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‘Man in Black’ bank robber gets 14 years in prison

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‘Man in Black’ bank robber gets 14 years in prison
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By Marino Eccher

St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL – It took a year for Sheikh Bilaal Muhammad Arafat, known to the FBI as the “Man in Black,” to rob 31 banks, including one in Alexandria.

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The terror he instilled while demanding money with armed threats, his victims said, will last much longer.

“We live with this forever,” said Pat Zellmann, 52, a manager at KleinBank in Cologne, Minn. It was the site of Arafat’s biggest one-day take in the string of crimes – $11,400.

In a federal courtroom Monday for Arafat’s sentencing, Zellmann described the nightmares, fervent fears and shattered sense of security that followed the March 2011 robbery in which Arafat, formerly known as Mark Edward Wetsch, wielded a knife and a convincing toy gun.

The robberies – Arafat pleaded guilty in 2013 to six and admitted to the other 25 – landed Arafat a 14-year federal prison sentence from U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson.

In pronouncing the sentence, Nelson said the crimes were “nothing short of a reign of terror” that “caused unthinkable emotional damage” to dozens of victims.

Arafat’s robberies included stealing approximately $3,200 from the Glenwood State Bank in Alexandria on December 29, 2011. The Alexandria Police Department assisted in the investigation.

Nelson said Arafat, 51, had taken no responsibility and shown no remorse. He went through two public defenders before deciding to represent himself, filed hundreds of court documents and tried to withdraw his plea agreement, claiming it was coerced and unjust.

May 14 he filed a sentencing statement titled “Innocence Gone Wrong” that began: “I am innocent and I accept (absolutely) no responsibility for the charged offenses the Government has charged me with.”

The statement said he robbed only one bank, the one in Brewer, Minn. that led to his arrest in January 2012, as a copycat crime after hearing about other robberies in which the perpetrator wore the black ski mask and dark clothing that gave him his nickname.

Police, prosecutors and the judge turned him into a scapegoat, he wrote.

“The only victims here are myself and my children,” he said. He also said prosecutors were out to get him because he is a Muslim, and that Nelson wanted to throw the book at him “because of my unprecedented success in being a formidable and pertinacious pro se adversary and nemesis” in the courtroom.

Nelson was unmoved Monday. She remarked that Arafat seemed ready to blame anyone and everyone except himself.

“Nowhere in any of these filings,” she said, “is any concern for anybody other than you.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Deidre Aanstad prosecuted the case. She asked Nelson to impose the 14-year sentence.

In addition to the prison sentence, which was in line with the plea agreement, Nelson ordered Arafat to pay about $108,000 in restitution. He already owes about $1.5 million in restitution for a previous federal conviction for swindling with phony invoices a nursing home he used to work for.

He pleaded guilty to that in 2005 and spent nearly three years in prison. Prosecutors said the money he stole paid off debts and funded fancy cars, vacations and extensive home remodeling.

In court filings, he said he started robbing banks “for the purpose of economic security” in the middle of a custody battle.

At sentencing, Arafat argued he hadn’t committed armed robbery because the fake gun used wasn’t a dangerous weapon.

Zellmann said she was ready to forgive Arafat when he pleaded guilty, expecting contrition. Instead, she said she saw smugness and defiance.

“God teaches me to forgive,” she said. “I’m trying. I’m trying very hard.”

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The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service, which includes the Echo Press.