Along the western coast of England, under a half-moon hidden by clouds, a dark Audi sports car with fabricated plates followed an empty road toward a Barclays bank. Inside were five men, dressed all in black, and their gear: crowbars, power tools, coils of flexible tubing, and two large tanks of explosive gas. It was 1:51 a.m. The job would take just under seven minutes.
This particular Barclays was just waiting to be robbed. Located at the rear of a shopping mall in a town called Birchwood, it was secluded from the street by 300 feet of parking lot and faced a creek, a railway, and acres of cropland. Early on this Friday in September 2013, the area was deserted, and the walk-up ATM glowing Barclays blue onto the brick forecourt was likely filled with cash for the weekend crowds. For six months, the gang had been targeting cash machines across a 150-mile swath of the country, from Oxford to Liverpool, with a technique never before used in the U.K.
Two men exited the Audi, balaclavas covering their faces, and with professional calm attacked the face of the machine. One pried open the cash slot with a 3-foot gorilla bar, then worked it like a lever, hopping up and down with a two-handed grip. A third man knelt to assist, a fourth stood watch, and the fifth remained behind the wheel of the car, idling at a short distance behind a perimeter of security bollards. After several minutes one of the team walked up trailing a wire and two lengths of hose, which he fed a short distance into the ATM, as a doctor might intubate a patient’s mouth. The hoses carried oxygen and acetylene, and the men took cover as the gases began to mix in the pit of the machine.
The strongbox inside an ATM has two essential holes: a small slot in front that spits out bills to customers and a big door in back through which employees load reams of cash in large cassettes. Criminals have learned to see this simple enclosure as a physics problem. Gas is pumped in, and when it’s detonated, the weakest part—the large hinged door—is forced open. After an ATM blast, thieves force their way into the bank itself, where the now gaping rear of the cash machine is either exposed in the lobby or inside a trivially secured room. Set off with skill, the shock wave leaves the money neatly stacked, sometimes with a whiff of the distinctive acetylene odor of garlic.
In Birchwood, the oxyacetylene bomb exploded immaculately at 1:57 a.m.—a single concussive thunderclap that sent a minimum of dust and debris raining onto the sidewalk. Only now did the men hustle. Smashing a low window to the left of the ruined ATM, they crawled inside with more tools, shoved the cash into a black duffel, and exited on their hands and knees. One gently helped another to his feet, and the Audi made a neat three-point turn to begin their getaway. Details of the heist, and other events in this story, come from security camera footage, police files, court records, and interviews with investigators, prosecutors, bank representatives, security experts, and defense lawyers.
- The gang typically struck in groups of five men. They began by penetrating the face of the ATM.They hit major banks with large, through-the-wall ATMs, often in rural or isolated areas.
- Oxygen and acetylene are cheap, legal, and highly explosive when mixed.Skilled bombers fill just the safe with gas. Copycats often flood the rest of the ATM or an entire room, risking catastrophic explosions.The tanks are placed at a distance to avoid shrapnel. The gas can be ignited with a remote fuse.
- When detonated, the gas blows apart the ATM from the inside.Often, the cost of damage to the ATM and surrounding structures exceeds the amount of cash stolen.With the door to the safe destroyed, the gang has easy access to stacks of cash inside. In one copycat robbery, the cash safe door was hurled 80 feet.
- After the blast the gang gains entry to the bank itself, where the back of the ATM is now exposed.The gang stole as much as $375,000 on a single night.They struck 31 ATMs in all, and bought fast cars, luxury watches, dirt bikes, and other toys with the spoils.
The ATM bombers were getting better, bolder, and bigger. The Birchwood heist was their 28th in the U.K.—and No. 27 had gone down just minutes earlier in Wirral, 40 miles west, carried out by a second team of five. The combined take of almost £250,000, or about $375,000, was the group’s biggest score in a single night yet. Their MO, using cheap, common, and legal gas, was nearly impossible to trace, and they left precious little forensic evidence for the police. To stop the rampage, there was little Britain’s banks could do.
