James Henderson is many things, a husband and father, an intelligent man who owned his own business and an animal lover. But for five weeks in the summer of 2004, he was also one of the most elusive thieves in the state.
During the steamy days of summer, Henderson stalked the banks of Atlanta and under the cover of darkness he struck. Quickly dubbed "The ATM Bandit," he stole construction equipment and used it to rip automated teller machines from the ground of banks in the more exclusive areas of Metro Atlanta. Heavily addicted to methamphetamine, Henderson was spiraling out of control.
"When I started with the meth I was taking something called Mexican Meth," Henderson said. "It helped me to keep going and work for 16-hours a day, but when I was introduced to ICE, it took my drug addiction to a whole new level. I didn’t care about anything else – I just wanted to get high."
His wife left him and took their children — a son and daughter — with her. The drugs numbed Henderson; he no longer cared about his family or the business he had built from nothing. He was chasing a high that couldn’t be sated, but his life was about to become much worse.
The crime spree started on a dare from his "friends" when Henderson began discussing how easy it would be to steal an ATM with the people with whom he was associating — drug addicts like himself. Henderson headed to Suwanee, and in less than 60 seconds he had an ATM loaded and was on his way. Sticking to interstates and making sure he drove the speed limit, Henderson was home free – for a while.
"It was so easy," he said, shaking his head. "At the time I thought it was kind of funny that the entire city of Atlanta was looking for me."
When all was said and done, Henderson took seven ATMs and close to $150,000 before being turned in by an acquaintance. Henderson was arrested outside his estranged wife’s home where he was attending their son’s 14th birthday party and charged by the federal government with six counts of grand larceny. Henderson pleaded out to four counts and was sentenced to 24 months in federal prison.
After 21 months he was released from federal prison and was extradited to Gwinnett County where he served a year and Henry County where he served a year as well. He spent time in 15 different institutions from Atlanta to Arkansas. When he was finally done with incarceration, he was four days shy of four years spent behind bars.
"Going to prison changed me," he said. "It saved my life, it got me off the dope and it made me finally realize what all I had to lose. In prison I spent the majority of my time in isolation. When you do something to the federal government, they don’t forget about you when they lock you away.
"They are the ones that get the last laugh. When they do catch you, they make sure they spank you real hard. And they definitely spanked me real hard."
And although he has no desire to go back to a life of crime, Henderson can’t help but be interested in the rash of ATM thefts happening now. He believes his experience as a thief could allow him to help law enforcement catch other thieves. He is able to go into great detail as to how one would go about stealing an ATM, details that will not be divulged in this article.
"I want to help," he said. "I know what kinds of people are taking the machines and how to help law enforcement stop them. I honestly believe that given our times and the desperation of people that things like this will continue and someone will end up getting hurt."
Henderson has also created a device that he believes can eliminate ATM thefts altogether, something he hopes to have patented in the future.
But for all his good intentions, Henderson worries that people don’t realize how sorry he is for his past actions. While in prison he lost his mother and a brother and he said the crimes he committed aged his father terribly. His wife divorced him – though they have since reconciled – and he now owes $309,000 in federal restitution and has a civil judgment of more than $200,000 against him from Wachovia Bank.
"I got away with nothing," Henderson said, his voice breaking. "I paid dearly. I was stuck in a cell the size of my bathroom for four years…" Henderson breaks as he continues talking, tears streaming down his cheeks.
"When the FBI picked me up, they gave me the opportunity – they said ‘give us three names and you’ll be out in six months,’" he remembers. "And I had names I could have gave them, but I did the crime. I did it. I wasn’t proud of it; I was just caught up in the insanity of it.
"When you’re a drug addict all you do is live from one high to the other. My mindset was that I wasn’t hurting anybody and seeing myself on the news doing something nobody else had ever done fueled the fire of that passion. But after about six or seven months [in prison] I realized that it wasn’t the banks that I had hurt. It was the people who put the money in those ATMs. It was the people of Atlanta. And I am genuinely sorry for that."
Henderson is still paying for his crimes – not just in restitution and in probation, but in his inability to secure a job. He is behind on his monthly payments and is scared that at any time he could be re-arrested because of lack of payment.
"Even though I am in a financial crisis now, it is against everything I am to steal anything ever again," he said. "I don’t have four more years to give to the Feds; my wife doesn’t have four more years to wait for me. I like who I am. I’m an incredibly smart man with a lot of talents and I am not going to jeopardize all that to steal something.
"It’s important for me to let people know that this is me now. I’m 60 months clean and sober and that person was not me. This is me now and I am so sorry."