TAMPA — Federal agents say they have figured out who was responsible for blowing up automated teller machines at banks throughout the Tampa Bay area.
An analysis of cell phone tower data and a massive surveillance operation culminated in the arrests early Sunday in Georgia of Mawdo Malick Sallah and Kirk Douglas Johnson, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
A federal criminal complaint accuses the pair of conspiring to commit arson related to a series of explosions that have destroyed at least three ATMs in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties since November. They are also suspected of vandalizing at least three ATMs at other banks by putting black spray paint over security cameras and teller buttons.
Their arrests came moments after yet another ATM exploded outside a Bank of the Ozarks branch in Georgia. By that time, investigators had been tracking their movements for weeks.
In all, the pair took close to $70,000 in cash from various ATMs, federal agents said.
The first explosion happened about 3:20 a.m. Nov. 4 at a BB&T branch in Oldsmar. Pinellas County sheriff’s deputies responded to an alarm call and found an ATM blown up. The thieves got away with several thousand dollars, according to the criminal complaint.
The next blast took place Dec. 22 at a Pilot Bank at 12471 W Linebaugh Ave. in Tampa. Surveillance cameras captured images just after 3 a.m. of a masked man using black spray paint to cover the ATM’s security lens. The ATM exploded a little more than an hour later, but the man was unable to access the machine’s safe.
A third explosion happened in the early morning of Jan. 12 at the Regions bank at 3522 Bell Shoals Road in Valrico. Once again, a man was seen spray painting surveillance cameras before the blast.
In each case, investigators believe the men used a hose to fill the machine with a flammable liquid or gas before igniting a spark.
Investigators believe the same people spray painted and vandalized ATMs at other Hillsborough County banks on July 7, Sept. 3 and Dec. 8 last year. But in those cases, there was no explosion.
Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, along with the FBI and local law enforcement, spearheaded a probe that relied on data from cell phone towers near each of the crime scenes. They noted phone numbers that used those towers during the time of each crime. One set of numbers belonged to Sallah and Johnson, according to the complaint.
Agents tracked the pair’s movements using cell phone and GPS data. On Sunday, they followed as the men drove to a Bank of the Ozarks branch in Watkinsville, Georgia. An ATM exploded there just after 3 a.m. Sunday.
Sallah, 33, of Clearwater, and Johnson, 34, of Anderson, S.C., were both booked into the Oconee County jail in Georgia.