2 charged in 3 East Tennessee bank robbery, extortion plots

KNOXVILLE (WATE) – The FBI’s Knoxville office said two people have been arrested in connection with bank robberies at Y-12 Federal Credit Union in Oak Ridge, SmartBank in Knoxville and Northeast Community Credit Union in Elizabethton.

Michael Anthony Benanti, 43, from Lake Harmony, Pennsylvania and Brian Scott Witham, 45, from Waterville, Maine, face a 15 count indictment including attempted armed bank extortion, carjacking and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. If convicted they could face 142 years in prison.

Benanti and Witham were arrested on November 25 in Buncombe County, North Carolina by the North Carolina State Highway Patrol. According to WLOS, they were pulled over after a police chase in a stolen SUV. Witham was charged with reckless driving and fleeing to elude arrest. He also had an active warrant for a probation violation on a weapons charge. Benanti was charged with possession of a stolen SUV.

According to the Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern Distinct of Tennessee, Dave Lewen, Benanti and Witham were only able to successful extort money from the SmartBank in Knoxville. He said they obtained no money from bank robberies at Y-12 Federal Credit Union or Northeast Community Credit Union.

Related: Suspected East Tennessee bank robbers have long history in banking

“These offenses are serious, violent felony offenses which carry significant penalties under federal law,” said Lewen.

“At this point it appears they were acting alone,” said Edward Reinhold, the special agent in charge of the case through the Knoxville FBI office. “The indictment is the result of an extensive cooperative effort of numerous law enforcement.”

Nancy Harr, Acting United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee said both Benanti and Witham are previously convicted felons. She added that the case unfolded over several months.

“The folks you see here have worked nights, weekends, holidays. They’ve been away from their families, but their pursuit of justice in this case was relentless,” said Harr.

Statement on behalf of our President and CEO of SmartBank, Billy Carroll:

“We are very pleased to learn of the capture of the individuals responsible for the July robbery. This is a relief to our SmartBank family, as well as other banking friends in our community. We appreciate all of the hard work by the FBI and all local law enforcement officials involved in the continued pursuit to bring these individuals into custody.”

Bank robberies

Oak Ridge Y-12 Federal Credit Union

The first robbery, according to the Knoxville FBI, happened on April 28, 2015 in Oak Ridge.

The family of Y-12 Federal Credit Union CEO Mark Ziegler were taken hostage in the Whittington Creek neighborhood of Knox County. The FBI said Ziegler’s family was threatened in an attempt to obtain money from the Oak Ridge branch at 501 Lafayette Drive


Knoxville Smartbank

The second robbery happened April 28, 2015 at SmartBank in Knoxville.

The FBI said an employee, his wife and infant son were kidnapped at gunpoint. Investigators said the group also forced the man to withdraw money from the bank where he worked.

An employee of SmartBank, his wife and infant son were hooded and restrained by two male suspects, placed in their own vehicle and taken to the SmartBank branch, 202 Advantage Place. The employee was told to go in and retrieve money from the bank, which he did, and give it to the robbers.

The employee was left behind at the bank and the robbers drove away with the woman and child in their vehicle. The woman and her child were then released unharmed on Fox Road.


Elizabethton Northeast Community Credit Union

The third robbery happened on October 21 in Elizabethton.

According to WJHL, the bank teller said someone came to his home in Carter County and threatened violence if he did not withdraw money from the credit union. No one was hurt and no money ever changed hands.

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