Except be patient. To say that the Barclays in Birchwood was just waiting to get hit is no figure of speech. The bank knew it was a likely target and had prepared for the men in the Audi, now speeding for the motorway. In the trunk, secreted into a pile of orange £10 notes, a small geolocation device came silently to life.
In December 2014, when the number of gas attacks on U.K. cash machines had climbed above 90, I went to Liverpool to learn more about the epidemic. On a sodden day at police headquarters, an aging brick fortress near the waterfront, Detective Chief Inspector Gayle Rooney was describing how the organized crime unit had begun its investigation. “I’ve been in the police 23 years,” she said, “and this is one of the most interesting jobs I’ve done.” Rooney handed me a piece of paper with the names of 11 men. It was a chart, showing a web of 35 occasions on which they’d been stopped or arrested by police in one another’s company. The two men at the center had no obvious history together and were linked by a single mark.
Kurt Beddoes and Craig Cartwright don’t seem like trailblazers. They weren’t particularly distinguished criminals, with a range of burglary offenses between them: commercial premises for Cartwright, residences for Beddoes. In 2013, Cartwright was living in the West Midlands, in a row house in need of repairs on the edge of Coventry, where he had a girlfriend and two sons. At 38, he kept his hair shorn nearly to the scalp, and in pictures his forehead was always creased with worry. Cartwright enjoyed modest outdoorsy hobbies: catfishing, kayaking, and abseiling (British for rappelling). “D’you like tha’? D’you like tha’?” he excitedly asked his son one day in December 2013, after making a video of the boy descending from the top of a door frame. For Cartwright, abseiling also held criminal appeal. In November 2010, police say, he was arrested on a ferry returning to the U.K. from Amsterdam; in his car was the passport of a man who had just roped down the side of the vessel in a wet suit, intending to swim ashore with a large quantity of marijuana. A boat fished the shivering man out of the icy English Channel.
The man in the water would later connect Beddoes and Cartwright. Beddoes, 32, had grown up in Huyton, a town on the outskirts of Liverpool. The quainter streets are lined with terraced Victorian homes, but gangs are endemic, and natives know the place as Two Dogs, after a local rhyme that begins, Huyton Huyton, two dogs fightin’. Like everyone here, Beddoes spoke Scouse, the distinctive Liverpudlian dialect that encodes -th and other end-of-word sounds into indistinct gargles. Beddoes had straight, short, dark hair, and a calm demeanor. The state has no record of him earning money legitimately or receiving any benefits since at least 2008, yet he was able to indulge a taste for fast cars. In January 2013, Beddoes bought an Audi RS6, one of the manufacturer’s most powerful models, for £31,000. It was just before he and Cartwright began a crime spree the British banking system is still struggling to contain.
What police and prosecutors still don’t know is how Beddoes and Cartwright learned the specifics of blowing up ATMs with oxyacetylene bombs. Their best guess is just “the Internet,” and the other theory involves an unknown tutor from continental Europe, where gas raids have been common for years.
After teaming up, Beddoes and Cartwright began cautiously. On Feb. 21, 2013, the ATM at a Barclays in Loughborough was injected with foam. The goal was to disable the machine—and a week later, with the safe left unlocked, Beddoes, Cartwright, and a third man returned to break into the bank and steal the safe door. A heavy thing, it took two of them to lug it out while a third held open the busted front entrance. Printed on one side was a diagram of the security system.
In early March, Beddoes and Cartwright burgled two ATMs in old-fashioned ways—taking an angle grinder to one at a bank and trying to pull a second out of the wall of a Budgens supermarket. Both times, cell phone towers and the U.K.’s Big Brotherish network of license-plate-tracking cameras recorded the two men near the crimes, which were closer to Cartwright’s part of the country, and then pinpointed Beddoes driving northwest back to Liverpool. The two men didn’t get much for their trouble: The first heist yielded £1,485, and the second didn’t work at all.
