Extortionist who terrorized families gets 4 life terms - plus 155 years
Michael A. Benanti

By John North and Lauren Hoar, WBIR

KNOXVILLE -- (WBIR) -- The Pennsylvania career criminal who masterminded a plan to force bank employees to rob their own banks, terrorizing victims' families in the process, will spend four consecutive life sentences plus another 155 years in federal prison.

Chief U.S. District Judge Tom Varlan imposed the sentence Tuesday afternoon for Michael A. Benanti, whose defense team had sought a total term of 80 years plus a day.

Varlan cited the severity of the 2014-15 crime spree, Benanti's threat to the public, his record and the need to enforce sentencing laws in imposing the term.

He also ordered Benanti to help pay more than $350,000 in restitution to numerous victims, including two East Tennessee families. The 45-year-old inmate, however, stands little chance of paying much of that in the remaining years of his life.

Abigail Harris, whose tranquil life with her West Knoxville family was shattered in July 2015 by one of Benanti's schemes, told Varlan on Tuesday she wanted to ensure he never saw freedom. The defendant and partner Brian Witham confronted Harris and her family in their home to get money from SmartBank.

Benanti, she said, is "cunning and manipulative."

"He should spend every minute of his sentence in a maximum security prison," Harris said, her voice shaking. "I was and continue to be fearful of the reach and influence that he may have."

Harris said her family still is trying to come to grips with what Benanti and Witham put them through. She declined to comment to 10News.

A federal jury in Knoxville convicted Benanti in February of more than 20 counts tied to the spree, which included armed kidnappings and robberies or attempted robberies in Connecticut, East Tennessee and North Carolina.

FULL STORY: Extortionist who terrorized families gets 4 life terms - plus 155 years - WBIR

Here is Benanti's statement to Crime Watch Daily:

“The facts speak for themselves, the victims' lives were invaded and threatened. The ordeal was life altering and has had lasting effects. My prayers go out to the victims and their families. I had no involvement or prior knowledge in these kidnappings/robberies.

Brian Witham is the one who confessed, he is responsible for the victims' pain and suffering. These is no evidence to substantiate Mr. Withams' claims that I participated in the East Tennessee robberies. Mr. Witham only implicated me because I told him he could.

I was distraught with grief from my life partners' suicide. I planned to commit suicide to join her and I told Brian to use me to save Kathy.

What is incomprehensible to me is Lewen's willingness to ignore the evidence that Mr. Witham perjured himself. There are dozens of examples of this in the record. It is unbelievable that Lewen conspired with reporter Jamie Satterfield to tell the world I committed murder as a cover up for my crimes. When both of them know the allegation to be false.

David Lewen used the media to improperly influence the public and to taint the jury pool. I think that if the public knew that Lewen misled the public about me committing murder, then I would be much more likely to believe he allowed Brian Witham to lie at trial and violated my rights."