TAMPA — In a courtroom late Tuesday, a man offered a woman words of encouragement.
"You are a survivor," he said firmly, kindly. "And you will make it, with the love of your family, particularly your husband.
"You'll get past this."
The woman, 50-year-old Cindy Carabeo, had just been ordered to prison. The man, U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore, was the one who sentenced her.
Carabeo made national news in May when the Valrico mother robbed three banks in 30 minutes and explained upon arrest that she needed money for rent and her daughter's high school graduation party.
The consequences? A three-year prison sentence, followed by three years of supervised release.
It isn't every day that federal judges give pep talks to bank robbers. But Carabeo, by all reports, was a woman struggling with anxiety, depression and fibromyalgia, whose life was further derailed by job loss after prescription drugs began to affect her performance.
She had told him about the difficulty of going from helping others from a human resources job at Coca-Cola Refreshments to being regarded as a liability because of mood swings. She was let go last year.
"I found it very hard to understand how I couldn't find my place to be able to help myself," she said in court.
At various times, she was taking Xanax for anxiety, Prozac for depression and Lyrica for fibromyalgia, according to testimony.
She told psychiatrist Troy Noonan a month before the robbery that the Lyrica, prescribed by a neurologist, was affecting her moods, he testified. He said he recommended something different.
Carabeo said the events of May 11, the day of the robberies, are a blur to her. She had difficulty even that day telling investigators which banks she had robbed, but they knew.
She hit branches of BB&T Bank, Wells Fargo and Florida Central Credit Union, collecting $6,309 before a dye pack blew up in her station wagon.
The judge noted, for the record, that no one had been hurt in the robberies.
But he couldn't go along with Carabeo's attorney, Howard Anderson, who sought probation or house arrest, rather than prison time.
Carabeo had no prior criminal record, and had carried nothing more lethal than pruning shears on the day of the robberies.
But bank tellers didn't know what she had in her big black bag. She had given them a demand notes threatening their lives. She also planned the crime enough to wear a hat and sunglasses, and she read about dye packs, Whittemore said.
The judge weighed all that activity alongside testimony that Carabeo struggles with mental illness.
"I cannot in good faith put someone on probation who walks into a bank and makes that kind of threat," he said.
To do so would be viewed by some as a mockery, he said.
Under sentencing guidelines, Carabeo could have faced 51 to 63 months in prison. Whittemore lowered that range to 37 to 46 months by agreeing to consider her mental and emotional conditions, as permitted by a provision in the guidelines.
He then shaved off another month, using his judicial discretion. And he agreed to allow Carabeo to self-surrender to the U.S. Marshals Service when called, which typically takes several weeks and will most likely allow her to spend the holidays with family.
Her husband, Jose Carabeo, had described his wife of 28 years as a kind, loving person, one who always makes sure others eat before feeding herself.
"Just understand, it's not her," he said.
What had happened to turn a law-abiding woman into a robber? Whittemore said he is often mystified by bank robberies. With silent alarms and dye packs, the robbers all get caught, he said.
"Maybe that was your way of escaping the stress and anxiety you felt," he said. "I don't know."
Carabeo's psychiatrist testified that she may have experienced "delirium," a medical condition in which bizarre behavior occurs without cause, triggered by factors such as sleep deprivation, infection or drugs.
"It's the best explanation I can give as to why this happened at this time," Noonan said.
Contact Patty Ryan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.