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Originally published March 18, 2010 at 12:33 PM | Page modified March 19, 2010 at 11:40 AM

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Port Townsend gentleman farmer pleads guilty to four bank robberies

A Port Townsend farmer who had a secret life as a bank robber has pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Tacoma to four counts of bank robbery — including one using a firearm — and weapons charges stemming from holdups in Tacoma, Seattle, San Francisco and Sacramento, Calif.

Seattle Times staff reporter;

A Port Townsend farmer who led a secret life as a bank robber pleaded guilty Thursday in U.S. District Court in Tacoma to four counts of bank robbery and weapons charges stemming from holdups in Seattle, Tacoma, San Francisco and Sacramento, Calif.

The arrest of Michael Fenter in October stunned his neighbors and family. As far as they knew, he was a gentleman farmer, owner of the 40-acre Compass Rose Farm near Discovery Bay, and a handyman who repaired boats.

But federal agents say he was also a crafty robber responsible for four West Coast bank holdups.

They say that in three of the robberies Fenter entered a bank and told employees that he had a bomb, in a briefcase, powerful enough to kill everyone. He claimed he could detonate it with his cellphone.

He did the same thing at a Washington Mutual bank branch in Seattle on Feb. 4, 2009; at a Bank of America branch in San Francisco on April 15, 2009; and a Wells Fargo Bank in Sacramento in AugustDuring those robberies, Fenter identified himself as "Patrick Henry" and claimed he represented an organization that was angry about how the government was spending federal bailout money, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office. He said he planned to give the money to people who needed it.

He was arrested Oct. 8 outside a Bank of America branch in Tacoma after he claimed to have a bomb in a box. Fenter fled with $73,000, but police were waiting outside, tipped off by a 911 call.

Fenter, 40, was carrying a loaded .40-caliber handgun in a holster on his waistband, court documents state.

The box contained a blasting cap, a small but dangerous explosive device that the complaint says could have caused serious injuries had it detonated. Police said there were stacks of money and two more weapons in his car, and that his fingertips were coated in Super Glue.

His wife of 20 years, Kateen, and their three children knew nothing of Fenter's felonious pastime.

Shortly after his arrest, she said they had lived a simple life on their farm, which they bought in 1997. Kateen managed the farm, which sold eggs, lamb meat and produce, while her husband worked at a boat-repair yard 14 miles away in Port Townsend until he quit in January 2009.

"They were farmers, and he was a working guy," Matt Elder, owner of the Sea Marine boat-repair yard, told The Seattle Times last year.

As for his motive, U.S. Attorney's Office spokeswoman Emily Langlie said, "I guess maybe that's something we'll learn at sentencing," which is set for June 14 before U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle. "The government doesn't have that information right now."

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Fenter pleaded guilty to three counts of bank robbery, one count of armed bank robbery and possession of a weapon during a crime of violence.

The bank-robbery charges are punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Armed bank robbery is punishable by up to 25 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Possession of a firearm during a crime of violence is punishable by a mandatory-minimum five years in prison and up to life in prison and must be served consecutively to any other sentence.

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com

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