Accused extortionist can’t be trusted with laptop, judge says – USA TODAY
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. â A federal magistrate judge is suspicious of an accused extortionist’s bid for a laptop computer while behind bars in Knox County.
After all, U.S. Magistrate Judge Clifford Shirley wrote, Michael Benanti and his confessed cohort in a string of violent crimes, including the kidnappings of three East Tennessee families, once used ordinary items containing metal to plan a prison break and later used a blade from a jail razor for a suicide attempt prosecutors believe was yet another move to escape custody.
Benanti is accused in a four-state crime spree in which innocent people, including children, were held hostage. Three of those kidnappings, involving the families of bank employees, occurred in 2015Â in East Tennessee. Benanti faces trial in January on a slew of charges that will ensure he dies in prison if convicted. Brian Witham, accused as his cohort,Â struck a deal to testify against Benanti.
Benanti’s defense team of Richard Gaines and Robert Kurtz tried in a motion filed in December to convince Shirley to allow Benanti to have a laptop while being held at the Knox County Jail in downtown Knoxville. The attorneys argued the government has so much evidence against him â much of it in electronic form â a laptop is the cheapest, most practical means for the lawyers to review the material with Benanti and allow him to access to it.
But the U.S. Marshals Service, tasked with the security of federal inmates, balked, noting that Knox County Jail doesn’t allow inmates to have their own electronic devices because of fearÂ the guts of the devices could be used to fashion weapons. The Marshals Service contracts with local jails to house federal inmates pending trial.
Assistant U.S. Attorney David Lewen also raised objections. He argued Benanti is a con man who always isÂ looking for a way to escape trouble, including jail. Lewen pointed out Benanti already has shown a willingness to use whatever material he can find to plot escape.
Witham and Benanti, both robbers, were locked up together in 1999 in a federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., when Benanti, by his own account, plotted an elaborate escape using tools fashioned from items he collected from the prison itself. But another inmate, Paul Weakley, who was serving time for building pipe bombs, “ratted” him out, Benanti said. Weakley and another Lewisburg inmate, Hugo Selenski, later kidnapped and killed four people, burying the bodies in Selenski’s yard.
When Benanti and Witham were arrested in November 2015 in North Carolina in the bank extortion case, court records show Benanti asked for a razor and then used the blade to make what Lewen and the FBI suspect were not cuts designed to kill himself but wounds intended simply to get him out of jail and into a hospital, where he could search for another escape route.
Lewen noted in his response to the request for a laptop Benanti already complained in court about the flexible pencil provided inmates in the Knox County Jail â an instrument designed specifically to keep inmates from using writing utensils as instruments against themselves, other inmates and guards â in hopes Shirley would overrule jail officials. Shirley didn’t, and Benanti then began asking for a laptop, records show.
Shirley ruled late last month Benanti had no constitutional right to a laptop, and he agreed with both Lewen and the Marshals Service that Benanti cannot be trusted with such a device.
“The Marshals’ recommendation in the instant case is supported by the defendant’s prior use of homemade tools in an attempted escape and his use of a razor blade to inflict injury on himself,” Shirley wrote.
The FBI also suspects Benanti of murdering girlfriend Natasha Bogoev in October 2015 in a hotel in Pennsylvania and staging it as a suicide, providing authorities with a note, after she interacted suspiciously with federal authorities in search of Witham on an unrelated probation violation warrant, court records show. He has not been charged in her death, however, and denies it was anything other than suicide.
Follow Jamie SatterfieldÂ on Twitter: @jamiescoop