Judge Robert Noonan said he still doesn't understand why Dennis M. Abrams decided to rob a bank in Elba on June 18, but even with the defendant's "Boy Scout" background, the violent nature of the crime compelled the judge to impose a serious prison sentence.
Abarams can expect to be separated from his wife and newborn baby in state prison for up to 13-and-a-half years.
When Noonan imposed sentence, a young woman sitting in the fourth row of the courtroom burst into tears, moaned, "thirteen and a half years," jumped from her seat and rushed toward the hallway doors.
As with the sentencing of accomplice Michael J. Wells 11 days ago, two former M&T employees spoke in court about the trauma of the bank robbery and how the events changed their lives.
"I would like Mr. Abrams to close his eyes and imagine what it would be like if his wife or his mother were on the floor with a gun to her head," said Patty Hackett, who was working as a teller the day of the robbery.
Both Hackett and former branch manager Theresa Claybourn read statements similar to their Dec. 10 testimony at the Wells sentencing (for audio of those statements, click here). And both had messages directly addressing Abarams and co-defendant Damone Dillon, who was also sentenced today.
Dillon, who acted as a lookout for Abrams and Wells, received the maximum term under his plea agreement, 10 years.
While Dillon had a prior criminal convection for dealing drugs, Abrams entered the Elba bank branch in June with a spotless record. According to his attorney, Daniel M. Killelea, Abrams was literally a Boy Scout, even while growing up in Buffalo's rough East Side.
"For lack of a better term," Killelea said, "he was a nerd."
"Dennis should not have come anywhere near anything like this in his life," Killelea said. "This was not a person heading down the road of committing a violent criminal offense. This is somebody who was held out as a person of achievement in his community."
At one time, Abrams was on track to become a cop in Atlanta, until a hiring freeze derailed his plans. Meanwhile, he took a job in a collections agency, which is where he met his wife. Together, they earned more than $150,000 a year. At the time he entered the Elba M&T Bank branch, Abrams had $2,000 in cash in his pocket.
Yet, Abrams conceived of the robbery, convinced his buddies to join him, carried his own registered handgun, drove his car from Buffalo to Elba, switched license plates on the car and drove himself , Wells and Dillon to the bank. After the robbery, he drove during the getaway attempt. At best, for his part in the actual robbery, he came in waving his loaded gun "Rambo style" (as Patty Hackett put it) and at worst, he held that same gun to Hackett's head (Killelea suggested that it was Wells who held a pellet gun to Hackett's head, not Abrams).
"Judge," said Killelea, "this is somebody who was so naïve of the process, so unsophisticated, that I've asked and I know we've discussed (motioning toward District Attorney Lawrence Friedman), why, if he needed money, didn't he simply just embezzle from his employer, a collection agency?
"The simplest explanation I can think of is that there is no movie or TV show about somebody embezzling from an office like that. He must have gotten the idea from movies or television, and he didn't associate with people doing that sort of thing."
Before imposing sentence, Judge Noonan spoke at some length about how puzzled he remains about this case.
"This case reaches out to hyperbole to say that this may go down as the most puzzling case I've ever heard," Noonan said. "I can't find anything about you that wouldn't say that you would not have been voted in high school the person least likely to rob a bank."
Noonan said he will probably wonder for years about why Abrams decided to violently rob a bank.
For their part, both Abrams and Dillon turned to Hackett and Claybourn and said they apologized.
Dillon, sentenced first without Abrams in the room, made near a full turn toward the first row of the courtroom and seemed to look both Hacket and Claybourn in the eyes when he spoke.
"I did wrong," Dillon said. "I apologize. I'm sorry that happened to you all. I wish I could take it all back. I can't, so all I can say is I'm sorry."
His contrite body language, however, turned to visible agitation when Noonan pronounced his maximum available sentence. Dillon immediately folded his arms tightly and his facial expression was tense.
When Abrams was asked to speak, he never fully turned toward the first row, and would look away occasionally.
"I'm sorry. I honestly had no intention of hurting anyone," Abrams said. "I'm sorry once again for causing this stressful...I'm sorry from the bottom of my heart. I didn't mean to put you through anything like that."
After court, his uncle, John Abrams, who works in law enforcement in the City of Buffalo, said the entire Abrams family feels remorseful for what the bank employees went through that day.
"Our family is very remorseful," John Abrams said. "We hope they can get on with their lives. As a family, we are very remorseful that it happened."
Abrams added that Dennis is also remorseful and has fully cooperated with law enforcement since his arrest.
"We still support him as we always have as a family," Abrams said. "And we want to thank the judge for giving him a chance to express his remorse."
Claybourn and Hackett left the courtroom through another exit and were not available for comment following the sentencing.