He was the last caught, the last to admit guilt, but Michael J. Wells will be first of three Elba bank robbers to go to state prison.
And he's going away for a long time.
Judge Robert Noonan did not impose the maximum sentence available to him under terms of a plea agreement, which was 15 years. But he told Wells this afternoon that under state law, he was required to impose a lengthy sentence and that he had no qualms about doing so.
The sentenced imposed on the 24-year-old was 12.5 years, followed by five years of supervised release. Under determinant sentencing rules, Wells is looking about 10 years in prison. He could serve another five if he got into any trouble after release.
Wells has no prior criminal convictions or offenses that might indicate he would try to rob a bank and, by all accounts, no history of drug use or alcohol abuse. According to his attorney Thomas Burns, Wells comes from a good family.
Even so, Noonan said he didn't understand what led Wells to participate in a viciously violent crime.
"When this case first came before me, I thought, though I didn't say it to court personnel, 'When this case plays out, I'm going to understand what this is all about,' and here we are six months later and this still all puzzles me. ...
"This is like somebody plucked a person from out of nowhere and said, 'why don't you commit some terribly violent crime?' And you, even being an intelligent human being, said, 'Sure, I'll go along with that.' This is just totally perplexing, and as I close your file, I'm just as puzzled by that today as I was on the first day."
And it was a violent crime.
Two of the women who were working in the M&T Bank branch in Elba on June 19 spoke before Noonan sentenced Wells. Both described an event of sheer terror that has left them traumatized -- both are undergoing treatment for PTSD -- and they said, scarred for life.
Patty Hackett, a 19-year employee of M&T Bank who has shown up for every court appearance for all three defendants, spoke first. She began by explaining how she and her husband worked hard to raise two children and send them to collage. When the children were babies, her husband worked three jobs -- including pumping gas at night and working on a farm on weekends -- to help make ends meet. When it came time to pay for college for their children, he again took on a second job.
"Not once did it ever cross his mind or our minds to rob a bank because we needed cash," Hackett said.
She then described in some detail the events inside the bank during the robbery. She was on a conference call when Wells, Dennis Abrams and Demone Dillon entered the bank yelling and waving guns.
"They came running through the doors Rambo-style," Hackett said.
She was going to try and grab the other teller that morning -- Alicia Nichols -- and try to make it to the bathroom where they could lock themselves in, but before she even got out of her chair, Abrams grabbed her, she said, and threw her to the ground.
"He was holding a gun at me," Hackett said. "I was terrified. I was sick. I was thinking, 'God, we’re going to be robbed and I’m going to die.'"
Later she added, "I thought, 'This is it. We're going to die. Please help me dear God,' I remember saying. I remember seeing a picture in my mind of my beautiful daughter and my beautiful son and my husband who is the love of my life."
Theresa Claybourn who was the branch manager that day, also described a scene of terror in which she thought for sure she was going to die.
"I believe that second man was intending to keep me at bay and I thought at any second he was going to come over and see my phone off the hook and think I called the cops and then shoot me dead," Claybourn said.
When it came his turn to speak, Wells, who has largely remained stone-faced every time he appears in court, didn't say much, but he did express regret for his actions.
"I made a terrible, horrible decision that day and I wish I could change it," Wells said. "I know that I can’t. If anything comes out of this, I hope that others will learn from my poor, bad example."
Both Abrams and Dillon will be sentenced at a later date.
WBTA's Dan Fischer was given permission to tape record the hearing and will have audio available online and on air later today and tomorrow. He may air the entire hearing tomorrow morning. We'll update this story with the time when that information becomes available. We'll also link to any audio he posts once they are available.
UPDATE: Audio from WBTA, Patty Hackett describes how the crime has changed her life (mp3).