Reformed convict running company to help inmates stalks, abducts and extorts employees' families to rob banks
Crime Watch Daily has an exclusive interview with Michael Benanti, a reformed former convict who built a company to help other inmates, who's now been sent back to prison for the rest of his life.
A man has a bomb strapped to his chest. But he's the one actually being held hostage, forced to commit a crime or watch his mother die.
A terrified young mother is being told commit a robbery, or her 3-year-old son is going to get it.
It's a crime spree as bizarre as it is horrifying.
And now cops are racing to figure out who are the good guys, who are the bad guys, and who's just pure evil.
Something creepy was happening in small towns up and down the Eastern Seaboard in 2015: Bank employees secretly being stalked, videotaped in the sanctity of their own homes, even trolled on social media.
"Hid in people's back yards and they would learn their routines," said Knoxville News Sentinel Correspondent Jamie Satterfield. "Very heavy reliance on Facebook, who they were, who their family members were, where they worked, where they lived."
Satterfield says the intimate details of the bank employees' lives were documented in dossiers that eerily read like personal diaries.
"They would include in those dossiers any photographs that they had of the intended target and family members," said Satterfield.
It's a twisted, sadistic plan: Find a bank employee with a lot to lose, then threaten to kill someone they love.
"They were preying on these bank employees' love for their families to get them to do what they wanted," said Satterfield.
Matthew Yussman was a perfect target: a high-ranking executive at Achieve Credit Union in New Britain, Connecticut. He moved his mother into his house after his father died. Yussman tells Crime Watch Daily he'd just gotten home from his weekly hockey game when he found some uninvited guests waiting for him.
"I pull into my driveway about midnight that night, a guy is running down my driveway yelling at me 'Police, police, get on the ground!' pointing a gun at me," said Yussman. "Right away I knew he wasn't a police officer. I could tell by the way he was dressed. He was black mask, goggles, gloves. No badge, nothing that said 'police.' So right away I knew that this was going to be a home invasion."
Matthew's 70-year-old mother hears the commotion and steps right into trouble.
"My mother actually comes through the door, says 'Matt, what's going on?' and immediately one of the guys turns and points the gun at her," said Yussman. "And so it begins."
It was the beginning of 12 hours of torture. The masked men tell Matthew Yussman to steal $4.2 million from his own credit union. And if he refuses, his mother will pay the ultimate price.
"She was terrified," said Yussman. He knew they meant business.
"They gave me the phone and said you're going to call your boss at precisely 8:15 and tell him what's going on, and that he needs to meet you at the branch. You're going to empty the vault," said Yussman. "And then, precisely at 10 o'clock, I was told, they would text me with delivery instructions."
And there was a terrifying incentive for Yussman to obey their orders.
"They had brought me over to a table, took off my blindfold and said 'Look down at the table,'" said Yussman. "I did and there was all kinds of wires, plastic, and three bricks of what looked like clay, but they told me it was C-4. Never seen C-4 explosives. And they said they were going to attach it to me because they said they didn't trust that I was going to go ahead with the plan."
And if you don't have the deal done?
"I'm going to explode at 11 o'clock," said Yussman.
And for Yussman that wasn't the most frightening part.
"They said that after they strapped the bomb to me they were going to put one underneath my mother's bed to 'make sure that you do this plan,'" said Yussman.
The two men then order his mom to her room and tape her to the bed.
"They brought me to where my mother was now duct-taped to the bed and said 'Kiss your mother goodbye.' And I didn't. I looked at her, said 'Everything is going to be all right,'" said Yussman.
But deep down he wasn't so sure. At precisely 8:15, with what appears to be explosives wrapped around his chest, Yussman makes a desperate call to his boss.
"His first thing was, 'Is this a drill?'" said Yussman. "I said 'This is my life, don't play with it.'"
Yussman begs his boss not to call the cops. But when his boss hung up, he immediately dialed 911.
911 Dispatch: "Bristol 911, what's this emergency?"
Caller: "I just received a call from one of our VPs stating that he and his mom is a victim right now of a home invasion. He states he has a bomb, he's sitting in his car, that the perpetrators also put a bomb under the mother's bed. And he's instructing me to vacate our New Britain branch because they are going to come and rob it."
