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Valrico man's life spirals downward into failed bank robbery

State prosecutors have dropped charges against Robert Nelson Thomas, 38.

State prosecutors have dropped charges against Robert Nelson Thomas, 38.

VALRICO — While sipping on a beer, Robert Nelson Thomas decided to rob a bank. It was June 18, 2009.

Tired of being broke and living in the barn behind his mother's home, the 38-year-old got on his silver mountain bike and pedaled as hard as his bad back would let him.

He ended up in the Sweetbay Supermarket parking lot about a half mile away, just past what was then a Washington Mutual Bank.

As he walked inside the store, Thomas thought about how he had $50 to his name. He thought about the few pairs of jeans, shoes and T-shirts he had left.

As he picked up a tall can of Natural Light, he thought about what his life used to be like.

Three years before, he was making $22 an hour. He had a house, wife, kids, cars and a boat. Since he was 15, he'd worked as a shipyard sandblaster and painter.

Over the years, the hard labor and other accidents ravaged his body. Thomas had five ruptured discs in his back, a metal plate in his foot from a motorcycle accident and 22 screws in his arm from a car collision.

He put off quitting work for as long as he could. He was denied disability when he finally applied in 2002.

Thomas had no choice but to go back to work. By 2006, he quit again. Without a paycheck, he lost the house, the car and the boat. He separated from his wife.

Two years later, he was arrested for driving drunk. A few months later, he landed back in jail for leaving the scene of a crash.

After he drank his beer in the parking lot that June day in 2009, Thomas looked over at the bank. He pulled the beer receipt out of his pocket along with a pen.

On the back of the piece of paper he wrote, "Money now." He figured with whatever he got, he could make it to Costa Rica.

Inside the bank, an arrest report states that Thomas slid the note over to the teller. He will never forget how the man looked at him and shook his head.

"I'm sorry to tell you this, but we're broke and we don't have any money here," Thomas remembers the teller saying.

At the time, the failed bank was in the midst of a takeover by JPMorgan Chase. Thomas then requested the teller's wallet. The man refused, according to the arrest affidavit.

Thomas asked for his note back. He put it in his pocket, went back outside, got on his bicycle and headed home.

It wasn't long until Hillsborough County Sheriff's deputies arrived at his mother's house. Deputies had been looking for a man on a silver bike. A neighbor pointed him toward Thomas' home. After a brief chase through the woods while his mother watched, Thomas turned himself in to detectives.

State prosecutors eventually dropped the charges. The teller said that he wasn't in fear during the robbery, and didn't think Thomas was a "legitimate robber," according to court documents.

Sitting in his back yard recently while sipping on a Natural Light, Thomas said the only lucky thing that's ever happened to him was getting off. Maybe if he gets disability this time around, that will make two.

He knows that he'll never try to rob a bank again. That was the dumbest thing he's ever done, he said.

"The bank teller told me I was the nicest bank robber he ever met."

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com, or (813)661-2454.

Valrico man's life spirals downward into failed bank robbery 04/08/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 8, 2010 2:59pm]
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