May 20, 2010:
Erie County District Attorney's office aggressively worked to gain a guilty plea and a lengthy sentence for Austin Bemis. ADA Erin Connellyhandled the case.
Erie man sentenced to 40 to 80 years in robbery spree
By LISA THOMPSONlisa.firstname.lastname@example.org
A robbery victim told a judge Wednesday that Austin Lee Bemis stole her dignity with each piece of clothing he made her remove during a holdup last summer.
"He is a sick and dangerous human being who should never be allowed to walk the streets again," she said to Judge Ernest J. DiSantis Jr.
DiSantis agreed that Bemis, a 20-year-old with a history of serious sex offenses, posed a danger that outweighed any hope of Bemis' quick rehabilitation. He sentenced Bemis to 40 to 80 years in state prison on five counts of robbery and one count of attempted robbery.
DiSantis credited Bemis for pleading guilty and sparing the victims from having to testify at trial. He also said Bemis, because he is young, might be rehabilitated.
But the judge said that Bemis' crimes against five Erie women last summer and Bemis' history -- which includes a juvenile conviction for raping an 8-year-old girl -- shows Bemis has "deep-seated issues which have to be addressed."
"You are a clear and present danger," DiSantis said.
The victim who testified told DiSantis that Bemis wore a mask and pushed a gun into the side of her head. She said she still hears his voice and suffers from insomnia and anxiety.
The sentence was driven in part by the mandatory minimum sentences of 10 years that was required on each of the robbery charges because Bemis committed the robberies with a gun. DiSantis ordered Bemis to serve four of the sentences consecutively. The last two, he said, will be served concurrently with the other charges.
Bemis' lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Matthew Dante, asked the judge to sentence Bemis with an eye toward rehabilitation, not punishment.
Bemis apologized for the pain and fear he caused the victims. He told the judge the crimes were "out of character" for him and that he tried to commit suicide after the first robbery.
"I am really not a bad person like the media made me out to be," he said. "I am easygoing and laid back."
Assistant District Attorney Erin Connelly countered that Bemis planned the attacks in advance and even used a Taser on one woman.
"I don't think he understands the consequences of his actions," she said.
The sentence came after Bemis pleaded guilty in March to robbing five women on Erie's lower west side and trying to rob a sixth. He admitted that he used a gun each time. The attacks happened between May and August 2009.
One of the women gave him $10. Another handed over a pack of Newport cigarettes.
Erie police said Bemis made two of the women undress. Police said he took photos of one of the women after she disrobed.
Bemis was not charged with sexual assault. Erie Police Chief Steve Franklin has said the charge did not apply because Bemis did not touch the women.
Police caught Bemis a few steps from his residence in the 200 block of West 16th Street. They were tipped off by a woman who called 911 after Bemis robbed her Aug. 8 as she walked in the 100 block of West 11th Street.
Police said Bemis was carrying a toy handgun, a digital camera, a bandanna and a latex glove when they caught him.
Franklin and Mayor Joe Sinnott were criticized before the arrest for not having warned nearby residents of the robberies, which had started in May.
Word of the attacks did not become public until July 8, when an Erie Times-News reporter asked Franklin about them. By then, five women had filed reports.
Franklin defended his decision, saying publicity about the crimes could have caused panic. He said the matter was being investigated aggressively, and that two officers on special duty for the attacks were responsible for Bemis' capture.