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East Grand Forks native gets 14 years for bank robberies

ST. PAUL -- It took a year for Sheikh Bilaal Muhammad Arafat -- known to the FBI as the "Man in Black" -- to rob 31 banks. The terror he instilled while demanding money with armed threats, his victims said, will last much longer. "We live with th...

Jan. 2012 courtesy photo of Mark Edward Wetsch, 49. Photo courtesy of the Nobles County Sheriff's Dept. via KARE-11.



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

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. She started wondering if he was following her, she said. She started begging her 12-year-old granddaughter to stay the night when her husband was out of town.

“You took away my trust,” Zellmann said, reading a statement to the court.

The robberies - Arafat, 51, 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.

The robber grew up in East Grand Forks, the son of Ed and Rochelle Wetsch. The couple now lives in Grand Forks.

When Arafat, then still known by his former name, was arrested in January 2012, Rochelle Wetsch told the Star Tribune that, as a young man, he was “always testing the system.”

He had just then been released from prison in Yankton, S.D., after serving time for violating a federal parole and was starting a home health care business, she said.


No remorse


In pronouncing sentence, Judge Nelson said his string of bank robberies were “nothing short of a reign of terror” that “caused unthinkable emotional damage” to dozens of victims.

She also said Arafat had taken no responsibility and shown no remorse for the robberies. He went through two public defenders before deciding to represent himself, filed hundreds of court documents on a wide range of topics and tried to withdraw his plea agreement, claiming it was coerced and unjust.

As recently as 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 brackets were in the statement.

The statement went on to say 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 that 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.

The statement railed against the facts of his case, the justice system, the U.S. Congress and the banking industry.

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.”


Arafat said that wasn’t the case, saying he had “tremendous concern” for his family. He asked Nelson to recommend he serve his time at one of two West Coast prisons to be closer to his children and try “to repair some broken relationships.”


Custody battle

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 offense in 2005 and spent nearly three years in federal prison. Prosecutors said the money he stole paid off debts and funded fancy cars, exotic 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 with the mother of one of his daughters.

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


In her statement, Zellmann scoffed at the distinction.

“I don’t know how you can see why a toy gun matters,” she said, when she feared for her life just the same.

She was ready to forgive Arafat when he first pleaded guilty, she said, expecting contrition. Instead, she said she saw smugness and defiance as he continued to fight after the plea.

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


The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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