TAMPA — Vickie Bruce saw so many police officers when she pulled up to her West Shore Boulevard garden shop that February morning, she thought someone must have been murdered.
She never expected the alternative:
That her 73-year-old husband, a retired Air Force veteran who had never been in trouble with the law, had robbed three South Tampa banks.
That reporters would stake out her home and label James Bruce the "Grandpa Bandit."
That she would wait a month for him to return from jail and nine more to get assurances that she wouldn't lose him to prison.
To her relief, the strange and stressful episode ended Monday with a plea. Her husband, whose questionable mental competency had delayed the case's resolution, exchanged an admission of guilt for 10 years of probation.
"Can you tell me," the judge asked him, "what in the world happened … that would cause somebody that has been law-abiding their entire 74 years of life to suddenly commit these crimes?"
"Financial distress," James Bruce responded.
Later, Vickie Bruce told the St. Petersburg Times more.
They met 18 years ago through mutual friends, she said. She saw a nice guy, a gentleman. Each was the other's second marriage, and they vowed to grow old together.
In the 1990s, he retired, and they opened their garden shop. The imported pots were Vickie's domain. James continued to work on his own, with machines.
His lifelong career was instrumentation, the science of measurement and control.
But the economy plummeted. For the first time in his life, he wasn't getting work.
And there was something else he couldn't control: Age-related damage to his brain.
His wife noticed little changes. Her always-nice husband became short and quicker to quibble. He worried about money.
They both did.
She didn't know that early this year, he had started asking friends and neighbors for loans.
And she had no idea about his decision to rob banks, which he did on Jan. 15, again on Feb. 1 and then again on Feb. 10.
He wrote a note demanding $600. He called it a loan, but ordered tellers at three different banks to wait before sounding alarms. He was captured on surveillance video and once arrested, he admitted it all.
"I think depression had a lot to do with this," his wife said.
Had Bruce chosen to go to trial, he would have faced a maximum of 15 years in prison on each of three second-degree felonies.
But prosecutors didn't want him to go to prison, said Assistant State Attorney Kyle Pennington. They recognized Bruce had no prior arrests, and he was unlikely to reoffend. They knew age played a factor, too.
His public defender had him evaluated, and when a doctor questioned his decision-making abilities, two more doctors took a look.
"From the very beginning," Pennington said, "it was evident that something was strange with Mr. Bruce."
His lawyer said he was competent Monday when he admitted his guilt and accepted his sentence.
He already has returned the $600 he stole from SunTrust Bank and plans to repay the same amounts to two Bank of America locations.
Circuit Judge Gregory Holder recognized his lack of criminal record and the fact that he didn't use a gun. He withheld adjudication, meaning Bruce is not a felon.
"For 74 years, you've been a law-abiding citizen — paying taxes, going to work, doing everything you're supposed to do," Holder told Bruce. "No one should ever be seen as a number or statistic. . . .
"I certainly hope and pray that you've learned from this and that indeed your life is now stable with respect to the many complications you've faced in the past that perhaps led us to this day."
Vickie Bruce wants the judge to know she is grateful that he considered the special circumstances of her husband's case.
"It's like after spending almost an entire year in limbo," she said, "you can actually start thinking about the future again."
She and her husband are now focused on meeting the terms of his probation, addressing medical issues and finding ways for him to stay busy and feel useful. He still wants to work.
"It's an end," she said, "and a beginning."
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354.