And so they made British criminal history on March 13 at the Food Co-Op on Dog & Gun Lane in Leicester, a rural supermarket close to the M1 motorway and shielded on two sides by empty fields. Cartwright had to punch the street into his GPS device to find it. Five minutes after midnight, witnesses heard “an almighty bang” and noticed smoke and the sound of alarms. The men had detonated the country’s first ATM gas bomb. But it failed to breach the safe, and they peeled out for the M1 with their headlights off.
They wouldn’t make the same mistake again. Eleven days later, they returned to the Loughborough Budgens for a second shot at its ATM. The blast, and the score, was huge: £54,910. The technique worked. Later that week they hit another Co-Op for £37,680, where for the first time, security cameras caught a team of five at work.
Word was getting out. Just a week after Beddoes and Cartwright’s first big haul, a spectacular explosion ripped apart the ATM at a petrol station an hour west of London, along with much of the surrounding structure. (Security camera footage plays at the top of this page.) The door of the cash safe was hurled more than 80 feet. A copycat group, unaffiliated with the Beddoes-Cartwright gang, had flooded the machine with propane—and far too much of it. Totally unprepared for the enormous orange fireball, the men scrabbled over the wreckage grabbing at single bills with no bag to put them in. They fled with just £3,400 and left behind damage totaling £165,000.
Blowing up ATMs is dangerous work even if you know what you’re doing. Cartwright burned his right hand on April 5 in the course of blasting £65,430 out of a Barclays in Derby. And police chased the gang’s getaway car after a £24,380 heist in Quedgeley that took 11 minutes, a little longer than usual. They later recovered the Audi, torched, near a tiny village off the thieves’ route north back to Liverpool. Mainly the gang got around on major highways, at lunatic speeds; one night, Beddoes took a picture of his speedometer touching 191 miles per hour. The No Seatbelt sign was lit.
Beddoes and Cartwright replaced the abandoned Audi with another one that they took care to steal from a dealership hours away from where they lived and operated. The group struck 13 more ATMs in May and June—not always successfully, and not always with gas. The hits more than made up for the misses: £80,530 from a Santander in Birkdale, £130,300 from a Barclays in Culcheth. Even cut into shares, the money was enough for the men to upgrade their lives. Beddoes had his girlfriend sign the lease on an expensive five-bedroom house in Huyton, paying six months’ rent upfront in cash. Cartwright fixed up his bathroom at home and took his younger son to an amusement park in Belgium. And another member of the gang took friends on a helicopter tour of the F1 racetrack at Silverstone, a British Grand Prix event, at the end of June.
Gas raids are more than a decade old, and the way they proliferated through the U.K. in 2013 was typical of the method’s history: There are no explosions in a country, and then there are lots, carried out by gangs on hot streaks. Only sometimes do the police snuff them out.
Bank security experts think the first ATM gas attack may have been in Italy in 2001. Early statistics are shaky, but by 2005 there were almost 200 across the continent, according to EAST, or the European ATM Security Team. (Their figures include physical explosives, but gas dominates.) In 2013 there was a 31 percent increase from the year before, to 696 attacks in eight countries. Gas bomb gangs have struck in Australia (2008), Brazil (2010), and Chile (2014), but they’re primarily a European phenomenon. The Dutch term for the method is plofkraak, which translates roughly to thud burglary.
It’s a low-tech, low-investment, more immediate alternative to modern thievery involving card skimmers, PIN–capturing cameras, and malware. ATM fraud is declining steeply in Europe, EAST says, down 42 percent in the first half of 2014 compared with the same period in 2013, while physical attacks—explosions, plus crowbar jobs, “ram raids,” etc.—are up 3 percent.