In a panic, fearful the bandits may detonate the bomb on his body and somehow harm his mother, Yussman drove to the credit union.
"As I'm pulling in here from the back, I don't see any police," said Yussman.
But as he turns the final corner into the parking lot, relief turns into absolute terror.
"When I pull in the parking lot I see a parking lot full of police officers," said Yussman. "Now I start to panic, because now I think if the guys are following me they're just going to push the button because I deviated from the plan."
Surveillance video captures the horror in the parking lot.
"The police start screaming at me 'What are you doing here? Get out of your car,'" said Yussman. "I said 'I am wearing a bomb,' and they're like 'Where is it?' I'm like 'It's strapped to my chest.' They're like 'Lift up your shirt.' So I lift up my shirt and all the police end up moving behind their vehicles."
Cops call the bomb squad and ask Yussman to slowly exit the car to get a better look at the device strapped to his chest.
"I am telling them at 10 o'clock my phone is going to go off, at 11 o'clock the bomb is going to go off," said Yussman.
At 10 on the dot, as planned, Matthew Yussman gets a text from the real robbers, asking simply "Ready?" They're using Yussman's mother's cellphone.
"I'm relaying what's being texted to me, so the police are like 'Stall them, stall them,'" said Yussman.
The robbers text a drop location at a cemetery. Yussman responds "20 minutes." And then the phone goes deadly silent. The real robbers were on to the cops.
"I never got another text back, and that's when the clock started ticking to the 10:59," said Yussman. "And that was the longest minute of my entire life."
Matthew Yussman believed he and his mother had just one minute left to live.
"Tick-tock, and the whole time you're trying to prepare for it. You ask yourself 'Am I going to feel it? Am I going to even know it if it goes off?'" said Yussman. "At 11 o'clock when the thing didn't go off, I was like OK, maybe the clock's off. So at 11:01 I'm still not convinced that this thing isn't going to go off."
After thinking he's come within a minute of his life, Yussman's heart nearly stops when he's told the bomb strapped to his chest is a fake and there never was an explosive under his mother's bed.
"That's the worst thing that's ever happened to me in my 70 years," said Matthew's mother Valerie Yussman.
But believe it or not, it's about to get even worse.
Thankfully the explosives are fake. But what's about to blow up in Matthew Yussman's face is all too real. He's handcuffed.
Police believe this is all a set-up, that Yussman actually tortured his mom to steal money from his own credit union.
"They thought it was an inside job," said Yussman.
And investigators thought Valerie Yussman was covering up for her son Matthew.
Detectives tell Matthew the best way to clear his name is to take a lie-detector test. The police tell Yussman he failed his polygraph test.
"And I'll never forget the guy looking at me square in the eye, saying, 'You know what, just be a man and confess. You know you did it,'" said Yussman.
What Matthew Yussman doesn't know is the same thing is happening to other people around the country.
A thousand miles away in Tennessee, police are investigating other employees suspected of robbing their own banks.
"This morning we had the abduction of a family, a bank employee and his family. The bank employee was instructed to go in and retrieve money," FBI Knoxville Agent Ed Reinhold announced in a news conference.
"The exact same operation. Exact same M.O., and again, kidnapping families," said Knoxville reporter Jamie Satterfield. Satterfield covered the bizarre robberies for the Knoxville News.
At the Y-12 Federal Credit Union, surveillance cameras show a bank executive frantically clearing out vaults. He claims masked men are holding his family hostage.
"It was 'We've got somebody watching your daughter and we're gonna have him rape and kill her,' you know, it was it was very dramatic threats," said Satterfield.
Then, on the other side of Knoxville, a loan officer at SmartBank is forced to steal nearly $200,000, claiming his wife and son are about to be butchered.
"They would say to the bank employee is 'If you don't do exactly what we tell you to do, we're gonna cut off an ear,'" said Satterfield.
Then, Brooke Lyons, a teller at Northeast Community Credit Union outside Knoxville, catches someone's evil eye. She was "the face" of that credit union.
"The bank had on our website a directory that had all of our names and pictures and what we done," said former bank employee Brooke Lyons.
