Note: This story was last updated at 5:40 p.m.
A Maine man charged in several armed bank extortion plots, including at Y-12 Federal Credit Union in Oak Ridge, pleaded guilty in federal court on Tuesday, authorities said.
Brian Scott Witham, 45, of Waterville, Maine, pleaded guilty to the charges contained in a 15-count indictment from December 2015 involving armed bank extortions of the Y-12 Federal Credit Union in Oak Ridge, SmartBank in Knoxville, and Northeast Community Credit Union in Elizabethton, said Nancy Stallard Harr, acting U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Tennessee. Witham is one of two people charged in the bank extortion scheme.
As part of his plea agreement, Witham agreed to plead guilty to similar charges from three other federal jurisdictions including the Western District of North Carolina, the Middle District of Pennsylvania, and the District of Connecticut, authorities said. Witham, U.S. attorneys, and a federal judge all agreed to transfer the similar charges to U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Tennessee, a press release said. Those charges include being a felon in possession of a firearm in Haywood County, North Carolina; armed robbery of an Ingles in Arden, North Carolina; armed robbery of the Peoples Security Bank and Trust in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania; and attempted armed bank extortion of the Achieve Financial Credit Union in New Britain, Connecticut, authorities said.
Sentencing for Witham is set for August 17 in U.S. District Court in Knoxville. The Knoxville News Sentinel reported that Witham faces a minimum 42-year prison term, but Chief U.S. District Judge Tom Varlan will have the final say and, according to the plea agreement, could impose a life term.
Also named in the 15-count indictment issued by a federal grand jury in December is Michael Anthony Benanti, 43, of Lake Harmony, Pennsylvania. Benanti and Witham were accused of kidnapping family members and robbing or attempting to rob the three banks and credit unions in Oak Ridge, Knoxville, and Elizabethton.
Both men were scheduled to be tried in federal court on March 29. They both pleaded not guilty in late January. Each man faces or faced a minimum mandatory sentence of 142 years in prison, if convicted on all 15 federal charges. The charges include bank extortion, attempted bank extortion, carjacking, and brandishing a firearm while committing a crime.
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 arraignments for the two men in late January, 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.
Here are the specific charges included in the December indictment 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.
Both men were scheduled to be tried in federal court on March 29. They both pleaded not guilty in late January.
Benanti is currently in custody awaiting trial.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, 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 earlier in 2015, 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 Ziegler, 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. That employees has been identified 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.
Here is the list of the law enforcement agencies involved in the investigation:
- FBI Knoxville Resident Agency, along with the FBI Safe Streets Task Force;
- Knoxville Police Department;
- Knox County Sheriff’s Department;
- Johnson City Police Department;
- Carter County Police Department;
- Oak Ridge Police Department; and
- Elizabethton Police Department.
- FBI Asheville Resident Agency;
- North Carolina State Highway Patrol;
- North Caroline State Bureau of Investigation;
- Asheville Police Department;
- Maggie Valley Police Department;
- Waynesville Police Department;
- Haywood County Sheriff’s Office; and
- Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office.
- FBI Harrisburg Resident Agency assisted by state and local law enforcement. Connecticut agencies included: FBI New Haven Resident Agency; Bristol Police Department; New Britain Police Department; Connecticut State Police; Farmington Police Department; and Berlin Police Department.
The following Assistant U.S. attorneys were assigned to represent the United States in their various districts: Jacabed Rodriguez-Coss, District of Connecticut; Assistant U.S. Attorney John Gurganus, Middle District of Pennsylvania; and Assistant U.S. Attorney Don Gast; Western District of North Carolina. Assistant U.S. Attorneys David P. Lewen Jr. and Steven H. Cook from the Eastern District of Tennessee represent the United States in this combined guilty plea.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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