'Man in Black' seeks to withdraw guilty pleas, sentencing canceled


A sentencing hearing for a serial bank robber known as the "Man in Black" was canceled Monday after the defendant requested to have his six guilty pleas withdrawn, the Pioneer Press reported.

Sheik Bilaal Muhammad Arafat, 51, who changed his name in July from Mark Edward Wetsch, handed a motion to the judge's clerk just minutes before the sentencing was supposed to take place. The motion claims he Arafat had been coerced into pleading guilty.

Arafat was expected to receive a 14-year prison sentence as part of a plea deal.

Prosecutors have until Dec. 9 to respond, the newspaper reported.

Arafat is accused of holding up 31 banks in a 2012 robbery spree, averaging one bank every eight days over an eight-month period. He ultimately pocketed $108,710.

Arafat grew up in a Roman Catholic family in East Grand Forks, Minn., was educated in Catholic schools, sent his children from his first marriage to Catholic schools and donated to Catholic causes. The Pioneer Press said Arafat is now an "ardent" Muslim who claims to be married to two Somali women, with whom he has three children.

He previously maintained he is being persecuted because he sympathizes with the terrorist group al-Shabab.

Earlier this fall, the Mankato Free Press reported that he asked the U.S. Marshals Service to address him by his new name. The story said that he has been held in the Sherburne County Jail in Elk River for most of the time since his arrest.

In April, Arafat pleaded guilty to five of the 13 robberies he was indicted on and admitted, in court, to the others. But in a legal memo filed Thursday, he told U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson that a sentence that long would be "unconstitutional" and he may back out of the deal.

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