The rise in gas attacks has created a market opportunity for the companies that construct ATM components. Several manufacturers now make various anti-gas-attack modules: Some absorb shock waves, some detect gas and render it harmless, and some emit sound, fog, or dye to discourage thieves in the act.
As far as anyone knows, there has never been a gas attack on an American ATM. The leading theory points to the country’s primitive ATM cards. Along with Mongolia, Papua New Guinea, and not many other countries, the U.S. doesn’t require its plastic to contain an encryption chip, so stealing cards remains an effective, nonviolent way to get at the cash in an ATM. Encryption chip requirements are coming to the U.S. later this year, though. And given the gas raid’s many advantages, it may be only a matter of time until the back of an American ATM comes rocketing off.
If you’re looking for people to join your insanely dangerous and lucrative bombing spree, there are worse places to recruit than Liverpool. From its height as a port in the middle of the 19th century to its subsequent collapse and halving of the population, the city has brimmed with organized crime. “If Liverpool never had any large criminal fraternities to rival London’s Kray twins or the mighty American syndicates, it certainly had gangs,” writes Michael Macilwee in Tearaways, one of his three books about the city’s underworld from 1750 to 1970. “What they lacked in terms of organization and financial clout, they more than made up for in terms of ruthlessness and sheer viciousness.”
Recent years have been happier. In 2004 city officials hailed the first population gain since 1937—182 people—and a wave of investment has turned the downtown into a lively shopping hub. You still don’t have to drive far to find neighborhoods full of young men with poor educations and worse prospects.
The gang shifted its focus here in part because Cartwright had screwed up. Police found his DNA at three crime scenes: on the wristband of a flashlight left in a pile of ATM debris, on screws found on the pavement where license plates had been stolen before a heist, and on a cash drawer at an HSBC. On July 3, 2013, Cartwright was arrested at home. He told police nothing, but on his three mobile phones they found pictures of piles of cash, the safe door, and men dressed in dark clothes and balaclavas with firearms.
With Cartwright out of the picture, there was less reason to commute all the way to his part of the country, and the gang began targeting banks within an hour’s drive of Liverpool. Over the summer the group grew to include at least 10 men. Adam Murphy, 28, was perhaps the most extreme. Police sources say he broke into a Royal Air Force base in 2009, doused the Liverpool police helicopter with petrol, and set it ablaze. (Murphy was not charged.) Anthony Bushell, 29, had served time for leading police on a 110 mph chase in a boosted Range Rover. (A judge described him as “an appalling driver.”) Thomas Whittingham, 27, had nine previous convictions—one for calling his family from prison to request they intimidate a witness—and he wore a crooked scar on his forehead, the result of an assault with a metal bar. They were joined by Ian Ellis, 29; Daniel Morgan, 21; Jonathan Webb, 30; and Andrew White, 24. All had lived or spent time in Huyton.
Beddoes got the crew what they needed. He stole a new Audi with an Edilock device—a tool that can reprogram a blank key fob—and bought a printer on EBay for creating fake license plates on sheets of transparent film. They stashed the gear at a garage on Elm Street in Huyton, at the end of a row of auto shops. In a text message to a friend, Whittingham called the secret lockup their “bat cave.”
On Aug. 4 the bombings resumed, with a £57,680 score in Lancashire. Working along the more populated coast brought new risks. Witnesses saw them that night and on two more occasions that month. On Aug. 17, after a failed attack in Liverpool, police saw Bushell’s blue Audi Quattro parked nearby with its lights off. When they approached, it took off at high speed, escaping after a short chase. Morgan, whose phone made a series of calls at the time, later received a worried text message from his mom.
