It was Kieran Doyle's 33rd birthday, and for once he was relaxed. Swigging beer and laughing it up with some friends at home, the burly Irishman allowed himself to forget for a while the stresses, strains and suspicions of his working life. He let his guard down. He should have known better.
Before Doyle's wife could slide a knife through his birthday cake, the shrill ring of the telephone jolted him back to the real world. It was his boss from Elyte ATM Services. There had been another burglary. He had to act fast.
Jumping into his Suzuki Samurai, lop-sided from the spare he'd been riding on since a blowout the month before, Doyle raced to the Arizona Federal Credit Union on Stapley Road and Southern Avenue in Mesa. Elyte received the signal that another one of the automatic teller machines it regularly services had been hit. Doyle needed to get there before the cops -- and before the bank that leaves Elyte in charge of its ATM money -- got a whiff of it.
Arriving in darkness, Doyle opened the machine and ran a tally; $40,000 was missing, and so were the cassettes that held the money. Grabbing his cell phone, he called an Elyte executive, who would need to show up with enough money to cover the loss and get the machine running again. But this time, he couldn't reach anyone.
"I needed to get $40,000 from the vault at work and get a crew out there before that bank found out," Doyle explains in his thick Irish accent. As the most senior member of the security team that night, Doyle made the decision to restock the ATM, and two cassettes of replacement money were quickly transported from the vault at Elyte. Now the company could handle the missing cash on its own. No police. No nosey bank managers. Just another job well done.
But Doyle's leadership in Elyte's money-shuffling was short-lived. About a month after the burglary that interrupted his birthday party in November 1999, Doyle learned that Elyte investigators were watching him, suspicious of where he got the money to buy new tires for his Suzuki.
In a confrontation at the Elyte office, Doyle shoved a receipt in their faces, showing he bought the tires right after cashing his paycheck. "All the guys were in the room at once, and I said you can have all the information you want. Next time, don't go behind my back."
It did him no good. Several weeks later, Doyle was demoted from the security team. Instead of investigating employees who were suspected of stealing from the ATMs they serviced, he was put on a malfunction crew that went around town fixing broken units. "They thought I would turn around and quit after they downgraded my job," he says. For a while, Doyle refused. But by summer, his pride would take a bigger blow.
On July 12, 2000, two Phoenix police officers rang Doyle's doorbell in Peoria, asking to search his home. Elyte had called the cops after Doyle's partner, Michael Dellheim, told them that Doyle said he planned to steal money from an ATM and threatened to kill him and his family if he told anyone. Police officers were looking for $11,920 that was missing from an ATM in a Fry's Marketplace at 35th and Peoria avenues. Dellheim told detectives that, while he never saw Doyle steal from the machine, his partner did produce several thousand dollars in cash when they got back to the truck. Doyle loaned him some of the money to buy a used car, he said, and they could find the rest of it in Doyle's gun safe at home.
When the officers arrived on Doyle's doorstep, searched the house and opened the safe, there were no stacks of $20 bills. But one detective raised his eyebrows at the handguns, rifles and ammunition Doyle kept locked up since his days in Ireland's national army.
It didn't look good for her husband, the other officer said to Doyle's wife. Doyle's blood boiled.
Fueled by the accusation against Doyle, Phoenix police continued to pursue the case. After all, Elyte's account of how the crime went down made sense to detectives: Doyle, who had the keys and codes to get into the machine, grabbed stacks of money while his partner wasn't looking, stuffed it into deposit envelopes and crammed them into a clear plastic clipboard box, which he carried back to the company truck.
But for his part, Doyle was baffled to find police on his doorstep that July afternoon. Except to buy him lunch a few times, Doyle never gave his partner any money, he says, nor did he have anything to do with burglarizing an ATM. "I just want everyone to know I never did anything wrong," he says.
