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Posted July 23, 2012 | comments Leave a comment

Whittlesey pleads guilty in five bank robberies

By Joe Beck -- jbeck@nvdaily.com

The fight had gone out of James Louis Whittlesey Monday as he pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to five bank robberies, including one in Winchester, all part of a violent crime spree that jarred three states over three months in 2011.

Whittlesey's guilty pleas also included two gun-related offenses -- brandishing and discharging a firearm in connection with a bank robbery and being a felon in possession of a firearm -- stemming from the Winchester bank robbery. He also pleaded guilty to an escape attempt in Vermont following his arrest in Montreal.

The four bank robberies outside of Virginia were committed in Fawn Grove, Pa., on July 19, Willow Street Pa., on July 27, Wilmington, Del., on Aug. 12 and Oct. 7 in Lemoyne, Pa., according to law enforcement officials.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Nancy Healey described in a statement of facts how Whittlesey had fired four rounds from a .38 caliber revolver at Winchester police Lt. Mike Danielson after robbing the United Bank on Berryville Avenue in Winchester on Oct. 11. After escaping, Whittlesey was captured in Montreal three months later and deported to the United States.

Healey said Whittlesey kicked out the window of an SUV and pulled himself through the open window feet first as federal agents sought to take him to a courthouse in Vermont. The agents quickly "brought him to the ground" and recaptured him, she said.

Whittlesey took sums of money ranging from $4,800 in Willow Street, Pa., to $11,400 in Wilmington, Del., Healey said. Tellers at the Winchester bank handed over more than $10,000 to him, about $1,600 of which was later recovered, according to law enforcement officials

Whittlesey, 51, is scheduled to be formally sentenced on Oct. 17, but U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski, warned him that each of the pleas on the bank robbery charges carries an automatic life sentence.

"There is no parole. There is no early out," Urbanski said. "You will be in prison for the rest of your life."

Instead of wavering, Whittlesey spoke of his desire to be sentenced immediately without waiting for a pre-sentence report to be submitted to Urbanski. Urbanski said the law required him to review a pre-sentence report, but Whittlesey insisted he was eager to move on.

"A mandatory sentence is a mandatory sentence. You should be able to sentence me today," he told Urbanski.

In contrast with a previous appearance in which he refused to answer questions from Urbanski, Whittlesey was chatty and animated with the judge and his attorney, assistant federal public defender Frederick Hedlich.

Before the hearing, Whittlesey slipped his glasses on and off several times and glanced backward over his shoulder at spectators in the courtroom. He stared intently at Hedlich during their conversations.

When Urbanski asked him if he kicked out the window of the SUV in Vermont as part of an escape attempt, Whittlesey replied, "You got the picture right there."

Hedlich said after the hearing that Whittlesey had little choice but to plead guilty to all charges. The pleas allow Whittlesey to skip making court appearances in multiple jurisdictions over a long period of time and make him immediately eligible to serve time in the federal prison system, Hedlich said. Federal prisons typically offer more activities for inmates than local jails, Hedlich said.

"It's unusual to have so many charges from so many jurisdictions and not have a plea agreement," Hedlich said, adding, "There weren't any good choices."

Federal prosecutors and law enforcement officials gathered at a press conference to hail the outcome as a triumph of cooperation that spanned numerous law enforcement jurisdictions.

"The FBI is pleased to have been able to coordinate investigative efforts with over 15 law enforcement entities in the United States and Canada resulting in the successful apprehension of Mr. Whittlesey," John S. Adams, acting special agent in charge for the FBI, said in a written statement.

The sheer number of serious charges and surveillance photographs showing Whittlesey brandishing handguns at bank employees during each of the robberies would have overwhelmed any attempt to mount a defense, Hedlich said.

U.S. Attorney Timothy J. Heaphy also cited "a great surveillance picture" of Whittlesey's face in each of the five robberies for helping seal the defendant's fate.

"This was not a case that required a lot of careful investigation to figure out who done it," Heaphy said in a press conference later in the day.

Whittlesey, who was on parole from Florida at the time of the bank robberies, already had 100 years of back time facing him in that state for violating parole, Hedlich said. The convictions in Florida date back to the 1980s, at least one of which was for armed robbery, Hedlich said.

Alexander Iden, commonwealth's attorney for Winchester, said he will be dropping state charges against Whittlesey as a result of the federal convictions. Iden said he is reserving the right to resurrect the state charges should the need ever arise to do so.

Danielson, the officer who exchanged gunfire with Whittlesey after he robbed the Winchester bank, said it was the only time he has been shot at in 17 years on the force.
Danielson said Whittlesey fired at him four times, and he shot 11 times at Whittlesey within the space of three or four minutes.

Danielson joined other law enforcement officials in praising the outcome of the case.

"It's great," Danielson said. "I couldn't be more happy with it."

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