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Authorities step up search for 'smash and grab' suspects

Grand Forks Police Chief John Packett said his officers are stepping up their work to prevent any more ATM burglaries after the northern valley's fourth such crime in five weeks happened Wednesday in Drayton, N.D.

Grand Forks Police Chief John Packett said his officers are stepping up their work to prevent any more ATM burglaries after the northern valley's fourth such crime in five weeks happened Wednesday in Drayton, N.D.

Meanwhile, law officers in Kittson County (Minn.) across the river from Pembina County (N.D.), where Drayton is located say they think a pickup truck stolen there may have been used in the Drayton ATM heist. They also suspect the thieves used a van stolen from Grand Forks, which was found burning Wednesday at a farm in Kittson County.

The van, apparently a full-sized Ford, was found engulfed in flames on a farm not far from Drayton, but across the Red River, by firefighters at 6:16 a.m. Wednesday, an hour after the ATM burglary was discovered at the Cenex gas station/convenience store in Drayton.

It appeared the same person or persons who dumped the van and lit it on fire then swiped a red 1990 Chevy pickup from inside a steel building on the same farm, said Steve Porter, chief deputy in the Kittson County Sheriff's Office in Hallock, Minn. It looked suspiciously like the vehicle thefts were connected to the ATM burglary in Drayton, Porter said.

"This is highly unusual for (Kittson County), for a vehicle to be burned and a pickup to be stolen right from a Quonset," Porter said. "I believe it's related, and finding the red pickup is crucial to the investigation" into the stolen ATM.


The stolen pickup is red, with a red toolbox and white fuel tank and Minnesota license plates MPA693, Porter said.

The truck's battery was nearly shot, Porter said, so it likely needed a "boost," to get started and if it was turned off, it may not have restarted.

"It could still be sitting somewhere, so if we could find it, that would be great," he said.

The Drayton burglary involved one or more people breaking the glass door, hooking a chain or cable to the ATM and yanking it out, store manager Chip Olson said. The ATM has not been found.

It was similar to an ATM burglary March 14 at the Cenex store in Minto, N.D. That store's surveillance video shows two men wearing something like ski masks breaking in, hooking on to the ATM with a stolen pickup truck and pulling the cash machine out, said Rick Swank, the store manager.

Similar "smash-and-grab" ATM burglaries were reported in Grand Forks on March 8 and Fisher, Minn., Feb. 23.

No one has been arrested, or named as a suspect in any of the four cases, which law officers say appear very similar although there's no firm connection established between any of the four crimes.

The FBI became involved Wednesday because the Drayton Cenex's ATM is owned by a local bank, making it a federal crime.


The ATM in the Minto store, by contrast, is owned by the store, Swank said.

Walsh County Sheriff Lauren Wild said Thursday "everyone is working together," including the FBI, the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, and the local law enforcement agencies on the four ATM "smash-and-grab" burglaries. "It's another brain to pick, more experience to use, fresh ideas," Wild said.

After the Minto heist, his deputies recovered the stolen ATM and the stolen pickup on rural roads west of Minto, Wild said.

Packett said several business owners have called his department asking for advice on bolstering security to prevent such a burglary.

His Community Service Bureau is meeting with local stores, helping them analyze their security, Packett said.

About half of Grand Forks businesses have surveillance cameras, Packett estimates. "Our Community Service Bureau encourages that type of updating of electronic surveillance. The recent events kind of highlight the value of that type of equipment."

In all four ATM burglaries, surveillance video has provided law officers with looks at the burglars.

"Common sense encourages businesses to review the layout and the footprint of their businesses," Packett said. "Obviously, the more challenging you make it for people who may have some idea of doing something like this, the better off you are."


Packett said that within a month or so, he expects his officers will have met with most businesses in town with ATMs to analyze their security.

Meanwhile, his officers are on extra watch over the rash of ATM hits in the region.

"We are initiating some proactive strategies to address the issue within the city," Packett said, but he doesn't want details about the strategies publicized.

Wild said in the case of Walsh County, there are only a handful of ATMs.

Although three of the four burglaries have involved Cenex stores, Wild and other law officials aren't sure that means some connection. It's most likely part of the crimes being opportunistic and going where the money is in rural locations with limited law enforcement coverage, he suggested. Cenex stores are one of the main providers of many services in small towns, including ATMs.

Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237; slee@gfherald.com .

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