From there, Doyle's life began falling apart. Bills piled up and his car was repossessed as he struggled to find work, forcing him to begin filing for bankruptcy. But what bothered him the most, he says, was being accused of something he says he would never do.
"They know what they've done to me is wrong," says Doyle, his eyes fixed and unrelenting.
Doyle wants to prove that he is no thief, and he may be right. Other former co-workers have come forward claiming that they, too, have been falsely accused. One of Doyle's ex-bosses even says that some in Elyte management wanted to force Doyle out. And Doyle's partner has since taken back all of his accusations against Doyle, claiming that he had been pressured by Elyte interrogators to say that his partner was responsible for the burglary.
In the process of pleading his own case, Doyle is breaking the code of secrecy that rules the young and vulnerable ATM servicing business, exposing a largely unregulated industry that moves billions of dollars each day, and revealing the practices of a Phoenix company that has taken advantage of that secrecy. Elyte's internal records, in conjunction with police reports, videotapes and interviews with former staffers, outline a climate of dishonesty at Doyle's old workplace, ranging from wave after wave of inside heists to alleged efforts by Elyte investigators to cover them up, while coercing accusations and confessions out of their colleagues.
Doyle was not the only one to be unjustly accused of pilfering fast cash from ATMs in the Valley. But maybe, he says, if he can set the record straight, he will be the last.
From the day he was accused, Doyle wasn't about to be the bad guy. Before walking away, he copied dozens of incident reports made while he was investigating cash losses at the ATMs that Elyte technicians were emptying and refilling.
The reports reveal a flood of ATM thefts, most of them found to be inside jobs. The rash of lost money came at a time when Elyte was one of the largest providers of ATM services in the state, contracting with local credit unions, Bank One and Bank of America.
After picking up millions of dollars from these financial institutions every morning, Elyte would send its technicians out in unmarked Nissan pickup trucks with bulletproof windshields, some of them packed with nearly $1 million each. Their routes covered hundreds of ATMs across the Valley that received a regular "sweep and balance," cleaning out the deposited money and refilling the dispenser with cash. ATM service providers like Elyte were paid per ATM, per service.
But too often, reports show, technicians would sweep and balance the bank's money into their own pockets, which the company had to replace.
"We're not in a position to divulge any kind of statistics. . . regarding thefts or losses," says Dennis Bassi, an attorney representing Elyte. "It's counterproductive to our business, as well as it violates our confidentiality agreements we have with our customers. All I can tell you, really, is that my personal experience was that we had no problems that I would judge to be unusual."
Public records show otherwise. New Times has reviewed police records from Mesa, Tempe, Chandler, Scottsdale, Phoenix and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department on recent thefts from companies servicing ATMs. The reports expose a theft problem at Elyte that was out of control. ATMs were getting hit month after month, sometimes at the same machine. From March 1997 to last February, Elyte ATMs or their technicians were robbed 20 times. But that doesn't include the losses that Doyle and other ex-employees say went intentionally unreported to the police, so as not to jeopardize Elyte's bank contracts.
With armored-car carriers charging around $50 for every visit to an ATM, one bank contract could bring in thousands of dollars a week.
Of course, the problem of theft is not entirely unique to Elyte. Lost money is the bane of all armored car carriers. Just how much money is stolen from ATMs each year is uncertain, however, since neither law enforcement nor the industry tracks those losses. But the problem at Elyte, experts say, is part of a bigger predicament that comes along with the ever-growing number of ATMs -- an explosion in low-paid, substandard security firms that leave their workers and ATMs vulnerable to theft.
"My sense is that most ATMs are not serviced by armored-car companies," says John Margaritis, secretary of the Independent Armored Car Operators Association, a trade group that denied membership to Elyte a few years ago. "Many ATM service providers are operating out of their wife's minivan."
Lots of ATM companies, including Elyte, he adds, are not tracked by trade groups because they do not meet industry standards for armored-car carriers.