They found her there, did the research and hunted her down to her home.
"Yeah, they hid cameras outside my house so they could watch us and learn our routine," Lyons tells Crime Watch Daily.
And they threatened an innocent child, Brooke's 3-year-old son Carson.
"I turned around and there he was," said Lyons. "He had a gun and a crowbar. They were wearing like Army-type camo jackets. They both wore masks. He pointed [a gun] at Carson, and he said as long as I done what he said that neither one of us were going to get hurt."
Did you believe him?
"No," said Lyons.
"They said 'Get in the car, we're going to rob your bank today,'" said Brooke Lyons.
Lyons said they blindfold her and shoved her in the back seat with Carson.
"We went to the credit union. 'You're going to go in, you're going to get $350,000. No dye packs, no wires, no bait money, and if the cops get called, that's when Carson is going to get hurt,'" said Lyons. "I got the bag and I went in."
But before she walks inside, Brooke Lyons hugs her little boy one last time.
"I couldn't, I didn't want to let him go, because I thought that was the last time I was ever going to hold him," said Lyons.
A security camera captures heartbreaking images as she enters the bank, her face is etched with agony, pleading for her boss to open the vault.
"The only thing I could get out was 'I need you to unlock the vault, they have Carson, they have guns, they took us from my driveway,' and she just looked at me," said Lyons. "She didn't care. She just stood there. And no one cared. The only thing she could look at me and say was 'It's my job on the line.'"
Lyons tells everyone in the bank the guys holding Carson will kill him if they call the cops. Despite that, her boss calls her boyfriend, who's a police officer, and he dials 911.
Officer: "She said a girl come running in that she works with saying that there were two guys that come to her house last night that have got guns, apparently. She said she came in with the bag and wanted her to open the vault."
"I was scared to death I was going to go out and they were going to be gone," said Lyons.
With cops on the way, Brooke Lyons runs toward the door, her heart racing.
"And I knew, what was going through my head was, If I can just get back outside to him. If I can just hold him one more time and just tell him it's going to be OK," said Lyons. "I remember grabbing the bag and running outside. I got in the car and I remember throwing myself on top of Carson and I just started begging. I said that I had done what they asked me to, and she wouldn't unlock the vault, and for them to please don't kill us."
Lyons clings to little Carson, but suddenly the two men who threatened to kill her and her little boy have a change of heart.
"'No harm, no foul, nobody saw our faces,'" said Lyons. "Like it wasn't a big deal. We weren't people to them."
Lyons says the bad guys drove her to a remote field, gave her back her phone and then took off in a dark SUV. The police quickly arrived.
"Maybe five minutes," said Lyons. "I was crying and hysterical, and Carson was crying, and I was in shock.
"On the worst day of my life, when I thought I was going to die, 'You're wasting time interrogating me when you should be out looking for who done it,'" said Lyons.
Once respected bank employees, now suspected bank robbers.
"I was brought in front of a grand jury where they were laying out a case as to why I should be indicted," said Matthew Yussman.
Matthew Yussman is about to be indicted for robbing the credit union where he worked, a crime he says he was forced to commit, or his mother would be murdered.
"People look at you like you're crazy, because it does sound crazy. I understand that, because it just doesn't happen," said Brooke Lyons.
But it did happen, over and over again. And all the bank employees still say they're not thieves, they're victims.
"What they put all four of our families through was terror, that was their whole method, was to get this money through terror," said Yussman.
Local authorities call in the FBI to help put the pieces together. Are they dealing with copy-cat inside jobs? Or do they have something far more terrifying on their hands -- a serial extortionist?
"We don't see crime sprees like this very often," retired FBI agent Bobby Chacon tells Crime Watch Daily.
Crime Watch Daily brought in Bobby Chacon to review the case. Chacon says if there were masked men behind the rash of bizarre bank robberies, they were real pros.
"They're not leaving any evidence behind," said Chacon.
No fingerprints, no DNA, and the only people ever captured on surveillance video during the heists are the bankers.
"They were very good at eluding law enforcement," said Knoxville reporter Jamie Satterfield.
