If Willie Sutton robbed banks "because that's where the money is," some of his successors in Maryland have zeroed in on a much more lucrative target: automated teller machines.
Federal prosecutors in Baltimore say a brazen gang of thieves cut a wide swath across at least four states, cracking into or stealing more than 30 ATMs since 2003. Two machines stolen in Bowie last year each held more than $100,000, according to court papers.
While annual statistics on ATM thefts are not available, Maryland consistently ranks among the top states per capita for bank robberies. Security experts said they had never before seen this number of ATM thefts in the state.
"We're aware of the situation," said P. Kevin Smith, the chairman for the Maryland Bankers Association security committee. "It's something that's well-known in the banking industry to watch out for."
Three defendants pleaded guilty in the case this spring, pledging to cooperate with federal agents in their investigation.
Through their help and cooperating witnesses, authorities identified the leader of the saw-wielding gang as Tracy Fletcher, who was arrested in Virginia in December, charged with conspiracy to commit bank robberies.
The court in Spotsylvania County, Va., ordered Fletcher to stay in his mother's home on electronic monitoring, but he cut off his tracking bracelet and fled, prosecutors said. Agents caught Fletcher again last month in Tennessee, and he is scheduled for a detention hearing tomorrow in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
It's hard to imagine that the bulky, safe-like cash withdrawal machines weighing hundreds of pounds could be carved open or carted away. Smith, of the bankers association, said ATMs also have unusual security protections, including LoJack-style tracking systems and exploding dye-packs that coat the cash if the machine is pried open.
In Australia and Japan, published reports say that criminals have used ram-raiding -- barreling a heavy vehicle into a business and grabbing goods inside -- to steal ATMs.
FBI statistics show that criminals steal less than $5,000 during a typical bank robbery. The amount of money stolen in the Fletcher case could top $1 million, according to one source familiar with the investigation.
Tools of their trade included a K-12 gas-powered circular saw used to slice into the machines on site and heavy-duty construction equipment brought in to haul the ATMs off the premises, federal agents wrote in search warrants.
The thieves apparently dressed all in black --batting gloves, bandanas, windbreakers, pants and ski masks, according to court documents.
The FBI believes that the group began trying to steal ATMs as far back as February 2003.
Fletcher was arrested by Prince George's County police after officers said they saw a group using a K-12 saw, the kind of tool used by fire and rescue personnel, to cut into an ATM.
By October 2005, Fletcher was back, driving a 2001 gray Chevy Impala, according to court papers. Authorities said it appeared that he was casing banks. In turn, agents distributed a flier in Maryland and Virginia asking for the public's help in locating the car.
Spotsylvania police reported the car had been spotted Dec. 15 in a McDonald's parking lot. In tandem with a stolen minivan, the vehicles circled three banks with the kinds of ATMs that can be sawed with a K-12, according to court papers.
When police stopped the Impala, they found a K-12 inside. Fletcher later told a cooperating witness that he and others were going to "cut an ATM," according to court papers.
Fletcher remained in jail until he was bailed out in January and confined to his mother's home in Bowie on electronic monitoring. He fled Feb. 6.
Investigators tracked him to a house in Laurel, but he was gone. While he was a fugitive, agents wrote in court papers that ATMs were stolen in Rockville, Innwood, W. Va., and Fairfax, Va.
In early April, two ATMs were stolen in Jackson, Tenn. The thieves had used the same method as Fletcher's team, according to authorities.
An off-duty police officer who had worked on the stolen ATM case in Tennessee was moonlighting at a Wal-Mart on June 21 when he spotted a man who looked like Fletcher.
"Based on facial recognition, tattoo markings and physical description, [an FBI] agent confirmed the identity of Tracy Fletcher," FBI Special Agent Scott P. Dugas wrote in court papers.
Later, agents wrote that they searched Fletcher's car in the Wal-Mart parking lot.
Inside, they said, was a K-12 saw.