But standards have meant less to banks than the bottom line, critics say. With more than 1,500 ATMs to load in Arizona every day, banks have sought the cheapest money haulers they could find. Companies like Elyte, with their semi-armored pickups and $9-an-hour guards, have filled that bill.
"It's really between the contractor and whoever is going to provide the service," Margaritis says. "There's no law. There's no standard. There's nothing like that."
The result is an unfettered industry in which ATM servicing companies have free rein to handle money -- and employees suspected of stealing -- any way they wish.
Whoever was pulling off the Elyte heists was slick. Gobs of cash, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars at a time, were lifted, James Bond-style. No signs of forced entry. No alarms set off. Just quick hits using the company's keys and codes to get in the ATM vault and out in minutes.
Police departments across the Valley, as well as the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department and the FBI, scurried around trying to find the burglar. But getting evidence to catch the thief was torturous.
"You usually don't have a witness with these, so we have to go on fingerprints," says Detective John Barto, who was unable to solve a 12-minute heist of $50,000 in 1998 from a Bank of America ATM at El Pedregal Mall in Scottsdale. But fingerprints are usually useless in ATM thefts, he says, because the crimes are often committed by employees, whose prints you'd expect to find in the machines.
"You almost have to catch them with a bunch of money," says Barto.
Then police had their lucky break. On January 29, 1998, Mitch Golab, an Elyte technician, tripped a silent alarm inside a Bank of America ATM in Chandler. Officers rushed to the scene, finding wet spray paint on all the surveillance cameras, a ladder and a hole cut in the roof to the crawl space above the bank. An ATM was left open, its hinges burned off.
They also found Golab himself nearby, hiding behind a Mervyn's department store sign, dressed in black and holding a duffel bag stuffed with a cutting torch, gloves, a two-way radio, a gun, and keys that fit the ATM machines. As police pounced on Golab, a voice came over his two-way radio, asking if he got away. His roommate and co-worker at Elyte, Nathaniel Harrison, was waiting for him with the getaway vehicle.
The bust gave the FBI the proof they needed to link Golab and Harrison to six other ATM burglaries in Phoenix, Sun Lakes, Mesa and Tempe. FBI agents discovered that Golab was accessing a storage locker on 27th Avenue after each incident. Money taken from the seven burglaries totaled $218,000.
The cases went to U.S. District Court, where Golab and Harrison pleaded guilty. The FBI, it appeared, got their men.
But the robberies continued. Only now they were violent.
On October 31, 1998, Ruth Beltz and Steve Cook responded to a malfunction at the ATM inside Bank of America in Carefree. After inspecting the machine and returning to their truck, they discovered it had a flat tire. As Cook crouched on the ground to change the tire, two people wearing Halloween masks emerged from a vacant lot and announced that this was a robbery. Thinking it was a Halloween prank, Beltz replied, "Yeah, right." Then she heard the man with a wolf mask say, "This is no joke, bitch."
The suspects duct-taped the arms, legs and eyes of the two technicians, dragged them behind some shrubs in the vacant lot, and demanded the keys and codes to get into the ATM, according to Elyte's report on the incident. The masked gunmen ran away with $42,460.
A second assailant wearing a white skeleton mask struck Melvin's arm with a sledgehammer and demanded his weapon. Both suspects had their guns trained on his head; Melvin squinted, expecting to be shot. But when he opened his eyes, Melvin caught a glimpse of the suspects dragging the black bag of cash across the parking lot and jumping over a wall. Elyte officials believed these suspects might also have been employees, since they apparently knew the technicians' route. The bag held $338,000, but the cash and the gunmen were never found.
By now, things at Elyte were getting desperate.
Sitting in the claustrophobic corner of a white room, a camera glaring in his face, Freddie Apodaca tries unsuccessfully to keep his fidgeting fingers and jittery eyes in check. He's in the hot seat now, one of many ATM technicians to undergo videotaped interrogations by Elyte.
