KNOXVILLE—A second suspect has also pleaded not guilty to 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.
One of the suspects, Brian Witham, pleaded not guilty during an arraignment in U.S. District Court in Knoxville on Tuesday.
The second suspect, Michael Benanti, pleaded not guilty during a Friday afternoon arraignment.
Each man is facing a minimum mandatory sentence of 142 years in prison, if they are convicted on all 15 federal charges that they face. The charges include bank extortion, attempted bank extortion, carjacking, and brandishing a firearm while committing a crime.
The charges carry potential sentences of varying lengths, with some as long as 10 years to life, and 15 years to life. There are also potential fines of up to $250,000 for some of the charges. A few of the charges have possible sentences that must be served consecutively, as opposed to concurrently.
A federal trial has been set for March 29.
Both men have waived detention hearings for now and remain in the custody of the U.S. Marshal.
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.
In the two arraignments this week, Assistant U.S. Attorney Dave Lewen said authorities found, while executing a search warrant, a bag with tools and equipment in the basement of Benanti’s home that included rubber masks, wigs, temporary tattoos, and clothing with FBI and NYPD markings, among other gear.
Lewen 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, and he tried to hide a piece of paper related to that when stopped by authorities, Lewen said.
On Friday, Lewen argued that Benanti is a flight risk and a risk to the public, has previously tried to escape, and has led law enforcement on high-speed chases.
“This defendant is a danger,” 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 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.
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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