Whittlesey appears in court, refuses to speak


^ Posted 1 day ago

By Sally Voth -- svoth@nvdaily.com

HARRISONBURG -- The man accused of robbing a Winchester bank seven months ago and shooting at responding officers didn't have much to say when he made his initial appearance in federal court in Virginia today. In fact, he didn't say a word.

If convicted of robbing the United Bank at 1041 Berryville Ave., James Louis Whittlesey faces a mandatory life sentence through the "Three Strikes" sentencing enhancement, U.S. Magistrate Judge James G. Welsh said.

Whittlesey, aliases William Joseph Downs and Frank Wayne Pehringer, refused to answer Welsh's questions. The 52-year-old wouldn't even nod his head.

Whittlesey, who was last known to live in Hydes, Md., is alleged to have brandished a handgun at three tellers during the Oct. 14 robbery.

The suspect fled on foot, firing multiple shots at a city police officer, and then drove off in a 2009 Toyota, according to an affidavit written by FBI Special Agent Daniel Stiefvater.

Officers returned fire, and later found the car abandoned, with a loaded .38-caliber revolver, cash, a paper bag and one shoe, according to the affidavit.

In November, Whittlesey was indicted on charges of aggravated bank robbery, use of a firearm in the commission of aggravated bank robbery, and possession of a firearm after having been convicted of a felony.

Whittlesey remained at large for nearly two months, before being apprehended in Montreal on Dec. 11.

When he appeared in U.S. District Court in Vermont after being extradited from Canada last month, he denied he was the person in the indictment, and asked for an identity hearing, according to online court records. U.S. District Judge William K. Sessions III found his identity had been proven, and sent him to Virginia, court records state.

Whittlesey entered court today wearing an orange jumpsuit. He had spiky gray hair, and a goatee with a beard growing in.

After explaining some of the hearing's purposes, Welsh asked Whittlesey if he understood. The defendant remained impassive.

"Your honor, Mr. Whittlesey, I believe, is not going to be answering any questions," federal public defender Frederick Heblich Jr. said.

Welsh said Whittlesey could make a statement if he wished, or could speak to a lawyer first.

"You can stop answering questions any time you want," he said.

Later in the hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nancy Healey said aggravated bank robbery carries a maximum sentence of 25 years, but "due to his prior record, which includes two prior armed robberies, he's looking at a 'Three Strikes' provision."

Using a gun in the commission of a robbery normally carries a consecutive sentence of five years to life, but in Whittlesey's case would carry a mandatory 10-year sentence because he fired the gun, Healey said.

Whittlesey also faces a 10-year sentence for being a felon in the possession of a handgun, but Healey said she's exploring whether he qualifies for a sentencing enhancement as an armed career criminal. That would lead to a mandatory minimum of 15 years in prison, up to life, Welsh said.

According to court records, Whittlesey has prior convictions for drug dealing and armed robbery, which led to him serving a total of 25 years in prison. He also is suspected of three bank robberies in Pennsylvania.

"Do you want a lawyer?" Welsh asked.

He was met with silence. Welsh appointed Heblich as Whittlesey's counsel.

"Mr. Heblich is an exemplary, competent criminal defense attorney," Welsh told Whittlesey. "If you work with him, he can assist you in any number of ways in understanding charges, evidence and any defense. My hope is that you will keep in contact with him. It will be in your interests to talk with him and to discuss with him in detail these issues."

While saying "I don't know who he is, so I certainly can't concede his identity," Heblich said the Vermont identity determination was enough to go forward for today.

Prior to arraigning Whittlesey, Welsh said, "Circumstances of this case, I'm not going to require the defendant to rise."

The judge read the charges against Whittlesey, and entered not guilty pleas for him. He asked if the suspect wanted a bail hearing.

"I believe it would be fruitless," Heblich said.

Furthermore, Whittlesey's response to today's hearing didn't indicate he'd be a good candidate for bail conditions, Welsh said. He set a trial date of July 23.

Whittlesey also faces a state court count of attempted capital murder of a police officer, according to Winchester police Sgt. Frank Myrtle.

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