A Pennsylvania man was sentenced Tuesday to four consecutive life sentences in federal prison, plus an additional 155 years, for his convictions involving a violent bank extortion and robbery spree in four states and several cities, including Oak Ridge and Knoxville, authorities said.
Michael Anthony Benanti, 45, of Lake Harmony, Pennsylvania, was sentenced by Chief U.S. District Court Judge Thomas A. Varlan in Knoxville on Tuesday.
Benanti had been convicted by a jury after a trial in U.S. District Court in February 2017. The jury found him guilty of one count of conspiracy to commit robbery and armed bank extortion, two counts of attempted armed bank extortion, one count of armed bank extortion, three counts of carjacking, three counts of kidnapping, three counts of being a previously convicted felon in possession of a firearm, and 10 counts of using, carrying, and brandishing a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence.
“Often, severe federal penalties, such as mandatory minimum sentences, are the most effective tool to protect the American public from a violent criminal like Benanti,” U.S. Attorney Nancy Harr said in a press release. “The consecutive sentences received by Benanti for firearms violations ensure he will never again be able to victimize families in East Tennessee or elsewhere. The U.S. Attorney’s office is, and remains committed to, prosecuting these crimes and seeking the highest penalties possible to help keep the American people safe.”
Another man who had been charged in the case, Brian Scott Witham, 47, of Waterville, Maine, pleaded guilty in March 2016. He is scheduled to be sentenced on August 17 in U.S District Court in Knoxville.
Benanti and Witham were indicted by a federal grand jury in December 2015. They were accused of kidnapping family members and robbing or attempting to rob three banks and credit unions in Oak Ridge, Knoxville, and Elizabethton. The Y-12 Federal Credit Union in Oak Ridge was one of the three financial institutions that was targeted.
Besides Y-12 Federal Credit Union in Oak Ridge on April 28, 2015, the other two financial institutions targeted in the armed extortion attempts in East Tennessee in 2015 were SmartBank on Advantage Place in Knoxville and Northeast Community Credit Union on Jason Witten Way in Elizabethton, according to prosecutors.
The extortion plots were reported to have involved attacking bank officials and their families, including children, at their homes and holding them hostage.
As part of his plea agreement, Witham agreed to plead guilty to similar charges from three other federal jurisdictions, federal officials said last year.
On Tuesday, Special Agent in Charge Renae McDermott of the Knoxville Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation said: “Today’s sentencing demonstrates that the FBI is committed to investigating and pursuing prosecution of those who engage in a pattern of illegal activity. It is also one example of the close working relationship the FBI has with our law enforcement partners.”
Agencies involved in the investigation included the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and numerous federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies in Tennessee, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Virginia, and South Carolina, the press release said. Assistant U.S. Attorneys David P. Lewen Jr., Kelly A. Norris, and Steven H. Cook represented the United States.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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