Masks, cyberstalking and GoPros: Court documents reveal elaborate plot in East Tenn. bank extortion case

Brian Witham, 45, entered a guilty plea in federal court in numerous bank extortion plots

According to court documents, Brian Witham (center) is also the two people pictured in artist renderings.

KNOXVILLE (WATE) – One of the two men charged in a serial armed bank extortion scheme pleaded guilty Tuesday in federal court.

Brian Scott Witham, 45, pleaded guilty to charges in a 15-count indictment involving armed bank extortions of Y-12 Federal Credit Union in Oak Ridge, SmartBank in Knoxville and Northeast Community Credit Union in Elizabethton.

As part of the plea agreement, Witham also agreed to plead guilty to similar charges from three other jurisdictions in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. U.S. attorneys and judges in those districts agreed to transfer those cases to the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Tennessee.

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

The 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.

Sentencing is scheduled for August 17 in Knoxville. He could face 10 years to life in prison, up to five years of supervised release and up to a $250,000 fine. He previously pleaded not guilty in January.

Witham and Michael Benanti, 43, were arrested on November 25 in Buncombe County, North Carolina, by the North Carolina State Highway Patrol. According to the Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern Distinct of Tennessee Dave Lewen, Benanti and Witham were only able to successfully extort money from the SmartBank in Knoxville.

Trial for Benanti is scheduled for March 29.

Court documents reveal how Witham and Benanti carried out the robberies

Web Extra: Read the full plea agreement [PDF]

Witham’s plea agreement says he and Benanti met in federal prison in the late 1990s. Shortly after being released, Benanti started a business called Prisoner Assistant, located in his basement in Pennsylvania, which claimed to provide rehabilitation services for inmates, including banking services. That involved inmates signing a power-of-attorney to Prisoner Assistant so employees could receive money, open bank accounts and move money for inmates or supporters.

Benanti hired Witham when he was released from federal prison. Despite a lengthy write-up in Wall Street Journal in 2014, the company declined amid allegations of money mishandling, so the 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.

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

That’s when, according to the plea agreement, Benanti and Witham robbed People’s Security and Trust in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania, by first conducting extended surveillance of the bank while hiding in the woods. 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.

Attempted armed extortion of credit union in Pennsylvania

Michael Benanti (source: KCSO)
Michael Benanti (source: KCSO)

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. That’s when they started using cell phones to research Connecticut bank executives, focusing on executives or their family members who had a social media presence on sites like Facebook and LinkedIn.

They decided to target Matthew Yussman, an executive with Achieve Federal Credit Union in New Britain, Connecticut. They prepared by arming themselves with guns and realistic looking fake bombs. Shortly before midnight on February 22, 2015, Yussman arrived home and was in his garage, according to the plea agreement, and saw a man in all black running down the driveway saying, “Police, get down!”

Benanti and Witham eventually tied up Yussman and his mother and forced them inside the house, tying up his mother on her bed. The suspects stayed with the Yussmans throughout the morning hours, and told 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 triued to abort their plans, leaving in a Honda CRV. They got to New York where they set the CRV on fire and fled to North Carolina, according to the documents.

Attempted armed extortion of Y-12 Federal Credit Union in Oak Ridge

The documents say using money from Prisoner Assistant, 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

They then 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 would start cutting up his daughter Brittany 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.

Armed extortion of SmartBank in Knoxville

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.

Attempted armed extortion of Northeast Community Credit Union in Elizabethton

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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