This close to home, the men were radioactively visible to police officers who’d known them for years. On Aug. 1 officers saw White locking up the bat cave. They came back on Aug. 30 with a warrant. Whittingham was outside with three men; they fled while he remained and was arrested. Inside, police hit the plofkraak jackpot: the Audi Beddoes had stolen, its engine still warm; gas tanks and a battered suitcase used to wheel them from car to ATM; crowbars and angle grinders; black clothing and piles of cash. Whittingham said he had nothing to do with any of it. The startled cops, who’d gone into the raid blind, notified their colleagues working the cash machines case. Called Operation Ampera, it had taken priority over a Midlands investigation called Operation Teller after the bombings had shifted north. Fourteen full-time officers were involved, supplemented by CSI technicians, intelligence analysts, and other specialists.
Beddoes might have known that the noose was tightening. “Hunt for Gas Blast Cash Robbers,” blared a Sept. 12 front-page headline in the Liverpool Echo, and police tried to question Morgan and Webb at their homes. But the money was too big for the men to stop.
Beddoes’s rented house was on Wheathill Road, beside the M62 motorway that connects Liverpool to the center of the country. It’s a cozy, private stretch near a golf course and crumbling estates. On the evening of Sept. 26, the men gathered there for their most ambitious heist yet, leaving in separate cars just after 10 p.m. to strike two banks in opposite directions simultaneously.
In Wirral, one team paused moments before attacking the ATM when an oblivious citizen walked up. They hid as he made a transaction and departed. At 1:35 a.m., witnesses heard an explosion, and a shout: “Come on, Jon!” They made off with £150,770. In Birchwood, the other team sped into the night with £97,070—and the tracking device.
The gang’s spree had targeted Barclays more than any other bank—14 times in all, and in late August, this particular branch had obtained the tracker from a private security company. With its remote location and poor sightlines, it was too perfect for the syndicate to resist. After the bug began to move, the company notified the police, at about 5:30 a.m.
The Audi drove around for hours, stopping in a neighborhood north of Liverpool and then at McDonald’s for sausage and egg McMuffins; Bushell got an orange juice. They pulled into the drive of Beddoes’s house at 5:56 a.m., seven minutes after the car from the Wirral job returned. Beddoes got out from behind the wheel, and Bushell and Ellis carried the food inside.
The police arrived just after 6 a.m. Beddoes, Bushell, Ellis, and Murphy got away, escaping through the rear of the house. Bushell dropped his juice, and Ellis sprang over a garden fence to a neighboring property. A police helicopter—Murphy might have recognized it—swooped in to pursue them. An hour after police arrived, a fifth man leapt out of a window 12 feet up with £140 and four cell phones, before being sprayed with tear gas and arrested. There was no sign of the others.
In Beddoes’s car, police found £42,670, black apparel, and explosives gear. In the house, they found £52,970, along with sets of license plates, the Edilock gadget, and a laptop showing Google searches for gas attacks.
Ellis didn’t quit easily. On Oct. 1 he drove to visit Cartwright in Coventry, then continued south to the Edilock offices in London. On Oct. 17, police began following his Volvo at a roundabout near Liverpool. After making a full circle, Ellis floored it south at 120 mph. He was arrested after abandoning the car.
Morgan, Murphy, Webb, and White skipped town. Beddoes, Bushell, Cartwright, Ellis, and Whittingham were arrested, and on Dec. 11 prosecutors charged them with conspiracy to commit burglary and violating the Explosive Substances Act of 1883. In all, they were accused of stealing some $1.2 million and causing $800,000 in damage over the course of 31 robberies. They’d gone for more banks even after the September bust.
Beddoes and Cartwright pleaded guilty in March 2014, admitting to ringleader roles. Beddoes’s DNA had been detected on a piece of duct tape beneath an ATM in Birkdale. And there was an abundance of cell tower and plate-tracking evidence, now that police had their phones and fake tags. Ellis pleaded guilty, too, and U.K. courts agreed to reduce their sentences by 25 percent.
