Suspected East Tennessee bank robbers have long history in banking

Michael Benati and Brian Witham (source: Bumcombe County, N.C., Detention Center)

KNOXVILLE (WATE) – Years before he was charged with attempted armed bank extortion in connection to three East Tennessee bank robberies, Michael Anthony Benanti, 43, was an entrepreneur.

Benanti started Prisoner Assistance, Inc. based out of Lake Harmony, Pennsylvania, in 2008. According to their website, the company helps inmates open and maintain bank accounts from prison.

Previous story: 2 charged in 3 East Tennessee bank robbery, extortion plots

Benanti told Wall Street Journal last year he believes people who leave prison with a banking relationship are less likely to return, but prison officials also told the newspaper they were worried it could become a conduit for funding crimes and smuggling contraband.

Wall Street Journal also interviewed Brian Witham, Benanti’s alleged co-conspirator in the bank extortion plots. Witham was one of Benanti’s first customers and said he set up a bank account while in prison and worked his credit score up to 660 by the time he was released last year.

Pennsylvania securities regulators investigated Benanti’s business in 2011 at the request of the state probation agency, but the company was never accused of wrongdoing.


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