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Accused hostage-taker receives lowered bail Defendant in Towson credit union siege says $150,000 bail is still far too large.

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

A man who police say held workers at a Towson credit union as hostages before he released them unharmed and surrendered to Baltimore County police saw his bail reduced from $1 million to $150,000 today in Towson District Court.

"I couldn't make it [bail] at $10,000," Eric Cornell Wheeler, 29, of no fixed address, told Judge A. Gordon Boone Jr.

Wheeler was released from the Baltimore City Jail in November, after serving half of a six-month sentence for assault and resisting arrest.

He was released on 15 months' probation, but never reported to his probation officer, according to information presented in court today. He has earlier convictions for disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace.

He is now being held on kidnapping, armed robbery and handgun possession charges.

Wheeler, a tall man with a short beard, appeared in court today wearing a blue prison jumpsuit over a white plastic hooded jacket that he used to hide his face from television cameras.

Wheeler said he considered a $1 million bail merely a way of denying him any bail, and he snorted derisively when Boone lowered the amount to $150,000.

The man who yesterday tried to rob the credit union told the hostages he was a member of a shotgun-wielding gang that authorities believe may have committed more than two dozen robberies in recent weeks in the Baltimore area. He was armed with a 9mm pistol though, not a shotgun.

The gunman promised that the robberies would continue no matter how many of the gang were arrested.

"He said he was the shotgun bandit," said Lisa Brinkley, 22, of Chase, a customer services operator at the credit union and one of the hostages. "That he was on television, that he wasn't going to get caught. He said the robberies would continue. That for every person that was caught, more would be recruited."

The suspect, who was taken into custody about 4:15 p.m., was questioned for some time before police were satisfied they had his correct name, police spokesman E. Jay Miller said.

Police believe Wheeler to be one of five young men, four wearing trench coats and at least one armed with a shotgun, who entered the State Employees Credit Union at 8503 LaSalle Road just before 3 p.m. yesterday.

One of the men placed a brown briefcase on the bank counter, opened it and produced a handgun, which he waved high in the air as a signal to the others, police said.

Customers inside the credit union, including an off-duty state trooper and his wife, were ordered to the floor by two of the men, while another vaulted the counter and demanded cash from tellers, police said.

One employee managed to call police, who arrived quickly but not in time to catch four of the gang, who were said to have fled in a blue 1988 Nissan sedan.

The fifth man somehow got left behind. When he ran from the credit union, a marked police cruiser and an undercover police car were just pulling up, police said.

So the man, described as 6 feet, 2 inches tall, of medium build and wearing a blue-and-white sweat suit, --ed around the side of the two-story credit union building and re-entered the building through a side door. There, he encountered four employees, whom he ordered to the floor, police said.

Police said the man then went to the second floor, where he locked 13 other workers in a room and frantically demanded to be shown another way out of the stone office building.

He removed ceiling tiles looking for a way to the roof and had some of the employees rip the curtains from two windows in the room, saying he was going to have them jump, police said.

As dozens of police swarmed the area and a State Police helicopter flew overhead, the man ordered several women to stand by the windows and the door as human shields, so police wouldn't shoot him, Brinkley, the credit union operator, said.

Outside, police blocked off LaSalle Road, between Joppa Road and Putty Hill Avenue. Workers in seven office buildings on LaSalle Road were trapped in their offices.

Members of the county police SWAT team -- wearing black armored helmets and bulletproof vests, carrying assault rifles and bullet-blocking black shields -- surrounded the credit union building.

A police sniper was stationed atop an adjacent building, facing the credit union entrance.

Immediately after the robbery, a number of employees from the credit union managed to escape, but some 36 other workers were trapped in the basement of the building.

One woman hid in a bathroom on the second floor, near where the 13 were being held. Another woman called police to say she was hiding under her desk.

Many of the employees in the basement called boyfriends, husbands and wives to tell them they were trapped at work during a robbery. Those relatives began showing up, but were not allowed to approach the credit union building.

Back in the hostage room, Brinkley said, the man ordered everyone to the floor and was using the intercom to try to signal his partners, who he thought might also be trapped in the building.

He ordered a hostage to call downstairs. "I want you to find out what happened. I want to know if the other guys were captured," Brinkley quoted him as saying.

Brinkley said the man made racist comments about whites, then released three black women so they wouldn't be hurt. A short time later, he released three other non-whites, one of whom was Asian.

Fran Perry, 65, another customer services operator and the mother-in-law of a county police lieutenant, said the man began asking her about her children and grandchildren.

Then, he let Perry and two other, older workers leave, keeping four young women hostage.

"There was a lot of racial remarks about white people," said Brinkley. "He said white people have all the advantages and black people don't have anything."

Both Brinkley and Perry described the man as constantly talking, at one point going on about religion and the Persian Gulf war. He prayed, too.

"I was scared to death," Brinkley said. "And I thought we were going to die."

The man said he was angry because he had been fired from a job unjustly.

"He treated us well," Perry said. "He did a lot of talking. I think he was upset and frightened as well."

Police inside the credit union heard the man paging his cohorts over the intercom and called him on the telephone.

A hostage negotiator told him his friends had gotten away and urged him to surrender before anyone got hurt.

Finally, about 4:15 p.m., the man released the four women and surrendered to police.

Police are hoping a man in a red station wagon, who was outside the credit union when it was being robbed, will call them at 887-2017. Miller said the man yelled a license number to police, then left. Police are unsure if they got the tag number down correctly.

Outside the credit union, Vance Scovens, whose wife, Vennetta, was trapped inside, anxiously waited until her release. He said he was thankful she was unhurt.

Other friends and relatives of credit union employees, as well as many curious by-standers, stood on the Towson Market Place parking lot about 400 yards from the credit union building, waiting for some news of the hostages.

Terry Conroy's girlfriend, Kim Schnepfe, 24, works for the accounting office on the union's first floor. She called Conroy, a test engineer at Westinghouse, shortly after the gunmen entered the building.

"I never thought my girlfriend would be in a hostage situation. Never in my wildest dreams," said Conroy, 27.

"She said they were being held up and she just wanted to tell me," he said. "I asked her if she was safe, and she said for the time being.

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