The thieves boosted a forklift from an Atlanta Highway construction site early Monday morning, drove it to the bank about a mile and a half away, then used it to rip the ATM from the ground and load it into a pickup, Athens-Clarke police said.
As officers responded to a silent bank alarm at 4:24 a.m. a witness called 911 to report she saw the driverless forklift rolling across the parking lot of Athens Promenade shopping center on Atlanta Highway, which is adjacent to the bank.
Officers barely missed the thieves, arriving soon after the forklift crashed into a tree at the shopping center, according to police.
The forklift was stolen from Adcock Furniture Co., 4220 Atlanta Highway, but police don't know if the thieves drove it to the bank at 1200 Mitchell Bridge Road or loaded it into another vehicle.
Thieves began using forklifts and other construction equipment to steal ATMs in metro Atlanta about five years ago, but the technique is just reaching Clarke County, police said.
The trend began in the summer of 2004, officials said, when police arrested a heavy equipment operator at his home in Conyers in connection with seven ATM thefts over a five-week period.
More recently and closer to home, ATM thieves struck in Banks County two months ago.
Athens-Clarke police Detective Sean McCauley plans to compare notes with authorities there who are investigating an attempted ATM theft on May 2 from Northeast Georgia Bank on U.S. Highway 441 in Commerce.
The thieves stole a forklift from a construction site on the other side of the road, drove it to the bank and plunged the forks into the ATM, tearing it from the ground and placing it in a pickup truck's bed, Banks County Sheriff Charles Chapman said.
When bank's alarm went off, the startled thieves rushed to get away. They didn't secure the ATM and the machine fell into the bank's parking lot.
They abandoned the pickup - which was stolen in Gwinnett County - in Jefferson, not far from Interstate 85.
A Banks County investigator met with officers from the Peachtree City area, where thieves used the same method to steal 11 ATMs.
"They all happened between 3 and 5 in the morning, and they all used stolen construction equipment to put the ATM machines into stolen vehicles," Chapman said.
"It's probably going to be the same perpetrators," he said. "It may or may not be a large group of them, but they're going to be one and the same."
The thieves in Monday's heist probably used a stolen truck, and the vehicle will turn up abandoned over the next few days, Chapman predicted.
Wachovia is offering a $20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the thieves.
Anyone with information can call McCauley at (706) 353-4218, extension 141, or use the Crime Stoppers confidential tip line, at (706) 613-3342.