5 men taking ATMs sought

Masked thieves break windows, carry off machines from stores

Four attacks since Sunday

Stolen vehicles used to dislodge banks that hold up to $40,000

March 07, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

A group of masked thieves has embarked on a wave of brazen thefts from Baltimore convenience stores by hauling away automated teller machines that can hold tens of thousands of dollars.

In many cases, city police say, they crash stolen cars into storefront windows and knock the floor-bolted machines free. Other times, they simply walk in and rip off the ATMs using brute force.

Four attacks since Sunday have brought to 16 the number of ATM thefts in the past three months. Police believe the same group of five men has been involved in all the thefts.

Yesterday, police said, the group tried unsuccessfully to steal a machine from a grocery store at The Alameda Shopping Center in Northeast Baltimore by breaking a window with a sledgehammer about 5 a.m. An hour later, police said, they successfully struck at a gas station on Sisson Street in Remington.

"It just isn't worth having an ATM," said Mark Beckwith, who owns the 28th Street Mobile Mart in the 2700 block of Sisson St. He said he will not replace the machine there and will remove one from another gas station he owns in Highlandtown.

Each of the bank machines weighs about 150 pounds and can hold as much as $40,000. In stores, they often are bolted to concrete floors.

Baltimore police have set up a task force to combat the theft wave, which has hit virtually every corner of the city. One store was hit in Baltimore County. The thefts have occurred between 3 a.m. and 7 a.m. at stores -- mostly ones associated with gas stations -- where bank machines are close to the entrance.

Only once did any of the men brandish a gun; in yesterday's incident on Sisson Street, a man threatened a clerk with a sledge-hammer.

"They are very well organized," said Agent Angelique Cook-Hayes, a city police spokeswoman.

Three years ago, sledgehammer-wielding masked men believed to be linked to an Eastern European crime ring smashed ATM machines in Carroll, Harford and Frederick counties and escaped with thousands of dollars.

Howard Paddy, the general manager of a St. Louis ATM supplier called Merchant Bankcard Network, said he recommends stores hook the machines to a burglar alarm and place them in the back of their establishments.

Most are smaller, free-standing versions of what usually are found in banks. The models in banks are built into walls and can hold as much as $250,000.

Police would not say how much money has been lost during the 83-day spree. They have not made any arrests despite video surveillance pictures, discarded machines and recovered stolen cars used by the group.

Investigators said the men wear gloves and either masks or scarves draped over their faces. They dress in black winter clothes and typically arrive at stores in stolen pickup trucks or minivans.

In most cases, the thieves back the truck through a plate-glass window and use the bumper to knock over the ATM machine. One person keeps an eye on store personnel while two others load the machine onto the truck, police said.

In one case, Cook-Hayes said, the truck hit an ATM so hard that it broke open, spilling money onto the floor. The masked bandits scooped up the cash and sped away, she said.

Four businesses have been targeted this week, including a convenience store in the 4000 block of Frederick Ave. Sunday and the Ashburton Amoco station in the 2800 block of Liberty Heights Ave. on Monday.

Early yesterday, police said, thieves pulled up to the Stop, Shop & Save in the 5600 block of The Alameda. A man with a yellow-handled sledgehammer smashed the grocery store window about 5 a.m. and tried to get the bank machine inside, witnesses told police.

Unable to pry it from the floor, the men quickly piled into a car and sped away. An hour later, the group hit the Mobile Mart on Sisson Street, police said.

Manager Marsha Mayne, 38, said a minivan pulled up to the front door and three masked men jumped out. One man pulled the rug away from the front door while another banged on a bulletproof counter window twice with a sledgehammer, scaring two clerks.

Two men then grabbed the small machine, rocked it back and forth, ripping it off its 3-inch steel bolts that secured it to the floor, and slid it out the door. "It took them three minutes," Mayne said.

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