Authorities say two suspects recently indicted in a string of bank robberies had been hiding out in Maggie Valley for months leading up to their arrest in Buncombe County on November 25.
The day before Thanksgiving, Michael Anthony Benanti, 43, and Brian Scott Witham, 45, were taken into custody following months of surveillance and a high-speed chase that ended with an interesting twist on an Ashville construction site.
Police said Benanti, of Lake Harmony, Pennsylvania, and Witham, of Waterville, Maine, met in prison. Since their release from prison, they’ve become suspects in a string of bank robberies including three banks in east Tennessee where they are accused of taking bank employees and their family members hostage.
At the request of the FBI, Haywood County authorities for months have been conducting surveillance at a house in Maggie Valley were the two suspects were believed to be staying- a sort of command post, used to plot bank heists. The day they were captured, authorities believe they were on their way to South Carolina to case at least one bank there.
The suspects were coming from Maggie Valley on Nov. 25 when authorities initiated a traffic stop along Interstate 26 suspicious of a stolen vehicle. On the shoulder of the interstate in Buncombe County, Benanti exited the vehicle and was taken down by police. Police said he had what they call a “go bag” – including items one might need to make a break.
The driver, Witham, sped off along Interstate 26 with officers in pursuit and ended up on a construction site where he ditched the car and continued to flee on foot. A worker on site who realized what was happening stopped Witham by running into him with his truck.
At that time, Witham was charged with reckless driving and fleeing to elude arrest. Benanti was charged with possession of a stolen vehicle. But the investigation continued.
Back in Maggie Valley, members of the Waynesville Police Department and Haywood County Sheriff’s Office Special Response Teams were searching the house where the pair is believed to have been staying for months for clues and additional suspects.
During the search, police seized numerous disguises, multiple firearms including an AR15, computer and printer equipment believed to have been used to plot crimes and several additional “go bags” – indicating plans to run if ever encountered by police.
Following their recent capture in Asheville, both men were indicted this week on 15 new federal charges stemming from three bank robberies in Tennessee. In a press release issued by the Federal Bureau of Investigation Knoxville Division, investigators announced the charges, said the men are suspects in the robberies of the Y-12 Federal Credit Union in Oak Ridge on April 28; SmartBank in Knoxville on July 7 and the Northeast Community Credit Union in Elizabethton on Oct. 21. If convicted, they could face up to 142 years in prison.
The investigation is ongoing. Stay tuned for further details.