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Alleged crime spree mastermind gets 9 years in prison after admitting role in 7 of 26 bank robberies

For the first time since the FBI linked him to 26 bank robberies, Michael “Max” Mitchell told his side of the story Thursday.

Prosecutors portrayed the 22-year-old Buffalo man as a modern-day Fagin from “Oliver Twist,” ruling a loose band of thieves through threats and intimidation.

But he and his lawyer denied Thursday the allegations that he was the ringleader behind the string of bank robberies, a crime spree that went unsolved for eight months.

Mitchell, who has admitted taking part in seven robberies, was sentenced to nine years in prison.

“He didn’t force anyone to do anything,” said defense attorney Michael L. D’Amico, “and he didn’t intend to hurt anyone. These were crimes of greed.”

Investigators say the robberies, which began in April 2013 and continued until January of last year, were committed by Mitchell and 12 others, at least three of them women.

They also say Mitchell was the one who schooled the others in how to carry out a holdup and what to write in their notes to tellers.

Some of those tellers never came back to work as tellers, and the lead prosecutor was quick to suggest Thursday that the case against Mitchell was about them, not the money he stole.

“He has never once said he is sorry for those tellers,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Catherine Baumgarten. “How is that a person who expresses remorse?”

Mitchell, in a brief statement to U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara, said he was remorseful for his crimes.

“I just want to apologize,” he said. “I made some bad decisions.”

In his plea deal with prosecutors, Mitchell admitted committing seven robberies in Niagara Falls, Buffalo, Lackawanna and Rochester, but he stopped well short of acknowledging a role in the 19 others that the FBI’s Safe Streets Task Force insists are linked to him.

D’Amico referred to the initial news accounts of Mitchell’s arrest last year – a Buffalo News headline comparing him to notorious 1930s bank robber John Dillinger and repeated phone calls from the New Yorker seeking comment – to suggest that, in the end, they were overblown.

“Mr. Mitchell is not John Dillinger, and the New Yorker has stopped calling,” D’Amico told Arcara.

The FBI alleges that Mitchell carried a chrome .45-caliber handgun with an extended magazine and sometimes used it to threaten the people around him, an allegation defense attorneys for some of the other defendants in the case later embraced.

It was Mitchell, they said, who manipulated their clients into doing the robberies and, then again, in convincing them not to cooperate with prosecutors.

“He was scared,” one defense lawyer said of his client and Mitchell during a sentencing last year. “He was led around by the nose.”

In at least one instance, according to court records, one of the bank robbers whom Mitchell is accused of recruiting asked a teller to call police because he did not want to face Mitchell, who was waiting for him in a car outside the bank.

Investigators also contend that Mitchell strip-searched another fellow bank robber because he thought he had stolen some of the proceeds from a robbery earlier that day.

The allegations, according to the FBI, reflect the kind of accomplices recruited by Mitchell: young, naive and easily influenced.

In its initial complaint against Mitchell, the agency offered details on why they think the robberies were connected.

They contend that each of the other defendants has a relationship with other defendants that directly or indirectly lead to Mitchell. They also point to similarities in the various robberies, most notably the language used in notes handed to bank tellers.

“The FBI has held a critical role in bank robbery investigations since the 1930s,” Brian P. Boetig, special agent in charge of the FBI office in Buffalo, said in a statement Thursday. “We will continue in this role so that Michael Mitchell and others who perpetrate similar crimes are held accountable.”

Most of the 26 robberies took place in Buffalo, but there were a handful in Niagara Falls, Lackawanna and Rochester. FBI officials say that all 26 have been solved.

email: pfairbanks@buffnews.com