Wife of carpenter accused of bank robbery talks about life since his arrest

DISCOVERY BAY — Kateen Fenter knows the meaning of the phrase, “fate worse than death.”

She’s living it every day.

“When someone dies, you can start over. They’re not in pain. But when someone goes to prison who still loves and misses you, you have to deal with that every day,” she said.

She is the wife of Michael J. Fenter, a marine carpenter who was arrested Oct. 8 for investigation of robbing a Bank of America in Tacoma of $73,000 while armed with a .40-caliber handgun and a box allegedly containing explosives.

He is being held at the federal detention center in SeaTac awaiting trial April 6 in U.S. District Court in Tacoma.

The trial has been postponed several times, the latest by U.S. District Court Judge Benjamin Settle.

No prior criminal record

The FBI suspects Fenter of having a connection to three other West Coast bank robberies from February to September 2009, and is investigating. He has not been charged with those three robberies.

He has no prior criminal record.

To Kateen Fenter, 38, who was busy making a home and building a farm in Discovery Bay, it’s all been “surreal.”

She looked vulnerable Friday, seated in the farmhouse she and Michael were renovating, slim fingers curled around a rose-patterned tea cup, long brown hair falling over one eye, as she talked about the last four months.

The life of her family came to a “screeching halt” the day the FBI called to tell her Michael was in custody, perhaps for a very long time.

She feels angry, betrayed and abandoned.

“I’ve spent four months grieving; grieving the loss of him, and the loss of income,” she said.

“I really wasn’t able to do anything but lie curled up on the floor of the library and cry. I came really close to dying, I grieved so deeply.”

While the farm lay fallow, she drove to SeaTac once a week to visit Michael in prison for two hours.

“We can sit in a room and hold hands,” she said, her voice breaking. “I can give him a hug and kiss when I come in and when I leave. We all miss him.”

The couple have three children, who don’t visit as often as she does since it is a draining all-day effort.

Their conversations are monitored, so Kateen has not been able to ask her husband if what he is accused of is true.

“I’ve had to become at peace with not knowing,” she said. “There aren’t any answers. There aren’t going to be any answers.

“I just have to be content with that.”

Out of character

All she can say is that it is completely out of character for the man she has known for 25 years.

She describes him as calm, quiet and creative; a musician and carpenter with an attention to detail and a love of American history; a great dad and husband.

His library, where she found solace, is full of his books and instruments, signs of a curious mind and creative bent.

And if he did what they say, she sees him as “Robin Hood,” although she didn’t expand on the reference.

“I respect him and I love him,” she said.

Compass Rose Farm

Before that day the FBI called, Oct. 9, the family was building a life with a bright future: Kateen and her mother, Bev Fairing, are the legal owners of the Compass Rose Farms LLC, on property the Fenters purchased in 2007.

The farm produces wool, honey and produce sold at local farmers markets.

Michael, a graduate of the Northwest School of Wooden Boat Building in Port Hadlock, worked outside jobs to bring in money until the 40-acre commercial farm near Discovery Bay was able to earn an income.

Kateen’s father, Robert Fairing, drives a truck for Haney Truck Lines out of the Port Townsend paper mill and helps supplement the farm income.

Kateen is angered by media reports that proclaim “farmer arrested for bank robbery.”

“Michael was not the farmer, I am the farmer. Mike’s the carpenter,” she said. “The farm is a business that is owned by my mother and me.”

The farm was a long-held dream for Kateen, and was made possible by a partnership with the Jefferson Land Trust and three other nonprofit organizations. Financing was arranged by ShoreBank, a nonprofit institution that finances rural economic development.

The Fenters moved to the Northwest from Denver in 2002, and have lived near Port Townsend for about six years.

In Denver, Michael had worked selling electronic components, and did some modeling.

“He left the money job for the dream job,” she said. “He said since I moved to the high desert for him, he would move to the water for me.”

After graduating from the boat-building school, Michael worked at Sea Marine in Port Townsend, but quit that job in January, 2009.

He began working out of town shortly after that.

Their life, it seemed, was going according to plan.

Teen sweethearts

The couple had dated since Kateen was 14 and Michael 16, in a town in Oregon.

They married when she was 18, and celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary on Sept. 15.

Two weeks later, Sept. 30, they celebrated Michael’s 40th birthday with a dinner at Alderwood Bistro in Sequim.

Then, to Kateen’s knowledge, he returned to his job out of town.

Just over a week later, he was arrested and jailed.

When the FBI called to tell her he was in custody, she was in shock and denial.

“I called where he worked and where he was staying,” she said. “I wanted to make it not true.”

She declined to say where he was working, but said his workplace confirmed he had been at work until that day.

She had to tell their three children that their father was in jail.

She said it’s been very hard on them, but that they have received nothing but support from their friends, schoolmates and teachers.

Elijah is a sixth grader at Blue Heron Middle School in Port Townsend, Caleb is a sophomore at Port Townsend High School and LaVaughna is a senior at Chimacum High School.

Classmates and teachers have been supportive, but the kids’ grades have suffered since their father’s arrest, and Elijah has been sick much of the winter, she said.

“I’m trying to keep things as normal as possible, but it’s not easy,” she said.

Farm’s future uncertain

Without her husband’s income, the future of the farm is uncertain.

If the family can’t get the loan restructured, they will lose the farm and their home, she said.

Kateen sees a terrible irony in her husband being cast as a bank robber.

“We had $10 in the bank, four broken-down cars and no doors on the kids’ rooms,” she said. “It’s not like he handed me a million dollars one day. There’s no money.”

Friends and family have been her rock through this trying time, working on the farm, weeding, planting and preparing for spring.

Kateen said she is signed up as a vendor at the Port Townsend Farmers Market, and has two farming interns helping her on the farm.

As she talks about her fears for the future, she fingers Michael’s wedding ring and the St. Michael’s medallion she wears on a long chain around her neck.

“People don’t understand why I wouldn’t leave him,” she said.

“What I want to tell them is, if you would walk away, you don’t have the kind of relationship we do.

“When you are 75 percent of the other person, you can’t walk away and leave yourself.”

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Features Editor Marcie Miller can be reached at 360-417-3550 or [email protected]

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