PORT TOWNSEND - Kateen Fenter's world turned upside down the day the FBI informed her that her husband of 20 years was in custody in Tacoma on charges of bank robbery.
Michael John Fenter was supposed to be working out of town and wasn’t expected home, so when Kateen heard the news, it came as a shock.
The FBI called her Oct. 9, the day after her husband was arrested for allegedly using a bomb threat to rob a Bank of America branch in downtown Tacoma. The man on the phone assumed she knew of the arrest.
“He told me, ‘You know that Michael has been incarcerated?’” Kateen said. “I said: ‘No, no, that can’t be true. There’s got to be some mistake.’”
Kateen told her mother to grab the cell phone so she could call Michael.
“The man told me that I wouldn’t reach Michael, that he had him in custody,” Kateen said.
“I just couldn’t believe it. It kept going around and around in my head that it must have been some big mistake.”
But there was no mistake. Her husband was in the Pierce County Jail, charged with one bank robbery and suspected of others.
And Kateen Fenter is preparing for the most difficult winter of her life – one in which she and her family must operate their Compass Rose Farm and support three kids without Michael’s financial help.
FRIENDS SINCE CHILDHOOD
Kateen, 37, has known Michael, 40, for 25 years – since they were kids in Oregon. The man she knows is funny, adventurous, quiet, kind, generous and helpful – willing to reach out to neighbors who need help moving or fixing a car.
They moved to Port Townsend six years ago, and in 2007, through a partnership with Jefferson Land Trust, the family bought a 40-acre parcel south of Discovery Bay and called it Compass Rose Farms.
Kateen Fenter owns and operates the farm with her mother, Bev Fairing. They sell eggs, honey, wool, hay and a variety of produce.
Michael Fenter, a marine carpenter by trade and graduate of the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding, worked as a parts manager at Sea Marine until he quit in January.
He isn’t much of a farmer, but he did carpentry work on the farm and the family relied on his income to pay the utility and mortgage bills, his wife said.
ARRESTED AFTER BANK HEIST
According to the FBI, Tacoma police responded Oct. 8 to a robbery in progress at the Bank of America branch at 101 S. Ninth St. and arrested Michael Fenter as he left the bank.
According to reports, police found a bag containing $73,000, a loaded .40-caliber handgun and an explosive device with commercial-grade blasting caps, later determined by a bomb squad to be harmless.
Fenter was booked into jail as “John J. Doe” but later was identified when police determined the handgun they’d recovered was registered to Michael Fenter. Officials also got a copy of his driver’s license, which contained his photo, and confirmed his identity.
A vehicle registered in Fenter’s name was found in the area. A police search discovered at least two other loaded firearms, including an assault-style rifle, according to court documents.
Fenter, who has no prior criminal record, was taken into federal custody Oct. 16.
He is suspected in at least three similar bank heists along the West Coast this year – one at a Seattle Washington Mutual in February, one at a San Francisco Bank of America in April and one at a Wells Fargo Bank in Sacramento in August.
Formal charges have not been filed in those cases.
Fenter made his first appearance in U.S. District Court on Oct. 16 on charges of bank robbery and being armed during commission of a violent felony.
He is to appear again Tuesday, assuming no indictment is made.
Magistrate Judge J. Richard Creatura ordered that Fenter, who has a court-appointed attorney, be held in custody at SeaTac Federal Detention Center without bail until his trial.
‘HARDEST THING I’VE EVER DONE’
Telling her three kids about their father’s arrest “was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Kateen Fenter said.
“They’re not doing so well,” she said. “They’re struggling to believe that Dad could do anything bad. They don’t believe it. It doesn’t seem real.”
She spoke to her husband after his arrest. It was “pretty brief” and “very emotional,” she said.
She still has no idea why the man she loves might have turned to a life of crime.
She said that since quitting his job in Port Townsend, he had been earning a “legitimate income” at a job in Oregon this year. After her husband’s arrest, she contacted his boss, who confirmed that he had been showing up to work, she said.
Now, for the first time, Kateen Fenter must rely on the farm revenue to support her family and keep the farm running.
Other than the mortgage, the family has no debt. But there is no savings either, she said, because it all goes back into the farm.
“If I were ever in need, this is the time,” she said.
SUPPORT FROM FRIENDS, NEIGHBORS
Kateen Fenter said Port Townsend has been extremely loving and supportive, but she fears that if she doesn’t receive additional help, her family could be in trouble.
Friends have helped fix up some of the cars, which were all broken except the farm truck. But she welcomes any help.
A lot of construction is left to do on the farm’s infrastructure – something Michael Fenter was working on. Kateen’s brother is in town and is trying to organize a group to help with the carpentry this weekend.
She also would love for any willing farmers to help with planting next weekend.
“If I can get help, I’ll put in garlic this fall. So if you see garlic at the spring farmer’s market, you’ll know I got help,” she said through a tiny hint of laughter.
If she can sell what hay is left over at the farm, it will provide some income for the winter.
She also has 65 chickens that could use a home. It saddens her to get rid of them, since they help provide eggs for the community, but she said she would be forced to auction them this month if she can’t sell them.
Her home is something she hopes to preserve.
“I will continue to farm and provide for my community to the best of my ability,” she said.