Satterfield says the robberies were all similar, but it was nearly impossible for cops to connect the dots.
"You would have one kidnapping where they would say it was two white men; you'd have one where they'd go it's an old man and a black man; and one where we had, it's a black man, an old guy and a woman," said Satterfield.
Authorities even bring in a sketch artist, but the images prove to be more baffling.
"If you're not even sure if you are looking for a man or a woman, it makes it very difficult to find the criminal," said Chacon.
Finally, authorities uncover a bizarre pattern: a rash of stolen cars before each horrific heist. And then immediately after the robberies, they would burn the vehicles.
Investigators locate all of the torched stolen vehicles, except a dark burgundy SUV stolen days before Brooke Lyons was forced to hold up her credit union.
Suddenly it shows up -- but it's not on fire. It's on the run. Could the real bad guys be inside? An alert trooper in North Carolina notices the stolen license plates and flips on his dashboard camera. The trooper tries to stop the driver and his passenger, but the man behind the wheel takes off. The SUV smashes through traffic like a battering ram, setting off a chain reaction of metal carnage.
But the final hit takes out the SUV, and the two men inside bail on foot. The men get away. It appears they left nothing inside the vehicle.
Police Dispatch: "Two white males that have crossed westbound, we chased them into the woods a little ways, they were carrying two black bags."
Because the chase is in a different state, local police view it as nothing more than a stolen-car joyride.
"There was no connection that anyone saw between these kidnappings and that," said Satterfield.
The cloud of suspicion over the bank employees is growing darker and darker by the day.
"The real bad guys are in the wind and I am like 'I've got no chance,'" said Matthew Yussman.
Then a bizarre stroke of luck: the FBI agent investigating Brooke Lyons' case hears his son-in-law was rammed during a high-speed stolen-car chase in North Carolina. When the agent hears it was a burgundy SUV and the two men who bailed were carrying black bags, the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.
The agent heads to North Carolina to search the battered burgundy SUV, and there on the dashboard, a GPS. The roadmap to crack the case.
"And lo and behold, it had the coordinates for at least one of these kidnappings," said Jamie Satterfield.
The FBI agent also notices an unusual amount of trips to a cluster of rental cabins hidden in the Smoky Mountains.
"They put that cabin under surveillance," said retired FBI agent Bobby Chacon.
Officers stake it out for days, looking for anyone suspicious. Finally two men emerge from a cabin carrying black bags.
"These two fellas come out and they get in this vehicle. The trooper fell in behind them," said Satterfield.
An officer is on their tail, but he needs probable cause to pull them over. He ran the plates, found out the vehicle was stolen, and turned on his police lights.
It doesn't look like these guys have any intention of stopping, then suddenly, a man flies out of the moving SUV.
Cops are chasing two bad guys believed to be the masterminds of a terrifying spree of bizarre bank robberies.
Suddenly a man clutching a small piece of paper is violently thrown from the SUV.
But when cops get a good look at the man's face, they're in disbelief. He's a man who's devoted his life to helping rehabilitate criminals.
Michael Benanti, 43, is the founder, co-owner and CEO of Prisoner Assistant Inc. He's known as the "Dr. Phil of Felons," offering professional services to inmates, helping them manage their money while they're behind bars, and teaches them how to stay clean when they get out.
How does Benanti know so much? He's a former prisoner himself.
Because Benanti deals with some shady characters, his sister Danielle and his aunt Donna asked us to protect their identities.
Michael Benanti was only 19 years old when he got into trouble. His father had just died, and his family says he wanted to help take care of them.
"His father's dying, his mother's losing their house, there's doctor bills up the wazoo," said Benanti's aunt Donna.
So he and some buddies plotted to rob a bank. He also hit up a grocery store and then, in his signature move to get rid of any evidence, torched the getaway car. During the grocery store robbery gone wrong a police officer was shot and injured.
"He wouldn't rat anyone out because in his mind that's not what you do, and he paid a dear price for that," said Donna.
Michael Benanti was sentenced to more than 17 years in federal prison.
"He pretty much grew up with other felons," said Michael's sister Danielle.
One felon in particular: Fellow bank robber Brian Witham.