The others chose trial. While that process was underway, Morgan, Webb, and White were detained in Spain, near Malaga, along with five other Brits. There, local police say, they lived in big houses with Mediterranean views; wore Armani and Versace; and blew up 14 more ATMs. “The British gang had perfected the method,” said Angel Munoz, chief of the Civil Guard unit that investigated the attacks. “Normally it sometimes doesn’t work, but with them it always worked. They had a high level of precision. Nothing went wrong; it was incredible.” White was released—Liverpool authorities still grumble about that—and Morgan and Webb were extradited.
In Liverpool, the defendants were separated into two trials. Even bogged down by the details in 5,000 pages of evidence, the proceedings in Liverpool Crown Court were characteristically lively: barristers in their white wigs, Huyton defendants playing to type. Whittingham argued that two pieces of evidence—his DNA on a glove on Elm Street and a receipt for acetylene at his home—had been planted by two different arms of the police. Bushell said he was seen at Beddoes’s rental house only because he was his daily pot dealer. The Echo chronicled his sparring with prosecutor Anya Horwood.
“Can I suggest to you that’s not true?” Horwood said, when he denied ever discussing ATMs. “You were a party to these offenses.”
“Can I suggest to you that’s wrong?” Bushell replied.
Their trial was sparsely attended by family. The jury deliberated for four days. Before it returned with a verdict, a heavily pregnant girlfriend of one defendant left the courtroom, weeping. Whittingham and Bushell were convicted unanimously.
Because the crimes were the first of their kind, Judge Mark Brown had enormous leeway to determine the guilty men’s fate. “There are no sentencing guidelines,” he told the courtroom. Brown acknowledged that police hadn’t been able to prove who was at the scene of every heist, and that gang members might have come and gone—and said it didn’t matter. “This was undoubtedly serious organized crime on a significant scale,” he said. “I am satisfied that individuals did not just join for a short period, because the crime group needed trusted and reliable people with the necessary knowledge and expertise.”
After scolding each defendant, he sentenced Beddoes and Cartwright to 17 years and Ellis to 13, including their plea reductions; Bushell to 17 years; and Whittingham to 18. “Take them down, please,” he said. Morgan and Webb’s trial began in November 2014. They were convicted and sentenced to 13 and 19 years, respectively.
Two other men were acquitted. The first, whose fingerprints had been found at the bat cave, claimed that he’d worked there only earlier in its criminal history, when it was a chop shop. The second—the same man who’d rappelled down the ferry during the smuggling caper with Cartwright in 2010—used a more emotional tack. He said he was on the run from police on a drugs charge, “living rough” and bathing at swimming pools, and was crashing at Beddoes’s house only for the night. He claimed to have been asleep when Beddoes ran in at 6 a.m., shouting, “There’s plod!” (Scouse for police.) “I know I’m no angel,” he told jurors.
Murphy and White remain at large. On Jan. 20 police asked the public to help trace the men, calling them “two of Merseyside’s most wanted criminals.”
The week after the second trial, the prosecution team was enjoying partial victory. “It was a fabulous case because it’s like a jigsaw, putting all those pieces together,” said Horwood. “There were no eyewitnesses. It wasn’t one of those cases where you’ve got incontrovertible evidence.”
At police headquarters, Rooney was in a jovial mood, perhaps because officers had recently executed a warrant at Bushell’s house, recovering £60,000 in cash and £55,000 in watches. She agreed that much of the narrative remains a mystery, including how and why Beddoes and Cartwright had transformed from utterly ordinary criminals into the captains of a near–terrorist plofkraak squad. “I don’t know; they’ve never spoken to us,” she said. “They’ve never offered any sort of information as to how they graduated or why they suddenly went to do this. But you can see footage of it happening on YouTube. When you actually see it, you can imagine them—the old bank robbery type glory of it coming out.”
- Editor: Bryant Urstadt
- Design: Stephanie Davidson
- Code: Toph Tucker
- Illustrations: Stephanie Davidson
- Map: Jeremy Diamond and Toph Tucker
- Photo editor: Brent Murray
- Additional reporting: Nick Leiber