Accomplice in East Tenn. bank robbery, extortion case sentenced to 30 years

Brian Witham (source: Blount County Sheriff's Office)

KNOXVILLE (WATE) – A federal judge in Knoxville sentenced Brian Witham in court Thursday to 30 years in prison.

Witham, 47, pleaded guilty earlier this year. He was convicted in a string of bank robberies that prosecutors said included elaborate kidnapping schemes.

Michael Benanti, 45, was also convicted in the robbberies. He was sentenced in July to four life sentences plus 155 years in prison.

Previous story: Man sentenced to 4 life sentences plus 155 years in East Tenn. bank robbery, extortion cases

The first robbery in Tennessee happened in April 2015 at the Y12 Federal Credit Union in Oak Ridge. The second was in July at SmartBank in West Knoxville. Investigators say in both cases that robbers targeted bank employees and their families, forcing them to take money from the banks. Witham and Benanti were arrested on November 25 in Buncombe County, North Carolina, by the North Carolina State Highway Patrol.

The two met in federal prison in the late 1990s. When Witham was released from prison, Benanti hired him to work at his business, Prisoner Assistant. For $5 a month, the company would manage a prisoner’s bank account and for $24-50 a month it would help the inmate pay bills, pick up mail, make wire transfers, get credit cards and lines of credit.

Later, court documents say Benanti recruited Witham to engage in various types of fraud including identity theft. When that didn’t return high yields, Benanti suggested robbing a bank.

That’s when, according to the plea agreement, Benanti and Witham robbed People’s Security and Trust in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania. On September 14, 2014, they waited for bank tellers to exit their cars and them ambushed them with firearms, threatened them and ordered the the bank manager to open the door. Once inside, Benanti and Witham tied up the bank employees, ordered the manager to open the vault at gunpoint, and stole around $156,000.

They then used the bank robbery money to prop up the business, but when that proved to not be enough, they began robbing jewelry stores in Connecticut, according to the plea agreement. They then got the idea to kidnap a bank executive to get money.

Achieve Federal Credit Union, New Britan, Connecticut

The two men decided to target Matthew Yussman, an executive with Achieve Federal Credit Union in New Britain, Connecticut. Benanti and Witham tied up Yussman and his mother and forced Yussman to go to his credit union to steal money. They taped one of the fake explosives to him and said he would detonate by 11 a.m. They also said they placed one in his mother’s room and it would also detonate if he failed to do as instructed.

Yussman drove to the credit union, but was intercepted by law enforcement. Benanti and Witham fled to New York where they set their car on fire and then fled to North Carolina, according to court documents.

Y-12 Federal Credit Union, Oak Ridge, Tennessee

Using money from Prisoner Assistant, court documents say Benanti and Witham rented a cabin in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, and began to target bank executives in the Knoxville area. After researching bank executives and their family members on social media and conducting surveillance, they decided to target Mark Ziegler, an executive with Y-12 Federal Credit Union in Oak Ridge.

Related story: FBI: Y-12 Federal Credit Union CEO at center of robbery, kidnapping, extortion plot

According to court documents, Benanti and Witham started surveillance of Ziegler’s home and his office, including hiding in the trees around his home as well as placing GoPro cameras around the property, pointed toward his home. Witham says Benanti told him to conduct all-night surveillance, which included bringing in food, water and equipment, as well as using the bathroom in bottles and plastic bags.

The morning of April 28, 2015, the two armed themselves with semi-automatic pistols and dressed in dark clothing, and drove to Ziegler’s home. Benanti allegedly wore a rubber mask making him appear to be a medium-skin toned African-American man. Witham covered his face and wore a temporary tattoo on his neck in what the documents say was a deliberate attempt to cause the victims to report incorrect suspect descriptions to police. Witham also brought along a rubber female mask to make the victims think there was a woman involved in the crime.

The suspects then approached Ziegler in his garage and handcuffed him. They took him into the home where his family was, pointed guns at them and tied them up. Benanti handed Ziegler a letter telling him to rob the Y-12 Federal Credit Union. During this time, Witham left the house and came back wearing the female mask asking about “milk for the baby.” Benanti cursed and ordered “her” to leave the house.

Original composite sketches of suspects, allegedly confused by masks and disguises

 

They then ordered Ziegler to rob the credit union, and told him if he didn’t come back within 20 minutes, they would cut off one of his wife’s fingers for every minute he was late. When she ran out of fingers, they said they would start cutting up his daughter and mail Ziegler the pieces.

Ziegler complied, according to the documents, and went to the credit union. In the meantime, Witham forced Ziegler’s family into their Lexus and drove to Gettusvue Country Club. Benanti followed in a stolen Lexus. Once there, Benanti got into the Lexus and drove to catch up with Ziegler. Ziegler was able to get $200,000 from the credit union, but he was stopped by police which caused Benanti and Witham to abort their plan. They left Ziegler’s family tied up in their car and they escaped in the stolen black Lexus, which they later set on fire.

In need of money after the Y-12 attempted extortion failed, they robbed an Ingles supermarket in Arden, North Carolina according to the documents, obtaining over $10,000.

SmartBank, Knoxville, Tennessee

Then, the suspects set their sights on a loan officer at SmartBank in Knoxville. After, again, conducting extensive social media research and physical surveillance, similar to the Zieglers, they stole several switch cars and armed themselves with semi-automatic pistols, an assault rifle and a yellow-tipped crowbar.

Previous story: FBI: West Knox County bank employee, family taken hostage in extortion plot

Wearing dark clothing and dark facial coverings, they two then allegedly used the crowbar to force their way into Tanner Harris’s home. The family tried to barricade themselves in the master bathroom and eventually the master bathroom, but the suspects were able to reach them. Harris tried to fight the suspects, but they subdued him at gunpoint and told Harris he was going to rob his own bank.

They ordered the family downstairs and demanded the keys to Harris’ wife’s Mazda 6. After tying up the couple and their infant child, they loaded them up in the Mazda and put on masks making them look like old men. They drove to the bank and ordered Harris to call his wife’s phone as a way of monitoring his activities. Harris filled a bag with $195,000 and reluctantly gave it to Benanti. The two then sped away with Harris’ wife and child still in the car. The two were ditched at a drop site and the suspects got away in one of the other stolen cars.

The stolen money was then allegedly used to continue finding Prisoner Assistant and to buy personal items.

Northeast Community Credit Union, Elizabethton, Tennessee

The next target was Brooke Lyons, a teller at Northeast Community Credit Union in Elizabethton. After conducting extensive research and surveillance, stealing switch cars and arming themselves, they approached Lyons in her driveway as she was putting her 3-year-old son into his car seat. They ordered her into the car at gunpoint, blindfolded her and put on the old man masks. Witham, according to the document, drove Lyons’ car while Benanti followed in one of the stolen switch cars.

The switch car was dropped off at a predetermined location and Benanti got into Lyons’ car, telling her she was going to rob her bank. They then took her cell phone and texted her supervisor that she was going to be running late.

When they arrived at the credit union, Lyons took off her blindfold and saw the two wearing the masks, wigs and hats. She also saw a black assault rifle in the center console. She ran into the credit union, but her supervisor would not allow her access to the vault. She ran out with no money and begged the suspects not to kill her or her son. The suspects sped away and dropped Lyons off at a predetermined site.

In the Maggie Valley cabin, police found much of the equipment used in the crimes, including guns, shoulder holsters, rubber masks, fake IDs including fake FBI IDs, as well as 13 dossiers, including one for Lyons, and other bank executives in South Carolina and Georgia.

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