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Cell-Phone Bandit: 12 Years Prison

You can only use a cell phone for so long before the bill comes due. And Friday in federal court, Chantilly's Candice Rose Martinez — the infamous "cell-phone bandit" — learned the price she'll pay is 12 years in prison.

BUT EVEN so, she realizes she was lucky to have escaped unharmed after she and boyfriend Dave Chatram Williams committed four bank robberies — one of them with a .38-caliber revolver.

"It could have turned out so much worse," said Martinez, 19. "Our mothers could be attending our funerals."

She and Williams, who both lived with Martinez' cousin in the Shenandoah Crossing Apartments, met while attending NOVA and together planned the heists. And in each instance, while Martinez confronted the tellers, she talked coolly and calmly to Williams — waiting outside in the getaway car — on her cell phone.

Their crime spree began Oct. 12 at the Wachovia bank in Vienna, where Chatram once worked. The couple then hit three more Wachovias — Oct. 21 in Manassas; Oct. 22, Springfield; and Nov. 4, Ashburn — stealing $48,620 total.

But Martinez didn't wear a disguise because — besides telling her which tellers' drawers contained the most cash — Williams also told her the location of the bank surveillance cameras ... or so he thought. Soon, Martinez' image was plastered on TV and in newspapers and magazines nationwide.

Inevitably, someone recognized her and tipped off the authorities and, in mid-November, both young robbers were captured. The federal government took over their prosecution from the local jurisdictions, and justice moved swiftly.

Both Martinez and Williams, also 19, pleaded guilty in December to conspiracy to commit bank robbery and brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence. On Feb. 24 in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Williams received 12 years in prison — five for the robberies and seven for the gun charge.

LAST FRIDAY, March 3, Martinez appeared before the same judge, Gerald Bruce Lee, to receive her punishment. And it was an emotion-filled sentencing, punctuated with testimony both from Martinez' mother and one of the tellers Martinez had terrorized.

First, though, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Rich had his say. "The evidence suggests they were equal partners; both drafted the note used in all the robberies," he said. But, said Rich, Martinez went a step further.

"[She] contacted her aunt — who works at the Bank of New Mexico — to ask her some hypothetical questions about what would happen if someone robbed the bank," he said. "So she obviously did some research on her own."

Rich also said Martinez profited more from the robberies than did Williams: "She bought copious amounts of designer purses and clothes, and they bought a $2,000 Chihuahua and named it Capone."

Telling the court they also used their bank booty to have the dog's broken leg fixed, Rich said, "They're good people who did bad things. But the bank tellers didn't see [Martinez'] good side. All they knew was that the person standing before them at the teller's cage was demanding money — and in the fourth instance, she flashed a gun."

One of those tellers, Jessica Dickerson — on duty at the Manassas Wachovia, Oct. 21, when Martinez came in — then stood and spoke. "I came here today to let her know how much my life has changed because of her," she said. Dickerson was so upset that she cried while speaking, but still managed to make her point.

"My husband's in the military and my family is away," she said. "I was only 20 — just one year older than Candice. I still work at the bank, but I had to go through counseling and I had trouble sleeping."

Dickerson said she's not as trusting as before and came to court Friday for "personal closure." However she said, "I will never forget her face when she handed me that note. I feared for my life."

Then defense attorney Michael Davis called Martinez' mother, Michelle Medina, to testify on her daughter Candice's behalf. She also has three other daughters, and she described the violence that marked Candice's early years.

MEDINA SAID the family broke up when Candice was 6. She said Candice's father "threw her through a wall" and "severely beat [her sister] Janelle and myself." Medina became addicted to prescription drugs and Janelle, then 18, got custody of Candice.

"Candice was 9 then, and she became involved with drugs and alcohol," said her mother. "She tried to kill herself at ages 10 and almost 11. After that, she stayed with friends and family and didn't have a stable home." Then, said Medina, Candice was "sexually molested by one of my sister's boyfriends." But Child Protective Services (CPS) didn't remove her from that environment.