"I don't know if he looked at Brian as a friend but I know that he looked at Brian as somebody he wanted to help," said Donna.
A bond so tight that when Benanti was paroled after serving 16 years and launched Prisoner Assistant, he asks his old pal from the penitentiary to be one of his first clients.
Crime reporter Jamie Satterfield says Michael Benanti begins calling and counseling Brian Witham behind bars.
"They talked on the phone, he was very encouraging to him," said Satterfield.
Benanti even offers Witham a job when he's released.
Prisoner Assistant becomes wildly successful. The Wall Street Journal profiles the company. Benanti even attempts to audition for the television show "Shark Tank." His personal life is also thriving. Benanti has a girlfriend named Natasha Bogoev.
"She knew he'd been in prison, but she believed that he had reformed and she actually left her job and they began running this business together," said Jamie Satterfield.
"He was successful. He helped, I believe, over 200 inmates that have gotten released," said Benanti's sister Danielle.
So how does Michael Benanti, the head of a thriving business rehabilitating prisoners, end up on the side of an interstate road in handcuffs with a gun to his head?
Benanti tells the officer he's been set up by the guy driving the SUV. It's his old buddy Brian Witham.
"[He's] on the side of the interstate acting like he's an innocent guy, and he's saying 'That's the bad guy, go get him,'" said Jamie Satterfield.
A trooper goes after Witham while a cop hauls Benanti down to the station.
"There should be no arrest here. I did nothing. I got thrown out of a [----] car on the highway, I didn't do nothing."
During his interrogation, Benanti tells investigators he gave Witham a job at Prisoner Assistant. Benanti is adamant he had no idea his old buddy was robbing banks.
"They are going to destroy my company. I'm the CEO of a [----] company. Eight years I've been building it, and this [----] stupid little arrest is going to destroy me."
"Can I have that little piece of paper I had?"
Then cops take a closer look at the slip paper Benanti was carrying. It's a list with three names on it. Cops head back to that rental cabin hidden in the woods where Benanti and Witham had been holed up.
Retired FBI agent Bobby Chacon says they found a treasure trove of evidence that will help solve that weird spree of hold-ups.
"I mean, you had wigs and masks, guns," said Chacon.
Those disguises matched the description from employees who told cops they were forced to rob their own bank or credit union, as their families members were being held hostage. Employees who had been systematically stalked.
"You had social media profiles of people that they were trying to extort," said Chacon.
And there were also a dozen dossiers of people still on their twisted hit list.
"I mean this was the mother lode of evidence that they needed," said Chacon.
"These target packets had my age, my date of birth, my location of where I lived 15 years ago," said one woman who was a supervising bank teller at the time, who was on that hit list.
The FBI told her the suspects were planning to take her son hostage too. To protect her family, she's asked us not to use her name.
"They had a lot of pictures of me and of my child," she said. "You hate it because it's like my child got brought into this. It's hard."
Even though they never got to her, to this day she is still traumatized.
"You don't just walk to your car anymore. You look around. And it almost makes you feel and think the worst of people."
Why would a successful business mogul need to rob a bank?
Police say Prisoner Assistant wasn't exactly successful. In fact, now they're calling it a scam. Cops claim Michael Benanti was stealing money out of inmates' accounts to pay for his life of luxury.
"The amount that he embezzled is still really a floating figure. I've heard $150,000, but I've heard more than that," said reporter Jamie Satterfield.
When Benanti couldn't afford to return the money to the inmates' accounts, cops say, he resorted to his old line of work -- robbing banks. And he recruited his pal from the pen, Brian Witham, to help.
"He knew he was stealing money from really bad guys, worse than him, and he wanted to keep them from finding that out," said Satterfield.
Cops head to Prisoner Assistant's headquarters to get answers from Benanti's girlfriend Natasha Bogoev, who is the chief financial officer of his company.
But when cops show up they are shocked to learn Bogoev's dead, shot in the head.
"Natasha was found dead in a hotel room in a small town of Pennsylvania that she had no connection to, she had no reason to be there," said Satterfield.
Benanti claims he found a suicide note.
"He said that she had killed herself, and for whatever reason, no autopsy was done, very little investigation, and he made sure that her body was cremated," said Satterfield.
