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Originally published July 23, 2010 at 10:00 PM | Page modified July 24, 2010 at 4:40 PM

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Port Townsend woman discovers her husband robbed banks

Michael Fenter, a Port Townsend farmer and boat builder with no previous criminal record, faces sentencing Monday for bank robbery. As his wife, Kateen Fenter, struggles to understand what happened, she has had to make a decision: Does she stand by him, or does she walk away?

Seattle Times staff reporter

PORT TOWNSEND — For 25 years, you've known this man, your husband. You know Michael Fenter so well, it's almost as if you and he were one. This farm where you've lived and worked together, this is a part of you, too, a part of you and Michael and your children and your parents.

The farm and the family, you and Michael. A life.

Then comes a call from the FBI. Michael's in jail. Bank robberies. Bomb threats.

A different life entirely. He was 39.

The FBI believes Kateen Fenter knew nothing about her husband's other reality.

But ever since that phone call last October, she has been entangled with it.

What about the kids? The farm? The bills?

A different life entirely.

On Monday, the U.S. attorney in Seattle will ask a judge to give Michael Fenter 13 years for bank robbery and a weapons offense. Meanwhile, Kateen Fenter has had to make a decision: Do I stand by him? Or do I walk away?

Their dream farm

Three years ago, fate smiled upon the Fenters. For years, they had dreamed of running a family farm. With the help of a land trust and Kateen's parents, they bought 40 acres in Port Townsend, not far from Discovery Bay, and called it Compass Rose Farms.

"We wanted it to be a place where people could come and be fed and find a place of healing," said Kateen Fenter, 38.

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Initially, Compass Rose was little more than a field and some woods. For seven months, the entire family — Kateen, Michael, their three school-age children, and her parents — camped out on the land, hauling water and cooking over a fire. They lived in the woods so they could work on their home and ready the land.

"We sacrificed a lot to make this happen," Kateen said.

A former boss described Michael as "modest but strong." He's interested in history, has a libertarian streak and often carried a handgun, which he had learned to use as a boy, Kateen said.

In the 1990s, he moved the family to Colorado to help build a new Foursquare Church. He went to school for marine carpentry and worked hard, including a stint working on an America's Cup boat. He had a habit of regularly breaking into song.

Farming is a labor of love, of course, and being a startup was even harder. But with Kateen running the farm and Michael's boatbuilding paycheck, they were getting by.

Their life was simple. No credit cards, no complications, she said.

In January 2009, Michael quit his boatbuilding job but Kateen said he found work in Oregon through family — she won't say where. For work, he was away from home for weeks at a time, but all in all, she said, everything seemed fine.

"In retrospect," she wrote in a letter to the sentencing judge, "I wish I had asked him some questions I never thought to ask."

String ends in Tacoma

On Feb. 4, 2009, a clean-cut looking man walked into a Seattle bank and asked for money, court documents state. He said his briefcase contained explosives. As he turned to leave, he left the briefcase on a desk, walking away with $9,200.

On April 15, the same man visited a San Francisco bank and did just about the same thing, but added that he was angry about the government bailout of big banks and wanted to give money to people who needed it, according to court documents. This time, the bank employee broke down and cried. He left with $43,000.

On Aug. 24, the man was in Sacramento, Calif. He showed a bank employee a box containing a circuit board with wires and an antenna that looked like a bomb. He complimented the employee for staying calm, asked for money, and noted he was funding "the cause." He left with $34,000.

On Oct. 8, the man used a similar routine in Tacoma, walking out with $73,000. But this time, another employee had called police, and the man was arrested outside. He had glue on his fingertips to mask prints, and a pistol on his hip.

He told officers his name was Patrick Henry. Henry was a Revolutionary War-era governor famous for his "Give me liberty or give me death!" speech.

The man's real name was Michael Fenter. He pleaded guilty in March.

It appears he took up bank robbery out of the blue. There is no indication he was involved with drugs or gambling. He had no criminal record. Money was tight, but Kateen said they weren't destitute.

Neither she nor authorities could make any sense of it. After spending some time in jail, Michael, too, seemed at a loss.

"It all made sense then," he wrote in a letter to Kateen from jail. Now, he wrote, "I am trying to find words strong enough for how I feel ... I have never questioned my character and core beliefs like this before."

Authorities caught Fenter with the $73,000 in hand, and another $3,400 in his car. And the rest of the money? The U.S. Attorney's Office said he "has not shared a lot of information with law enforcement."

As part of his plea agreement, Fenter has promised to repay the banks.

In shock for months

Kateen said she was blindsided.

"My life just came to a screeching halt," she said. "Here was this load of information you have to assimilate into a way of life that makes no sense to you at all.

"What are you going to do? What are you going to believe?"

She said the Michael she knew would never rob, never threaten. And she said she certainly didn't see any of the money. But there he was, in the surveillance photos.

For months, Kateen said she did little more than lie on the floor, in shock.

"How did I miss this?" she wondered.

Meanwhile, she had to worry about the kids (now 18, 15 and 12), and the farm. Friends and family pitched in.

Before Michael was arrested, she said they were selling eggs from 75 hens. Unable to feed them through the winter, she sold them off.

They had a flock of sheep that needed constant care. To help, another farmer took them through the winter.

With no money coming in, she signed up for food stamps.

"I'm angry at moments," Kateen said. "But you can't live there. Anger turns to sadness. Then you feel numb. And then you get up and go on."

At a certain point, you realize that even if you had answers, it still wouldn't make any sense.

"Life must go on"

At the first signs of spring, she got up off the floor.

"Things to plant," she said. "Life must go on."

She runs the sheep herd and the gardens. Her mom handles the greenhouse and the bookkeeping.

There are heirloom tomatoes and strawberries and an orchard with a dozen fruit trees. There are hollyhocks and daisies, cabbages and garlic. The sheep are back, along with a dozen hens. They're selling produce at two farmers markets and also to the Ajax Café, where her husband used to be a regular.

She walks around the farm. Over there is his hammock, looking a little worse for wear, she said. Over here are his poppies, grown from seeds he gathered at the boat building school. Here is his car — the getaway car, a 1995 BMW with a blown-out transmission.

"I get up every morning and I breathe," she said. "I get up every morning and I love the people around me and I go to work and do everything I can to keep this farm and not lose our house."

Kateen won't say directly whether she believes her husband is guilty. Since he's in jail, she said they have not been able to talk about it. And while she accepts there is considerable evidence against him, her mind jumps to his defense: Nobody was physically hurt. He'll never ever do something like this again, she believes.

"I don't need the answers because I've made my decision based on who I am, not on what he did," she said. "We can choose to love Michael or reject him, but he won't be a better person if we reject him."

For Michael, she will wait.

Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or mohagan@seattletimes.com

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