Hostage Terror Ordeal: Yussman Shares All
Terrorized by criminals, victimized by police investigators and prejudged by people in his community, the media and the credit union industry, Matthew Yussman lived under constant stress and suspicion for more than a year.
But the exhilaration of exoneration finally came March 2 after a Maine man admitted in court documents that he and another man invaded the Achieve Financial Credit Union CFO's home and duct taped a bomb to his body in a failed attempt to rob the $122 million Achieve Financial branch in New Britain, Conn., on Feb. 23, 2015.
Ironically, what led the two men to commit this crime was to get cash to support a floundering national company they operated, which provided financial services for inmates, giving them access to money after they were released from state and federal prisons, according to federal prosecutors.
After they were captured in November, Michael Anthony Benanti, 43, of Lake Harmony, Pa., and Brian Scott Witham, 45, of Waterville, Maine, were charged with multiple felonies including armed bank extortion of the $929 million Y-12 Federal Credit Union in Oak Ridge, Tenn., SmartBank in Knoxville in July and the $106 million Northeast Community Credit Union in Elizabethton, Tenn., in October.
The victims, Mark Ziegler, president/CEO of Y-12 and Brooke Lyons, a teller at Northeast Community, declined to comment because of the pending legal process. In both cases, the suspects didn't get any money and no one was physically harmed.
Although Witham agreed to plead guilty to six felony charges, Benanti pleaded not guilty and may go to trial.
“I was very relieved and very happy,” Yussman said in an exclusive interview with CU Times. “I high-fived everybody in my office. I was so excited that this has finally passed and there will be no more thoughts of when I go walking into a mall or somewhere else, people aren't going to be whispering behind my back, ‘Hey, there's that guy who did those crimes.’”
He explained, Yussman, who doubles as Achieve Financial's security trainer, shared how he managed the eight-hour hostage ordeal, the grueling police investigation and the constant stress of suspicion.
“The most terrifying part for me was when I got to the credit union and I’m in the car strapped to what I think is a bomb and I’m just sitting there by myself waiting,” Yussman recalled. “And there's nothing to do. Your mind plays awful tricks on you and you start thinking of things like, Am I going to feel this? Am I going to know if it goes off? There's a security camera out front. Are they watching this? Am I going to blow up with them watching? That was by far the worst part of it.”
Benanti and Witham told Yussman the bomb would explode at 11 a.m. and that the bomb under his mother's bed would detonate if he failed to bring back money to them.
After his car was surrounded by police, he had to strip down to his waist in February's frigid temperatures for several hours until the bomb squad determined the device was fake. After being treated for hypothermia at a local hospital, he went to the police station, where investigators grilled him with questions until he finally agreed to take a lie detector test, which he failed. That information was later released in public court documents, putting him under a cloud of suspicion in his community and the media.
His lawyer, Richard Brown of Hartford, Conn., dismissed that polygraph test as totally unreliable and inaccurate because Yussman was traumatized for hours.
“I felt like the police victimized me because they treated me right off the bat as a suspect instead of a victim,” he said. “And then I felt victimized by the media because the media was printing all this stuff trying to make connections as to why they thought I was guilty.”
Police also questioned Yussman's 71-year-old mother.
“When police asked my mother how she knew I didn't do this, my mother said, ‘Because if he did do it, he's be sitting on a beach right now and you wouldn't know where he was.’”
Even his good friends thought the robbery plot was too stupid for Yussman to be involved with, he said. Nevertheless, some of Yussman's friends were harassed by others in the community.
“My friends were getting abuse from people who didn't know me and said, ‘Oh, your friend is guilty. Why haven't the police arrested him? What are the police doing? How did he get away with this?’” Yussman explained.
What the CFO also took exception to was when people and the media described the crime as bizarre.
“Everybody has used that expression that it was bizarre,” he said. “I looked at it as not so much bizarre, but that I was a victim of a heinous crime. To take somebody in the middle of the night at gunpoint, to strap on what I was told was an explosive device, it was an act of terror.”
Yussman was also temporarily suspended from his job with pay for about three months so state regulators could conduct a thorough audit and background check of Yussman's activities. A clean audit and background check allowed him to return to work by the end of May 2015.
“I was just chomping at the bit to get back,” he said. “I was not happy sitting at home, especially since I was just watching cooking shows and gaining weight. Despite everything that was being printed about me, my CEO and board stood by me 100%. They made sure I still had my job. They made sure I was still getting paid. There was nothing but complete and total backing of me, which I will always be grateful for.”
To understand how and why these armed bank extortion crimes occurred, one must go back to the late 1990s, when Witham and Benanti met in federal prison.
