JEFFERSON, Ga. - Jackson County Sheriff Stan Evans had a nightmare over Thanksgiving that his deputies got in a firefight with a heavily armed gang of bank robbers he heard about that night on the evening news. "My nightmare almost came true," the sheriff said.
Nearly a week after Jackson County and Barrow County authorities captured a bank robbery gang after a wild chase, the sheriff is still counting his blessings that no one was hurt.
The robbery suspects, armed with AR-15 assault rifles modified for automatic fire and more than 200 rounds of armor-piercing ammunition, fired on at least two pursuing deputies last week before their stolen getaway car was wrecked on Georgia Highway 53 south of Braselton.
"It could have ended up a massacre with what we were up against," Sheriff Evans said. "We were certainly out-gunned."
The FBI says it's still looking for a sixth suspect in the robbery of the Jefferson Community Bank and Trust, the First Union Bank in Stone Mountain and the Georgia National Bank in Villa Rica.
Three suspects were captured by Jackson County authorities, including the man suspected as the ringleader, 30-year-old Barry Craig Smith, and his girlfriend, 24-year-old Kari Ann Ross. Based on information Ms. Ross gave to investigators, two more suspects were arrested last week in DeKalb County, including Mr. Smith's brother, Brian Keith Smith.
Brian Smith is said to have been in the area, waiting in a pickup for the trio that robbed the Jefferson Bank. They were to dump their getaway car - a stolen Mazda 626 - as they had done in previous heists, authorities said.
"The deputies involved in the (pursuit and capture) really did a fantastic job," said Mark Giuliano, the supervisor of the FBI's Atlanta-based bank robbery unit. "The mentality of these individuals is often they try to shoot it out, and had they not been wrecked, there's a possibility that's what would have happened."
Agent Giuliano said the FBI had been hunting the gang for several months and had even issued an alert to local law enforcement agencies the day of the robbery after the Mazda was carjacked in DeKalb County. The gang is suspected of carjacking five cars in DeKalb County, with similarities in each theft, Agent Giuliano said.
"We told (local law enforcement) that we believed they were going to hit in the next four days, and they hit that very day," he said.
The gang is one of two heavily armed takeover-style robbery rings that have been sought in the metro Atlanta area. The other group, which also employs heavy firepower, is still on the loose.
Authorities say commando-style bank robbers, with automatic weapons, skin-tight black masks, body armor and two-way radios, are the exception. Whether action movies or thriller novels play an influence is anyone's guess, Agent Giuliano said.
"There's no doubt it has some play into it," he said. "But for every robbery and group we see a slightly different impetus. Some folks rob banks just for the thrill. It's always a big concern when people go to such an extent to rob a bank."
Ms. Ross, Barry Smith and 23-year-old James Robert Hamm were remanded to federal custody after spending four days in the Jackson County jail. They were awaiting arraignment in federal court.
Sheriff Evans still shudders to think what might have happened if his officers had responded to the bank as the robbers were leaving.
"It could have been a very bad thing," he said. "I've thought about it a lot since (that) Monday, and I just feel like the good Lord was riding with everybody that day."