The 73-year-old grandfather, who walks with a slow shuffle and needs help carrying the pots he sells at his garden store, said he didn't want to hurt anybody. But he said he needed money — $600.
Police say James W. Bruce managed to rob three South Tampa banks in the past month and get away undetected before people recognized him in a surveillance video released Wednesday night.
He told detectives he needed money for the mortgage. His retirement had run out. In time, he said, he planned to pay it back.
They served search warrants on his business and home, interviewed his tearful wife and charged him with three counts of bank robbery. He's in jail, his bail set at $22,500.
Thursday morning, detectives descended on Something Different, the West Shore Boulevard shop he opened with his wife about a decade ago. The owner of the neighboring hair salon locked her door, worried that Bruce had been robbed or hurt. And Michael Lopez, the manager of the plant shop next door, watched in shock as detectives escorted Bruce out.
Lopez knew him as Jimmy. The former Air Force airman had never been arrested in Florida, nor had police needed to visit his home or job before Thursday. He lives in a modest home blocks away with his wife and a cat named Niedermeyer.
"It makes no sense to me," Lopez said.
Bruce always waved at neighbors and stopped to talk, often about how slow business was. The economy didn't help sell fancy imported planter pots, he would complain to Lopez. Nor did the recent cold weather.
Bruce tried to wave at Lopez Thursday, but his hands were in cuffs.
Financial records show some liabilities: an $11,095 debt to Capital One Bank and a $66,000 mortgage on the home he bought in 1994, which is now assessed at about $177,000. Bruce told police he collects Social Security.
For the past several weeks, Bruce had been hitting up friends and neighbors for cash. He said it was for gas to fuel his old pickup truck and for the business. Times were tough, he said. One man gave $20. His wife gave $20. Delia Urrutia at the hair salon gave $10.
How could she not? He was the nice old man who took her trash out Thursday nights. He told her he'd pay it back. He said he'd landed a side job.
That was after police said he'd robbed his first bank.
It was a Bank of America on Jan. 15, police said. He didn't carry a gun. He slipped a teller a note and walked away with the cash. He did the same at a SunTrust on Feb. 1. And from the second Bank of America on Feb. 10, police said he fled in his pickup.
Each time, he asked for $600.
Now, the FBI is involved.
That's what happens when you rob banks, said Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis. No matter who you are.
"I think it's really easy to have some sympathy for him, but there's also a lot of sympathy for victims in the bank who were probably afraid for their lives," she said. "I think he had good intentions, but the choice he made is probably going to cost him potentially the rest of his life in prison."
Times staff writer Jessica Vander Velde and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.