He's being grilled by Mike Snyder, one of at least two former law enforcement detectives brought onto Elyte's payroll to stop the thievery. And like other Elyte investigators, Snyder is ruthless, routinely pounding Apodaca with take-no-prisoners-style questioning.
Apodaca is being questioned because he is one of several technicians whose route included a machine at 44th Street and Thomas, where $5,000 was reported missing. He denies taking any money, but he can't sit still, coughing, scratching his head and blinking under Snyder's gaze.
"There is things about your body language that's got me kind of concerned that you're not telling me the whole truth about things," Snyder says on the videotape. "I want you to understand that I'm not buying all this, what you're telling me. . . . If you've got anything you want to get off your chest, this is the time to do it."
Looking down, his face sullen, Apodaca quietly says he palmed a few torn-up $20 bills from an ATM in Terminal Four at Sky Harbor Airport and one other machine. "Okay, I guess maybe I did," he mumbles. "I just grabbed it. I didn't count it." Still, he denied taking the missing cash Snyder was looking for at 44th and Thomas.
The next day, two other members of the security team went after Apodaca again, telling him to meet them at the Circle K at Seventh Street and Bethany Home Road with the cash he stole, including the large amount from 44th and Thomas that they say he later confessed on the telephone to taking.
When Apodaca arrived, setting down just four $20 bills in the back of their opened van, the security men became irate, jabbing at him with demands to know where the stack of money was and how he spent it.
"Now you've come up here and you don't know where the money is. That's bull," says Elyte investigator Pete Golden, pointing the camera at Apodaca, who stares at them blankly, his mouth hanging open. "You've made a fool out of both of us tonight. . . . I'm not taking my eyes off of you until I see the money or I see you in handcuffs going to jail tonight."
Apodaca may have picked $20 bills from some machines, but he did not take the $5,000 the security team was looking for. Two days after the interrogation in the Circle K parking lot, Elyte discovered that the missing $5,000 was a paperwork error.
The recording confirms what Doyle is trying to prove, he says: that Elyte often goes after employees with little hard evidence.
More important, the videotape reveals how the company tried to keep its internal stealing secret to avoid losing its contracts with banks. After Golden finished grilling Apodaca outside of the Circle K, Snyder showed up and took over the interrogation, explaining why it was so important that Apodaca cooperate with them, turn over the missing money, and let Elyte executives handle the alleged theft.
"They don't like to call the cops," Snyder says about Elyte on videotape. "They don't want the banks, our customers, knowing that [money is missing]. And I'll tell you why, because, quite frankly . . . if you owned Elyte, would you want the bank to know that you had people taking it from within?"
Snyder no longer works at Elyte and could not be reached for this story. Asked if Elyte reported ATM thefts to police and the bank, Bassi, Elyte's attorney, would not comment at length, again citing confidentiality agreements with the banks that the company serves.
"In my experience, there was no impropriety, if that's what you're getting at," he says. "All we would do is look for compliance with our internal procedures for the safety of our crews, and whether all procedures had been followed because, really, procedures are all you have, and there was no impropriety of any kind."
Meanwhile, the robberies and the questionings continued at Elyte, and they were taking their toll on the staff.
"They pulled me in one day and accused me of stealing from various machines," says Terry Murphy, a private investigator who signed on with Elyte after he couldn't find work in California. "They said I had a gambling problem. They were seeing if I would crack."
Elyte's interrogators were testing different motives, he says, then decided that he was trying to save a large enough nest egg to impress his wife when she got her U.S. citizenship and could leave Canada to be with him. "The cops were called. They named me as a suspect, put my gun in a bag and made me take off my [company] shirt," he says. "I was in tears at that point."
Murphy was suspended, and he soon quit. "Any criminal would have been better treated than that," he says. Snyder told him Elyte would audit all the machines on his route, but Murphy never heard from Elyte again. When he called the company back to get the results of the audits, he turned on his tape recorder and was told they turned up no missing money on his routes after all.