When Benanti was released after serving 16 years for conspiring to rob a bank, he began a business called Prisoner Assistant Inc., which helped inmates set up bank accounts, establish credit and move money for inmates or their supporters.
His business was featured in a Jan. 30, 2014 article in the Wall Street Journal in which Benanti said he believed people who leave prison with a banking relationship are less likely to return to prison.
After Witham was released from the federal pen, he joined Prisoner Assistant as director of special projects.
David P. Lewen Jr. and Steven H. Cook, U.S. assistant attorneys in Knoxville, Tenn., wrote in court documents that because Prisoner Assistant was floundering and the money belonging to inmates was being mismanaged, Benanti and Witham planned to rob People Security Bank and Trust in Clarks Summit, Penn.
On the morning of Sept. 12, 2014, they hid in the woods adjacent to the bank, rushed the tellers and bank manager when they got out of their cars, and threatened and forced them to open the vault at gunpoint. They stole $156,000, which they used to keep Prisoner Assistant operating and to replenish inmate accounts.
The business continued to experience financial shortfalls, however, and Benanti and Witham moved to Connecticut, where Benanti hatched the idea to kidnap a bank executive and force him to rob the bank for them, federal prosecutors said.
Using their cell phones, they began researching Connecticut bank executives and focused on those and their family members who were on Facebook and LinkedIn. Somehow, they decided to target Yussman.
Court documents revealed Benanti and Witham had about 13 other dossiers on bank executives throughout Georgia and South Carolina.
Interestingly enough, Prisoner Assistant's sites on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter are still live, in addition to a website with a photo of Benanti.
Shortly before midnight on Feb. 22, when Yussman arrived at his Bristol home after playing in a hockey game, he parked in his driveway to put some stuff away in his garage. At that time, Benanti and Witham rushed him with guns drown, shouting, “Police! Get on the ground!”
“I knew right away they weren't police officers,” Yussman said. “I could tell by the way they were dressed. And my first thought was, all right, this is a robbery, a home invasion. This isn't going to be good, but my training kicks in right away. The first thing I thought of was what are they wearing, and I tried to remember details for the police. That actually kept me calm during the night.”
When Yussman landed his first job at a bank, he was part of the internal fraud team that worked on security issues and was trained by police officers. Yussman also provided security training for employees at Achieve Financial.
While in the home, Benanti and Witham tied up and blindfolded Yussman and his mother with duct tape around their ankles and a zip tie around their wrists. They put his mother in her bedroom, placed Yussman on the couch and told him to get some sleep.
“I thought that was the dumbest thing I ever heard with two guys walking around my house with guns,” Yussman said.
Over the next tense eight hours, Yussman said there wasn't much talk between him, Benanti and Witham.
“They were not very talkative,” he said. “I basically just gave them whatever information they asked me for and I tried not to get into any kind of other conversations with them. I didn't want them to be able to use anything against me or for me to try to get into their heads. I just wanted to do exactly what they were telling me and try to keep my mind focused on what I needed to do.”
Before getting into his car, Benanti and Witham duct taped to Yussman's chest what they told him was an explosive device, which Yussman suspected was fake.
“I was able to look down my blindfold and I could tell they didn't stick any wires or anything like that in the clay part of the device,” Yussman said.
In the car, he called Achieve Financial President/CEO Andrew Klimkoski and instructed him to vacate employees from the New Britain branch, close it, meet him there to provide the vault combination and not to call police.
“This is my life,” Yussman told Klimkoski in a cell phone call. “Please don't play with it.”
Yussman used those dramatic words to make sure Klimkoski knew this was the real thing and not a security training exercise.
“He knew what to do, which was to get the police involved right away,” he said.
After Yussman arrived at the branch parking lot, he was soon surrounded by local police, state troopers, FBI, firefighters and the bomb squad. By the time the bomb was determined to be fake, Benanti and Witham managed to escape detection, drove to upstate New York and later made their way south.
After the local police investigation yielded no arrests, the investigation was turned over to the FBI in May. Following a police chase in North Carolina on Nov. 25, Benanti and Witham were arrested, which led investigators to charge them with the armed bank extortion charges in December.
For about two months, Yussman went to therapy sessions, which helped him get over his trauma. The tab was picked up by workers’ compensation insurance.
“I went to counseling for the first couple of months,” he explained. “I had to get over the whole incident and my biggest thing was the guilt. Could I have done more to have stopped this? Would this all be happening if I had done more? And then, through the help of the counselor, I was able to accept the fact that I did what I was taught to do, trained to do. The thing that really got me through everything was that my mother was safe, my staff was safe, I was safe and they got no money. How could you ask for better results than that?”