM. In other areas of the country, they are suspected of tying a rope around ATMs and yanking them off walls so they could be hauled away in pickup trucks.

Pub Date: 3/24/98

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