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Originally published July 26, 2010 at 2:56 PM | Page modified July 26, 2010 at 8:12 PM

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Port Townsend man sentenced to prison for string of bank robberies

A Port Townsend man who led a secret life as a bank robber was sentenced Monday to 10 years in federal prison.

Seattle Times staff reporter

TACOMA — When Michael Fenter was arrested coming out of a Tacoma bank last fall with $73,000 in a bag and a gun at his hip, just about everyone had the same question: "Why?"

A marine carpenter who, with his wife, had realized a longtime dream to run a Port Townsend farm, Fenter had no criminal record, no drug problem and no clear motive. In letters to the court, friends and family called him "honest," "gracious," "wholesome" and "gentle." They knew nothing of his secret life.

He pleaded guilty in March to robbing four banks in Seattle, Tacoma and California and possession of a firearm during a crime of violence.

Calling it "one of the most perplexing cases" he's ever considered, U.S. District Court Judge Benjamin Settle sentenced Fenter on Monday to 10 years in prison, and ordered him to make restitution to the banks. He walked away with $86,000 from the first three robberies, and that money has never been accounted for.

Fenter set out on his crime spree well-prepared, said Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Jerry Costello, adding, "there was no indication he was going to stop."

When Fenter was arrested last fall after robbing a Tacoma bank of $73,000, his fingertips were covered in glue so he would not leave fingerprints. He told bank employees that he was carrying explosives, and even showed one teller a device with a circuit board and wires that looked like a bomb. Authorities later determined the device contained a blasting cap, a small but dangerous explosive device.

During the robberies, Fenter told bank employees that he was angry about the government bailout of banks. He said he was taking the money to give to people who needed it, according to court documents — though when asked about it by authorities he declined to provide details.

Upon his arrest, he said his name was "Patrick Henry," a Revolutionary War-era governor famous for his "Give me liberty or give me death!" speech.

One Bank of America employee said at Friday's sentencing hearing in Tacoma that she thinks about the robbery everyday and her heart races.

"He's a terrorist," she said.

Speaking publicly about the crimes for the first time, Fenter told the judge, "I honestly did not know how it was going to affect other people." He said he has since come to realize he terrified the bank employees, and devastated his friends and family.

"All I want to do is make amends," he said.

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As for the question why? Fenter said robbing banks wasn't to get money for himself or his family. Instead, he did it because he was a "true patriot." The money, he said, went to fund that cause.

"What I am for is real justice, real truth, and real accountability within our system of government," he said. "The money was used and is probably currently being used to get to the truth."

He did not make clear who was using the money — though he emphasized it was being used in a "peaceful" way. Nor did he say what, exactly, he hoped to learn.

Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report, which includes information from Times archives.

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