Testimony offers insight into robbery spree and its alleged mastermind - The Buffalo News

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Testimony offers insight into robbery spree and its alleged mastermind

Like any bank robbery note, the one used in the Bank of America holdup in Niagara Falls made threats and demands. Lots of them.

Ten thousand dollars in cash. No dye pack. No tracker. Have 45-caliber pistol.

And then, a final request from the bank robber – please call police.

A few months earlier, this time at an M&T in North Buffalo, a different bank robber passed a note demanding cash, and he too asked for help:

“I am 16 years old and my life is in danger.”

Two robberies, two pleas for help and a glimpse into the allegations at the core of what federal prosecutors in Buffalo are calling one of the biggest bank robbery sprees ever in the Untied States.

Over an eight-month period starting in April of last year, bank robbers hit 26 banks in Erie and Niagara counties, almost all in Buffalo.

The FBI says the stickups were done by a loosely organized band of bank robbers – court papers say there are 12 of them, at least three of them women. They were led by a ringleader who ruled through threats and intimidation.

Think Fagin in “Oliver Twist.”

In recent weeks, the allegation that 21-year-old Michael Mitchell orchestrated each of the 26 robberies by forcing others to commit them has taken center stage in Buffalo federal court.

Defense attorneys in the four-month-old case are publicly blaming Mitchell for their clients’ role in the robberies. After all, they say, it was Mitchell who told them what to write in their notes to tellers and how to carry out the holdups.

The FBI says Mitchell also carried a chrome 45-caliber pistol with an extended magazine, and sometimes used it to threaten the people around him.

“These kids are all scared of this guy,” said a defense lawyer who spoke on the condition he not be identified.

In custody since his arrest in January – he was the subject of an FBI manhunt – Mitchell has said little during his appearances in court. That hasn’t stopped others, most notably defense lawyers who claim their clients were manipulated by him, from talking.

“He was scared,” John Humann, an assistant federal public defender, said of his client, Jason Berg. “He was led around by the nose.”

Berg admitted robbing three banks last summer.

So did Donovan Devost, another of the 12 defendants with alleged ties to Mitchell.

Devost’s lawyer claims his client was threatened by a black male he didn’t know by name but recognized from the neighborhood. He said the man, believed to be Mitchell, threatened to shoot Devost’s family unless he robbed several banks.

“My guy has no idea who Michael Mitchell is,” said Peter Kooshoian, Devost’s lawyer. “But he was threatened into committing these robberies.”

Despite the allegation that he led the band of bank robbers, Mitchell is charged with just three robberies, not 26. On top of that, there is no mention of Mitchell in most of the other defendants’ court cases.

“He’s taken the position that he’s a scapegoat,” said Michael L. D’Amico of Buffalo. “He maintains he doesn’t even know a lot of these people.”

D’Amico said he has been through most of the evidence in the case, including statements from the other defendants, and he can’t find a single mention of his client in anything they told police. He also thinks the government’s suggestion that Mitchell controlled the other defendants is off base.

“They’re walking into these banks handing over notes demanding cash,” he said of the other defendants. “No one was pointing a gun to their head.”

Anger and suspicion

Fresh from a stickup at a Key Bank in North Buffalo, Mitchell and his fellow bank robbers rendezvoused in late October at an East Delavan Avenue apartment to count their latest stash, according to court papers.

When they arrived, one of the robbers threw the stolen loot, all $543 of it, on the table and brazenly asked where the “next one” would be.

Mitchell, according to the FBI, had other concerns. Investigators say he suspected his bank robbing colleague had stolen more money and kept some of it for himself. They claim Mitchell ordered him strip-searched.

The anecdote, one of many spelled out in court papers, paints Mitchell as a controlling and intimidating leader.

In contrast, the men and women he directed were easily manipulated, investigators say. To a person, they tend to be in their early 20s or younger, and some of them have emotional or psychological problems.

Kooshoian says that’s the case with the 20-year-old Devost.

“He’s had mental health problems most of his life,” he said. “He needs to get help.”

Humann says Berg, 22, also was easily intimidated by Mitchell. It was Mitchell, he said, who told Berg what to write in his notes to tellers, and it was Mitchell who waited with a gun in the getaway cars outside the banks.

“His whole life, he’s been easily influenced by others,” Humann said of Berg.

It’s noteworthy that neither Berg nor Devost made mention of Mitchell during their sentencings. They left that task to their lawyers, who made it clear their clients are reluctant to talk about Mitchell. The not-so-subtle message is they’re afraid of retribution.

“My client has never said anything about this person, nothing, and for obvious reasons,” Humann said of Berg and Mitchell.

The expectation is that more defense attorneys will ultimately blame Mitchell if and when their clients plead guilty to bank robbery charges. The government is preparing to refute those claims.

To hear prosecutors talk, the reluctance to cooperate with the government has more to do with protecting Mitchell than fearing him.

During Berg’s sentencing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Catherine Baumgarten, the lead prosecutor in the case, went out of her way to portray him as a career criminal, even at the age of 22.

She noted that Berg had already been in jail for a year when he did the first of his three stickups last summer. “He wasn’t out all that long,” she said.

But even Baumgarten acknowledges the possibility that Mitchell played a role in the robberies, and court papers make prominent mention of the ties between him and the other defendants.

“There is some intelligence to suggest that Mitchell was involved,” Baumgarten said in court recently.

The FBI says it also has evidence – arrest records, family histories, gang affiliations and residence locations – that connect each of the defendants with at least one other defendant.

Similar notes

The allegation that Mitchell was involved in each of the 26 robberies is rooted in their similarities. First and foremost are the handwritten notes used in the holdups, notes that may have been written by women close to Mitchell as a way of throwing FBI agents off his trail.

They tend to describe a specific caliber of weapon in the robber’s possession and provide instructions on how much money to hand over. They also contain warnings advising the tellers not to look at the robber and not to activate bank security devices or hand out dye packs.

Investigators with the FBI’s Safe Streets Task Force say most of the 26 robberies also took place in Buffalo and, in some cases, the same bank was hit more than once. They say the stickups also tended to happen at the same time of day and involve robbers who made no attempt to hide their faces or disguise themselves.

Meanwhile, the judge in the case is starting to ask questions about Mitchell’s ties to each of the robberies.

During Devost’s scheduled sentencing earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara read from a Buffalo News story about Mitchell and chastised lawyers on both sides for not properly informing him of Mitchell’s possible involvement in the robberies.

“I had no idea other people were involved in this,” Arcara said.

He delayed Devost’s sentencing until July and gave Berg 66 months in prison. Mitchell, who faces up to 20 years in prison for each of the three robberies he’s accused of doing, remains in custody.

email: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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