Toward the beginning of his criminal career in Maine, Brian Scott Witham of Waterville earned the nickname “the Polite Bandit” because of his demeanor during three armed robberies at Augusta businesses in 1994.
It was while serving prison time in Pennsylvania for that lawlessness that Witham, now 48, met the man with whom he would go on a multi-state crime spree that would land them a spot on Friday’s edition of “Dateline.”
The segment, titled “A Villainous Plan.” tells the story of how in February 2015, Witham and Michael Benanti, now 46, of Lake Harmony, Pennsylvania, used social media posts to target bank and credit union executives and their families in Connecticut and Tennessee in attempts to extort money from them.
“Dateline” will feature an incident in New Britain, Connecticut, in which the two men held a credit union manager and his elderly mother hostage and attempted to extort money from him. Witham offered the woman juice and cookies while she was tied to the bed, according to court documents. At one point, he also told her not to be frightened.
The mother and son escaped unharmed.
Witham and Benanti went on to Tennessee where they executed similar extortion plans. They got money in just one case.
Witham’s criminal career began when he was 14, according to court documents. On Jan. 3, 1997, when he was 26, he was sentenced in U.S. District Court in Bangor to more than 17½ years in federal prison for robbing Pizza Hut, Friendly’s restaurant and State Street Cinemas in Augusta in September and November 1994.
The victims described him as being very polite in spite of his threatening them with a gun, according to Bangor Daily News archives. At the time of his sentencing, he was incarcerated in Massachusetts and faced charges in New Hampshire and Vermont.
Witham met Benanti at the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, according to court documents. They were moved to the Supermax prison in Colorado after a thwarted escape attempt.
Benanti was released in 2008 and started a sham company he marketed as offering financial counseling for inmates, according to court documents. When Witham was released in November 2013, he went to work for Benanti. The duo hatched the extortion scheme in an effort to keep the company going.
The North Carolina State Highway Patrol captured the pair Nov. 25 in Buncombe County, North Carolina after a vehicle pursuit, according to the FBI.
Witham pleaded guilty to robberies, attempted robberies and gun crimes in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Tennessee. He is serving a 30-year sentence at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Benanti was convicted by a jury of 23 similar counts following an 11-day trial in Knoxville. He is serving a life sentence at the federal penitentiary in Atwater, California. Witham was the prosecution’s star witness against his accomplice.
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