A judge sentenced the co-defendant in a bank robbery extortion scheme that terrorized families in a 2014-15 crime spree.
Chief U.S. District Judge Tom Varlan sentenced Brian Witham to 30 years in prison, which is a lighter sentence since he pleaded guilty and testified against his partner in crime.
Varlan sentenced the convicted mastermind behind the operation Michael Benanti less than a month from Witham's sentencing. The court said the Pennsylvania career criminal forced bank employees to rob their own banks, terrorizing victims' families in the process. He will spend four consecutive life sentences plus another 155 years in federal prison.
Varlan cited the severity of the 2014-15 crime spree, Benanti's threat to the public, his record and the need to enforce sentencing laws in imposing the term.
He also ordered Benanti to help pay more than $350,000 in restitution to numerous victims, including two East Tennessee families. The 45-year-old inmate, however, stands little chance of paying much of that in the remaining years of his life.
Abigail Harris, whose tranquil life with her West Knoxville family was shattered in July 2015 by one of Benanti's schemes, told Varlan on Tuesday she wanted to ensure he never saw freedom. The defendant and partner Brian Witham confronted Harris and her family in their home to get money from SmartBank.
Benanti, she said, is "cunning and manipulative."
"He should spend every minute of his sentence in a maximum security prison," Harris said, her voice shaking. "I was and continue to be fearful of the reach and influence that he may have."
Harris said her family still is trying to come to grips with what Benanti and Witham put them through. She declined to comment to 10News.
A federal jury in Knoxville convicted Benanti in February of more than 20 counts tied to the spree, which included armed kidnappings and robberies or attempted robberies in Connecticut, East Tennessee and North Carolina.
Benanti and Witham identified potential victims through social media, learned their living habits and then finally swept in carrying guns and wearing masks. Their aim: to force bank or credit union employees to get money from their own institutions under duress that family members would die.
The scheme was only occasionally successful.
Besides the Harris family, the men targeted a family in West Knox County and a woman with a 3-year-old son in Elizabethton. That woman pleaded with her supervisor to let her into the vault as the kidnappers sat in a nearby parking lot holding her son.
The men finally were caught in November 2015 after a chase in Buncombe County, N.C.
Federal prosecutors led by Assistant U.S. Attorney David Lewen urged Varlan to impose 11 consecutive life sentences, arguing Benanti was the worst of the worst.
Lewen said the defendant has several prior convictions for which he served federal time. Lewen also said Benanti had explicitly threatened to kill him in recorded jail-house phone calls.
"Your honor, this is Michael Benanti's day of reckoning. It's finally here," Lewen said.
Defense attorney Robert Kurtz, who represented Benanti with Richard Gaines, asked the judge to consider an 80-year term, which still ensured that his client would never get out of prison while also assuring the public he was no longer a threat. The defense also submitted letters from family and friends attesting to Benanti's good qualities.
The defendant himself denied he'd been in the victims' houses. He blamed Witham, who testified against him at trial in a plea deal with the government, for being the true spree leader.
"If there's something I could say to Mrs. Harris, I would. But there isn't," he told the judge.
The U.S. Bureau of Prisons will determine where Benanti serves his sentence. Varlan said he also was recommending a mental health evaluation for him.
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