Nov. 7 trial still set for East TN bank robber, extortionist plot

KNOXVILLE - A federal judge has determined that authorities had probable cause to arrest a Pennsylvania man accused in a series of East Tennessee bank holdups and extortions that targeted executives and their families.

In a ruling issued last week, U.S. Magistrate Judge Clifford Shirley said law enforcement properly searched a North Carolina rental cabin on Nov. 26, 2015 where they found Michael Benanti and his co-defendant Brian Witham.

Benanti faces 23 counts in a federal indictment, which include weapons and kidnapping charges.

Federal prosecutors say Benanti and Witham, 46, committed three East Tennessee bank robberies that started by taking families hostage.

Witham has pleaded guilty and could testify against Benanti, whose trial is set to begin Nov. 7.

On April 28, investigators say, the two men took the family of an employee of the Oak Ridge branch of the Y-12 Federal Credit Union hostage, and tried to force him to steal money from the credit union. On July 7, the two men are accused of breaking into the West Knoxville home of a SmartBank executive and holding his wife and baby at gunpoint while forcing him to withdraw cash from the bank. The indictments also allege the two pulled the same scheme on October 21, in Elizabethton, Tenn., where they forced an employee of the Northeast Community Credit Union and her young son to accompany them while robbing the bank.

Benanti, 45, of Lake Harmony, Penn., and Witham, of Waterville, Maine, were arrested in late November in North Carolina, following a police chase.

Benanti during a hearing in June claimed that the arrest violated his Fourth Amendment rights, arguing authorities didn't have the required probable cause.

Federal prosecutors disagreed.

The suspects' abandoned vehicle turned out to be stolen, with separate stolen license plates. They left a GPS unit in the vehicle, which officials used to harvest additional evidence.

The court also saw video of the Nov. 25 chase in which Benanti and Witham were ultimately arrested. Reynolds was directly involved in this pursuit, along with two other troopers.

In the video from Reynolds' dash cam, the defendants' vehicle - a grey Nissan Pathfinder - tried evading the troopers. This incident happened heading eastbound on I-26, in Buncombe County, near Asheville, N.C.

The vehicle eventually pulled over, and the passenger - a heavyset white male with a balding spot on the back of his head - got out of the vehicle, holding a black bag. The driver sped off and one of the troopers pursued.

Defense attorneys claimed that being in possession of stolen tags is a crime that should have resulted in an arrest of just the driver - not the passenger as well.

The prosecution argued that enough similarities exist between the suspects and details of the different incidents that they are confident Benanti is the man responsible for all.


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