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What turned a law-abiding grandfather into a robbery suspect?

TAMPA — Was something not right with James Bruce?

The day after the 73-year-old man with a clean past was charged with robbing three South Tampa banks, those who knew him wondered.

His wife told neighbors there might be something wrong with his brain. His family told detectives they worried about his memory. He kept asking friends for cash — $10 here, $20 there — even after the bank robberies.

He told police he stole to pay the mortgage, they announced after his arrest Thursday.

Maybe so. But two experts contacted by the Times on Friday offered a different take on those actions. They saw behavior consistent with a condition called frontotemporal dementia. That's what happens when the front part of the brain — the internal boss that helps people act within social norms — starts to deteriorate.

The experts, psychiatrist Daniel Amen and University of South Florida gerontologist Brent Small, haven't met Bruce, but speculated based on reports of the case.

Police say Bruce walked into a Bank of America on Jan. 15 and slipped a teller a demand note. They say he did the same on Feb. 1 at a SunTrust Bank and on Feb. 10 at another Bank of America. The first two times, he left on foot. The third, he brought his old pickup. He never used a gun and never covered his face. Each time, he asked for $600.

"Why only $600 if you're going to rob a bank?" Amen asked. "Why not $60,000?"

In the demand notes, the robber characterized his actions as something other than a robbery, and police said Bruce told them he intended to repay the money.

"You sort of do the same behavior over and over again," Small said, "like it's without consequence."

All three robberies were caught on video, police said.

Tampa police Detective Melinda Reuis said Bruce's family expressed concerns about his mental state because he sometimes has problems with his memory. But in the 90 minutes she spoke to him and four hours total she spent with him, she said she noted no memory problems.

"He's not losing his mind," Reuis said. "For a 73-year-old man, he's pretty with it."

Amen, who operates brain clinics across the country, said frontotemporal dementia impairs the part of the brain that handles planning and impulse control. Everyone has fantasies, but those with dementia are more likely to carry them out, he said.

Perhaps the most indicative sign that there is something wrong with the brain is a recent change in personality and behavior. Social graces start to slip, said Small, a professor in USF's School of Aging Studies.

Delia Urrutia owns the hair salon next-door to Bruce's garden shop, Something Different, on West Shore Boulevard. A few weeks ago, he asked to borrow $10. Others were getting the requests, too — $20 for gasoline, another $20 for recreation.

"I've known him for 10 years," she said. "He never, ever, ever before asked for money."

Police say Bruce told them he robbed the banks because his wife was stressed about money, and that made him stressed.

Bruce's wife took care of their finances, he told police. He took out a 30-year mortgage in 1994 for $66,500 on a home with a current market value of $177,000, county records show. Capital One Bank won a judgment against him last year for $11,095.

Times reporters visited the homes of four of Bruce's relatives Friday. Three declined to comment. A letter and phone message left for his wife went unanswered.

Michael Lopez, who manages a plant shop next to Bruce's business, saw the surveillance video from the bank. He said he can't believe Bruce was operating at his full mental capability.

"He just walked in and thought he wasn't going to be spotted," Lopez said. "It's like, what the hell was he thinking, you know?"

News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.

What turned a law-abiding grandfather into a robbery suspect? 02/12/10 [Last modified: Sunday, February 14, 2010 1:04pm]
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