Russ Koleski remembers being directed to a small room for what he thought was his 30-day job review. Instead, Elyte security staff wanted to know how much his mortgage was and how he could afford his house, which he told them he paid for out of a 401K retirement plan. They wanted to know if his wife worked and what his car payments were, since he drove a newer Ford Taurus. "I said [to Snyder], 'You have a Corvette,'" Koleski recalls. "He said, 'You're getting defensive.'"
After a while, the interrogations left him and other technicians feeling like they were defending themselves rather than the money they were transporting. Koleski was sick of it. "I was physically and mentally ready to go," he says.
But technicians weren't the only ones leaving Elyte. Harry Wheaton left his post as executive vice president of operations within eight months, particularly troubled, he says, by the unsolved and unreported thefts. He was one of the managers, he adds, who was routinely sent to quickly and quietly handle the company's mysterious ATM shortages.
"I met [Elyte executives] at many of them," he says. "It was my feeling that you call police immediately." But the cover-ups, in addition to the regular interrogations and accusations, made him uncomfortable. "They've ruined a lot of lives down there. That's why I'm not there."
Elyte employees didn't usually stick around long, and the company wanted it that way, adds Richard Liss, an ATM technician who after three years with Elyte would be considered an old-timer. "If you were there six, eight months, you were there too long," he says. "You already knew too much. You knew your route, you knew the inner workings of the company. You were a threat to the company."
Like Koleski, Liss got sick of working for a company boiling over with stress. But former employees say their departure from Elyte was nowhere near as bad as Doyle's. Wheaton and others say they are willing to vouch for his character and speak out against the company -- and among those others is Michael Dellheim, the ex-partner who had sent the police to Doyle's house that July afternoon.
In a telephone interview with New Times, Dellheim recanted his accusations against his former partner, claiming that Elyte interrogators pressured him into admitting that his partner must have grabbed the cash while he wasn't paying attention.
"They literally had me broke down in tears," he says now. "They were looking for someone to blame it on. . . . I didn't know what else to do. And I knew the only way I could get 'em out of there was to just tell them what they wanted to hear."
What Elyte wanted to hear, Dellheim says, was that he turned his back on his partner as Doyle worked in the machine, giving him the opportunity to steal.
"They showed me some pictures and whatever to see if I could point out if anything he was holding was money. I looked at all the pictures and nothing in there showed him holding money of any kind," he says. "What they were looking for was an excuse, and they found it through me."
Even before Dellheim's interrogation, however, Wheaton says Doyle's ouster was a foregone conclusion. "I did on a number of occasions hear [Elyte executives] say they wanted him out," he states. "It was because he knew too much about them, which translates to the business and all the goings-on."
In the months following Dellheim's accusation, police continued to investigate the case. But the evidence against Doyle failed to impress county prosecutors, and no charges were ever filed.
Now Dellheim wants to apologize to his partner for what happened, but Doyle refuses to take his calls. Doyle would rather have an apology from Elyte. Instead, he's got a lawsuit.
As part of his crusade to vindicate himself and expose Elyte, Doyle has been visiting all the major banks Elyte works for, telling them about all the thefts that have occurred. Apparently, the information has made little difference to the banks, which claim to have no problems with the ATM company. But it certainly has made a difference to his old employer.
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Last month, Elyte filed suit against Doyle alleging that he stole $50,000, and further claiming that Elyte "has suffered losses and damages . . . including damages to its reputation among the customers it serves."
Elyte would not comment on the lawsuit, except to say that the company has evidence of a series of thefts by Doyle, including the now-recanted accusation from Doyle's partner.
Sitting on his couch at home, in the room that Phoenix police entered two years ago before they searched his safe for wads of $20 bills, Doyle refuses to let his guard down again, like he did the night he was called by Elyte to respond to an ATM that was missing money.
"They want me to shut up, but I'm not going to lay back," he says.