Satterfield says Bogoev's mysterious death has all the makings of a murder.
But local police ruled Natasha Bogoev's death a suicide. Michael Benanti took pictures of him spreading her ashes in the Bahamas just one week before he was arrested.
"I believe that Benanti either had her killed, or killed her himself," said Satterfield.
Benanti claims it was his depression over Bogoev's suicide that pushed him to reunite with Michael Witham in that Smoky Mountain cabin. He still swears he had no idea Witham was back to his old tricks of robbing banks. But cops were about to prove that was a lie with a little help from Benanti himself.
When cops confiscate all the evidence from inside that cabin, they find a picture of what appears to be a random bank in South Carolina. But when cops enlarge the picture...
"His face is captured in the rear-view mirror in the picture," said Satterfield.
Benanti's evil plan was starting to unravel, so he offered to talk to prosecutors if he's granted full immunity.
"He's a career criminal, he knows how this works. The first one to talk is the first one to walk," said Satterfield.
But prosecutors aren't biting. Instead, they want to see if the two prison pals will actually rat each other out. So cops put Benanti and Witham in adjacent holding cells, and wait. But it's not the outcome they're expecting.
"He staged his own suicide," said Satterfield.
Benanti whispers to Witham to blame everything on him, then grabs a prison-issued razor, snaps out the blade and slits his wrists and throat. Benanti was rushed to the hospital in dire condition.
And Witham obeys his best friend's dying wish and snitches, saying Benanti concocted the whole scheme.
"Brian Witham immediately began cooperating and provided the federal government with a lot of information they didn't have about crimes that have been committed," said Bobby Chacon.
There was just one fatal flaw with letting the dead guy take the fall: Michael Benanti lived. By the time Benanti was able to talk, it's too late. Witham's testimony is damning enough for a judge to throw the book at Benanti.
"It was four life sentences, plus in the event he somehow lived through four life sentences, another 155 years," said Jamie Satterfield.
Brian Witham cops a plea deal and is sentenced to 30 years in prison.
"These two thought they had it all figured out, they were going to be the next Bonnie and Clyde, and they became the not-so-dynamic duo," said Chacon.
"If I wasn't Michael Benanti that day I would never have been arrested," Michael Benanti tells Crime Watch Daily in an exclusive first interview since he was sentenced to life in prison.
"What I can tell you is there is no link to me to anything," Benanti tells Crime Watch Daily. "There's no DNA evidence that's on the scene that proves that I was in the house, there's no fingerprints, there's no witnesses, there's nothing. I'll tell you flat out that I did not participate in those Tennessee robberies."
Benanti still maintains Witham was the sole mastermind, but oddly he doesn't blame Witham for ratting him out.
"I told Brian, I said 'You know what, I'm going to just end it,' and I just ripped my neck open, I ripped my arms open," said Benanti. "I didn't expect I'd live, so surely he didn't expect I'd live."
But what about that damning selfie pic? Benanti claims it's not him.
"It's a picture of a bank and a McDonald's and a corner -- a bank that never got robbed," said Benanti. "You know, to say that I robbed the Tennessee banks and that's proof of it, is incorrect."
But in the next breath Benanti admits that is him.
"That was taken in November when I had went back to Brian's cabin, that's when those pictures were taken," said Benanti.
Benanti tells us he plans to appeal his sentence, and then leaves us with this:
"I know it also sounds terrible but in a way I feel victimized, and I'm not belittling or dismissing what the victims went through," said Michael Benanti.
"I have zero sympathy, I'm glad that the court showed them no mercy whatsoever," said Matthew Yussman.
For now, the man who claims he devoted his life to helping inmates remains behind bars. As it turns out, the one person he couldn't help was himself.
"I want them to live every day the way that I have too," said Brooke Lyons. "I want them to look over their shoulder and I want them to be scared that that day is going to be their last day. I want them to have everything that they love held right in front of them, so close to being taken away. That's what needs to happen."
While Michael Benanti and Brian Witham were certainly prolific at terrorizing people, the four extortions they carried out only managed to net them about $150,000. That money was never recovered.