Note: This story was last updated at 4:10 p.m.
KNOXVILLE—One of the two suspects in three alleged bank extortion and carjacking plots that involved bank employees and their family members, including at Y-12 Federal Credit Union in Oak Ridge, is facing a minimum mandatory sentence of 142 years in prison, if he is convicted on all 15 charges that he faces, a federal prosecutor said Tuesday.
Brian Witham pleaded not guilty to the 15 charges—which include bank extortion, attempted bank extortion, carjacking, and brandishing a firearm while committing a crime—during a 20-minute arraignment and initial appearance in U.S. District Court in Knoxville on Tuesday afternoon.
A trial has been set for March 29.
Witham’s alleged co-conspirator, Michael Benanti, has an initial appearance and arraignment scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Friday.
The two were indicted by a federal grand jury on December 15 for plots that involved kidnapping family members and robbing or attempting to rob three banks and credit unions in Oak Ridge, Knoxville, and Elizabethton, Tennessee. Benanti, 43, is from Lake Harmony, Pennsylvania, and Witham, 45, is from Waterville, Maine.
The three financial institutions they targeted were Y-12 Federal Credit Union on Lafayette Drive in Oak Ridge, SmartBank on Advantage Place in Knoxville, and Northeast Community Credit Union on Jason Witten Way in Elizabethton.
During Witham’s arraignment and initial appearance on Tuesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Dave Lewen said authorities found a bag with tools and equipment in the basement of Benanti’s home that included rubber masks and temporary tattoos, among other gear. He said the two men were on their way to South Carolina as part of an alleged plan to target a financial institution there when they were arrested in North Carolina in November. Benanti had surveillance tools and details on banking employees in South Carolina, Lewen said.
Here are the specific charges against Benanti and Witham:
- two counts each of attempted armed bank extortion;
- one count each of armed bank extortion;
- three counts each of carjacking, involving a different vehicle in each case;
- two counts each of brandishing a firearm during an attempted bank extortion;
- one count each of brandishing a firearm during a bank extortion;
- three counts each of brandishing a firearm during a carjacking; and
- three counts each of being a felon in possession of a firearm.
The charges carry potential sentences that vary between, for example, seven years and life.
Witham and Benanti are alleged to have led police on two high-speed chases, including one on Interstate 40 and one on I-26.
Lewis asked U.S. Magistrate Judge C. Clifford Shirley to detain Witham pending the trial because he has numerous felony convictions and has previously tried to escape.
Witham has waived his right to a detention hearing for now, although he could ask for one later. In the meantime, he remains in the custody of the U.S. Marshal.
The arrests and indictment of Benanti and Witham were announced in Knoxville on Wednesday, December 16, by Edward Reinhold, special agent in charge of the Knoxville Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Nancy Stallard Harr, acting United States attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee.
The FBI said Benanti and Witham were arrested in Buncombe County, North Carolina, by the North Carolina State Highway Patrol—with help from the Maggie Valley Police Department, the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office, and the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office—after a vehicle pursuit on November 25, the day before Thanksgiving.
The first kidnapping and attempted robbery occurred at Y-12 Federal Credit Union on April 28. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, and the Oak Ridge Police Department all responded.
At about 8:15 a.m. that day, the FBI said, a Y-12 Federal Credit Union employee and his family were kidnapped from their residence in West Knox County and held hostage at gunpoint.
While his wife and son were held hostage, the employee, Y-12 Federal Credit Union President Mark Zeigler, was coerced to attempt to remove money from the financial institution. But no money was taken.
After the robbery, Ziegler’s family members were released unharmed at the Gettysvue Country Club parking lot in Knoxville. The suspects fled and remained at large.
On Tuesday, July 7, at approximately 8 a.m., a SmartBank employee and his family were kidnapped from their home on Northshore Drive and held hostage at gunpoint, the FBI said. The employee and his family were taken to the SmartBank. The Knoxville News Sentinel has identified that employee as Tanner Harris, first vice president and commercial lending officer at SmartBank.
While at the bank, Harris was coerced to remove an undisclosed amount of money, which was provided to the robbers.
Harris was then left at the bank and his wife and the couple’s infant son were released unharmed a short time later at the end of Pipkin Lane in West Knox County. The suspects fled and remained at large.
Northeast Community Credit Union in Elizabethton was targeted in a similar plot on October 21. A bank employee and her juvenile son were targeted in that case.
In August, the FBI offered a reward of up to $20,000 for information leading to the identification and arrests of the suspects in the kidnappings and extortions involving Y-12 Federal Credit Union and SmartBank.
The FBI had released information about the suspects, including a female subject, in descriptions in May and composite sketches in August. But officials told reporters in December that no other people are being sought, and Benanti and Witham are the only two people involved.
Many law enforcement agencies participated in the investigation, including the Oak Ridge Police Department, Knoxville Police Department, and Knox County Sheriff’s Office.
You can read the 15-count indictment, which also includes charges of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, here.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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