He wielded a knife and a toy gun, stole $11,400, and the terror of that day in March 2011 still haunts Pat Zellman, the bank manager at KleinBank in Cologne, Minn.
“You changed my life forever,” she told the defendant Monday in U.S. District Court in St. Paul. “You took away my trust.” In a trembling voice, she said she was trying to forgive him, but, “I will never forget what you did.”
So ended the latest chapter in the strange tale of a man once called Mark E. Wetsch, 51, then “the Man in Black” and now Sheikh Bilaal Muhammad Arafat.
U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson said he waged a 12-month “reign of terror,” robbing 31 banks and leaving “many victims with permanent psychological damage.”
He was sentenced to 14 years in prison and ordered to pay $108,771.71 in restitution.
Arafat, who has formally changed his name, acted as his own attorney.
Nelson said Arafat appeared to care only for himself and evidently had not learned anything from his previous imprisonment for embezzlement and did not take any responsibility for his actions. She suggested he consider getting some psychological help in prison.
Arafat pleaded guilty last year to six bank robberies, and admitted to robbing 25 others. He sought unsuccessfully to retract his guilty pleas and according to prosecutors had filed 170 motions and pleadings — an unusually high number — challenging many aspects of the case.
Notoriety years before
Although the bank robberies caused the biggest stir, Arafat had achieved some notoriety long before he was the Man in Black or Arafat.
In 2002 he made news in the sports pages, in a disagreement with a cross-country coach over the handling of his daughter, who was considered one of the best distance runners in the state. Wetsch wanted the 14-year-old to skip half the cross-country meets on the Chaska High School schedule to preserve her long-term running career. When the school balked, she ran independently that year.
Three years later, Wetsch was in the news again, indicted on a charge of taking $1.4 million from a St. Paul nursing home where he was the nursing director.
Wetsch committed his first known bank robbery on Jan. 11, 2011, holding up a Bremer Bank branch in Minneapolis. In some of the early robberies, he covered his face with a scarf, said assistant U.S. Attorney Deirdre Aanstad. It would be followed by 28 more bank robberies and two attempted bank robberies over the next year, according to court documents. He was dubbed “The Man in Black” due to a black face-covering mask.
A hunch ends the spree
The robbery that ended the spree occurred on Jan. 3, 2012, at the Rolling Hills Bank and Trust in Brewster, Minn.
Travis Sandland, a detective with the St. Peter, Minn., Police Department, had been investigating a bank robbery that occurred two weeks earlier in St. Peter, when he got a call from a colleague about the Brewster holdup. The robber escaped, driving a vehicle with a description much like the one used in the St. Peter crime.
Because of the locations of the previous robberies, Sandland guessed that the robber lived in the Twin Cities and would be heading that way, north on Hwy. 169.
Parked along the roadway in St. Peter, Sandland spotted Wetsch, driving a Silver Ford Edge SUV, and pulled him over.
Wetsch consented to a search and Sandland found cash, later connected to the Brewster Bank, a toy guy and a black mask. “I am glad it was resolved,” Sandland said Monday.
Prosecutors Aanstad and Kevin Ueland appeared relieved Monday that the case was finally over, praising the work of Sandland, FBI agents and other law enforcement agencies who investigated the case.
The U.S. attorney’s office said in a statement that the 14-year sentence “provides justice and finality to the multitude of victim tellers who have patiently awaited this moment for more than two years.”
After the sentencing, Zellman, the Brewster bank manager, stood in the corridor outside the 7th floor courtroom, talking with employees from two other banks that had been robbed. Zellman remarked that at the court appearance Monday, Arafat was smiling.
“It’s just sad,” she said. “There is no remorse on his behalf.”