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Judge allows 73-year-old bank robbery defendant to go home

TAMPA — Hillsborough Circuit Judge Gregory Holder often jokes that he would not let even his mother out of jail on her own recognizance.

But Friday morning, he made an exception for a 73-year-old man accused of robbing three South Tampa banks.

Saying James W. Bruce's circumstances called for "somewhat unique justice," the judge ordered him to be released without having to post bail.

Bruce, an Air Force veteran with no prior record, spent 29 days behind bars.

Financial troubles appear to have landed him and kept him there. He told detectives he needed the $600 he took from each bank — using demand notes but no gun or mask — for his mortgage. He said he planned to pay it back.

In court papers, Vickie Bruce, his wife of 18 years, said she could pay their mortgage or her husband's $22,500 bail, but not both.

The couple waved to each other Friday in court, where Vickie Bruce spoke about the man who worked alongside her at their struggling garden store until his Feb. 11 arrest.

"Mrs. Bruce, what in the world is going on with your husband?" Holder asked. "How did he end up here today?"

"I don't have a good answer for you," she said. "The little things that I've seen along the way have alarmed me, but I haven't been able to imagine at all that something like this would happen."

She continued in a soft voice.

"Simple things seem to confuse him," she said.

Attorneys said Thursday that there are mental health issues to explore in the case.

Assistant Public Defender Jason Isaac said his client previously suffered a stroke.

James Bruce walked into the banks he is accused of robbing. In court this week, he sat in a wheelchair.

According to his motion seeking reduced bail, he did not receive medication in jail for his severely enlarged prostate. He also had swollen legs, possibly a side effect from not getting the medicine, his attorney wrote.

Dr. Beth Weaver, medical advisor for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, said Friday that despite Bruce initially telling the jail staff he had no medical conditions, he was treated for his prostate and swollen legs once those issues became apparent. He was moved to the infirmary March 5 and remained there until he left jail Friday afternoon, she said.

Bruce could get up to 45 years in prison if convicted of three counts of bank robbery.

Assistant State Attorney Kyle Pennington did not object to his release.

"This is an unusual case," he said.

Managers at the three banks had no comment Friday.

Holder isn't the only one to give special consideration to Bruce's lack of a criminal record and desperate financial situation. Tampa police requested that the case be prosecuted in state court rather than at the federal level, spokeswoman Laura McElroy said.

The judge struck a gentle tone with Bruce but warned him to comply with the law, show up for court hearings and take care of any medical issues.

Holder tacked on a special condition to Bruce's release.

"Stay away from banks," he said.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Judge allows 73-year-old bank robbery defendant to go home 03/12/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 12, 2010 11:25pm]
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