Less than two years later Piatt, 21, is headed to prison, a convicted bank robber. His parents and others who know him are struggling to understand how a young man who never had been in trouble with the law could stray so far afield in such a big way.
A Snohomish County judge on Thursday asked the same question before he sentenced Piatt to five years in prison for the Jan. 23 carjacking and bank heist in north Everett.
"It has to be something. It doesn't happen out of nowhere," Superior Court Judge Bruce Weiss said.
Piatt, armed with a gun, approached a 16-year-old girl at the college and forced her to drive him to a bank. He threatened to the kill the girl if she left. Once inside the bank, Piatt threatened to kill the teller if the man didn't hand over money. Piatt made off with $8,000. He returned to the girl's car and forced her to drive away. He threatened to track the girl down and kill her before he got out of the car.
Piatt spent the stolen money on a used car, strippers and a plane ticket to Puerto Rico.
Weiss questioned whether there was something in Piatt's difficult childhood in Ethiopia or some other issues, including a mental illness, that might explain Piatt's erratic and ultimately criminal actions.
Piatt's father offered some explanation in a letter he wrote the judge. He and his wife adopted Piatt from Ethiopia. He said while his son excelled at track and cross country, he struggled with his schoolwork. He couldn't keep up at college and dropped out, his father wrote. His son also lived with clinical depression.
"We know that the crimes to which he pled guilty were serious crimes, and we would not diminish their gravity nor make excuses for their commission," the man wrote. "We were, and still are, shocked that Bereket would commit such serious crimes and threaten innocent people in the process."
Piatt was sentenced to the maximum under the law. Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Chris Dickinson explained that he agreed to drop a kidnapping charge in exchange for Piatt's guilty plea. The teenage victim and her family, he explained, didn't want to have anything to do with the criminal case. Dickinson said he wanted to spare the girl from having to testify at trial.
The girl was frightened by the gunman's threats and didn't report the incident to police until the day after the crime.
Police eventually released images of the robber captured on the bank's surveillance cameras. Tips poured in from members of the college community who identified Piatt as the suspect.
Friends and associates later told detectives that Piatt had admitted to them that he'd forced a girl to drive him to a bank he robbed.
His friends told police Piatt immediately began spending the stolen money at a Seattle strip club and on a used car. He also told friends that he planned to flee the country.
Piatt declined to say anything Thursday. Weiss tried to get Piatt to open up, but the defendant didn't offer any answers.
On Thursday, his father asked the judge for leniency.
"We can offer no rational explanation for his erratic behavior. But we hope and pray Bereket has not wandered down a one-way street; that Bereket can return from his errant path and still make good in society," the man wrote.
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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