Finally, Candice took matters in her own hands. She called CPS and had herself admitted to Boys Town USA in Omaha, Neb., from ages 12-17. She thrived there, receiving high grades, heading the track team and counseling and tutoring other children.

Medina showed the judge photos of Candice at junior prom, when she ran for mayor of Boys Town and "in cap and gown on graduation day with her Boys Town family." Martinez even received a full, four-year scholarship to the University of Nebraska.

Unfortunately, said her mother, while there, she was "physically abused by a boyfriend." So she left college and returned home to New Mexico. "She was destroyed," said Medina. "She wanted to complete her education." Distraught, Martinez again tried to take her life, and nearly succeeded. But she recovered and, in April 2005, came to Virginia to attend NOVA.

Majoring in X-ray Technology, she was living with her cousin, working and doing well. Then she met Williams, who moved in with her. To get rent money for their own place, they embarked on robbery.

DAVIS SAID his client takes "full responsibility for what she did," but called Williams "the brains behind it. She would have never done it on her own. She was the follower, not the leader, even though she set foot in those banks."

Davis said Martinez' tough life didn't excuse her actions. "But if ever there was a case where someone's life experiences cry out to be a mitigating factor, this one does," he said. "The system will spare no expense to house and punish her ... but this same system let her down, time and time again, [as a child]. With all she's been through, it's a wonder she's not a mass murderer."

He said Martinez so desperately wanted someone to love her that "she cared more about [Williams] than her own safety and well-being. She walked into those banks because she didn't want to lose him." Then Martinez spoke; but first, Lee made her face Dickerson and tell her "what went through your mind when you faced those tellers."

Speaking in a small voice, tears spilling over, Martinez said, "I wasn't thinking of you. I never meant to rob banks. I wish I could go back and change the last couple months of my life, and I'm sorry for how I affected you. I can't justify my actions. I know it sounds planned out. It happened in weeks, but it felt like seconds — and my whole life is ruined. All I can do is make amends."

Noting her pre-sentencing report, Lee said, "What's troubling to me was that you and Williams studied the bank's internal manual so you'd know how it operated before you robbed it. And I couldn't believe it when I read that, prior to committing the first bank robbery, you called your aunt and asked her theoretically [about it]."

"The aunt replied, 'Robbing banks is all fun and games 'til you get caught, after about a month,'" continued Lee. "Therefore, this was no fleeting judgment or impulsive act but, rather, the product of deliberate thinking."

Although claiming they needed rent money, said the judge, the pair didn't stop after just one heist, but carried out three more — "using a gun to obtain even more money in the fourth one. And this money wasn't used for rent; it went for a plasma TV, a large-screen TV and a Chihuahua."

MARTINEZ SAID she told Williams he'd have to pay half their rent — "and he wanted the money fast." Then, when Lee asked what Williams said to her to make her want to rob a bank, she answered, "I was afraid he was going to do it alone and something bad could happen to him."

But the judge told her Williams was "no knight in shining armor and this was no fairytale where people live happily ever after. I know you had a tough life, but your sisters had the same environment and they're not in federal custody. But you are, because of your choices. Bank tellers were put at risk, as was everyone else in those banks. Other college students need money, but they learn to wait and work hard for it."

Lee then sentenced Martinez to five years in prison for the bank robberies, plus seven years for the gun charge, for 12 years total. He also gave her five years supervised probation upon her release and ordered her to pay a $200 special assessment, plus repay the remaining $43,850 she and Williams owe the banks. She is also to obtain mental-health and substance-abuse treatment and "not to work in banking or related fields."

Considering Martinez' stellar record at Boys Town, said Lee, he'd be expecting her to be graduating from college: "But no, you graduated here into federal prison. And five years for bank robbery seems mighty lenient to me."

Afterward, outside the courthouse, Davis said the judge was fair and his client would now "pay dearly" for her "lapse in judgment." Hopefully, he said, she can put her life back together when she's released.

"It's a shame," he added. "At 19 years old, she's right at the stage where she should gain her independence, and now she's going to lose it."