By Meg Kinnard
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Bruce Windsor lived the life of a respectable family man - father of four, deacon in his South Carolina church, youth soccer coach, a volunteer who helped build orphanages in Brazil. Then four days after his 43rd birthday, authorities say, he donned a mask, wig and sunglasses and tried to rob a bank at gunpoint.
Windsor brandished a black revolver inside Greenville First Bank on Feb. 26 and demanded that bank workers fill a bag and two boxes with cash, according to an FBI affidavit. But police caught on and trapped Windsor inside with the bank workers for 90 minutes before he surrendered to a SWAT team.
Windsor, it turns out, was falling down a financial hole. A real estate investor who ran several property business, his troubles predated the recession but continued as the housing bubble burst and easy credit for businesses and consumers dried up.
At his bond hearing, Windsor's tearful sister told a judge her brother must have fallen on hard financial times and cracked under the stress.
"This is something Bruce has never done," Lisa Weaver told the judge. "The only thing I can think of is he must've just snapped under the pressure. ... I can't imagine the desperation that must have caused this."
Clad in an orange jumpsuit, his hands cuffed at his waist, Windsor calmly told the judge, "I've never stolen anything in my life."
Windsor is one of a growing list of unlikely suspects, ordinary people from ministers to ex-cops citing financial duress since the start of the recession in late 2007 for allegedly turning to a crime that targets fast cash - bank robbery.
Money troubles, specifically job losses, have also been named as possible motives in at least four of the mass shootings that have scarred the country this winter, including the deaths of 13 people and a gunman in Binghamton, N.Y., the killings of three police officers in Pittsburgh and four more plus the shooter in Oakland, Calif., and the deaths of 10 people and a gunman in south Alabama.
Bank holdups haven't grabbed the same attention, but industry figures show they go up during recessions, and experts say the pressure inevitably pushes some otherwise law-abiding people to find themselves accosting a teller at a window.
"I would expect, as the downturn continues and lasts well over a year, that we will see more and more cases like this one, of someone without a record feeling they have no options and turning to crime," said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
The latest FBI statistics tallied 1,617 bank robberies in the fourth quarter of 2008, up from 1,358 in the third quarter and 1,561 a year earlier, although there are no statistics that differentiate between first-timers and repeat criminals in bank heists.
Cases that have been in the news besides Windsor include a Georgia minister, an ex-cop in Florida and a single dad in St. Louis - all blaming dire financial straits for their arrests.
James Creason, a 51-year-old music minister at a south Georgia church, was arrested in August on charges he used a handgun to force tellers to hand over $36,000 at a bank where he was known and where his ex-wife had worked. Authorities say Creason was caught after a brief car chase and told them he was sorry and had fallen on hard financial times.
Creason is being held without bond until his trial. His attorneys have said they plan to pursue an insanity defense.
In Ohio, retired bank teller Barbara Joly was sentenced in February to nine years in prison for robbing four banks. Her attorney, Chris Atkins, said the crimes were attempts to support an adult son who'd fallen on hard financial times. Joly and her husband decided they couldn't afford to give their son any more of their own money, so she robbed the banks to continue to help him financially.
A police patrolman in the southern Illinois university town of Carbondale was arrested and charged in January with robbing a bank there last October. Prosecutors said high school valedictorian James Gaddis, 27, carried out the crime with a friend because of money troubles as his home faced foreclosure. Gaddis is free on $1 million bond and has pleaded not guilty.
"If the charge is proven true, Mr. Gaddis not only violated the law but also betrayed his oath of office and the trust which his fellow officers and the citizens of this community placed in him," Mike Wepsiec, the county's state's attorney, has said.
Also in January, Donald Keith Giammanco was charged with robbing 12 St. Louis banks from November 2007 through last September. The unemployed, single father of twin teenage daughters told police he stole more than $100,000 to provide for his children. He had filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in September 2007.
In South Carolina, Windsor filed for Chapter 7 protection in 2005, a year after he was handed more than $83,000 in fines in five separate lawsuits involving debt collection and contract disputes. At the time, he listed just over $3,000 in assets, with debts totaling more than a quarter-million dollars. A foreclosure case was dismissed, and a lawsuit filed in January over breach of contract is still pending.
But if Windsor's stress was building, those around him say they didn't see it.
"I'm confident that he just internalized a lot of feelings," said Ralph Carter, pastor at Brushy Creek Baptist Church, where Windsor and his family are members. "I have apologized to him that I wasn't more sensitive to the need. But no one here knew anything was about to trigger that kind of response from him."
Carter, who has known Windsor for nearly a dozen years, describes his friend as a disciplined, clean-cut man who never used profanity, took numerous mission trips to build orphanages in Brazil and even spent time in his youth as a fashion model.
The incident has left Windsor's wife stunned, the pastor said.
"She just feels so badly that she didn't recognize this coming," said Carter, who added Heather Windsor has told him she knew nothing about any troubles in her husband's mortgage and construction businesses. "She was absolutely shocked and devastated that it happened. You look back, and you say, 'Was this a sign, or was that a sign that something was coming?' But there was just no indication at all, on any of our part."
Windsor remains in jail, unable to pay the $3 million in state and federal bond set on charges including armed robbery and kidnapping. If convicted on all counts, he could face more than 60 years in prison.
Windsor's attorneys and his wife have declined to comment on the pending case. Carter, who has visited Windsor in jail, said he wishes he had known something was troubling his friend.
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"We all make mistakes, some more costly than others," Carter said. "But one bad decision doesn't change who somebody is."