Tormented, he robbed banks to restore sense of power

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ALLENWOOD, Pa. -- He was a workaholic congressional aide who liked a round of golf and a six-pack of beer when he could find the time. That's how just about everyone saw Thomas Springer a few years ago.

He spent 15-hour days bustling about Capitol Hill for key meetings and TV interviews, shaping policy statements and helping run political campaigns. He was reliable and loyal, with the sort of blandly pleasant face one trusts implicitly for sound, if unexciting, counsel.

Then along came a lonely night in April 1989, when Mr. Springer downed a few beers at his Silver Spring apartment and decided it was time for a career change: He would become a bank robber.

He scrounged up an empty box to use as a fake bomb and gathered some Little Tavern hamburger bags for carrying cash. He scribbled a robbery note with an appropriately threatening tone, warning of a bomb in the box and demanding money, then went to bed.

At 6 the next morning he woke up, swallowed a prescription tranquilizer and iced down a 12-pack of beer. He drove to a Bethesda branch of Maryland National Bank, where he kept an account, then parked in a nearby lot to finish the beers one after the other. Needing further resolve, he walked across the street to buy another six-pack, and when that was gone, he walked into the bank. It was around 10:30 a.m. He handed the note to a teller.

A few minutes later he was driving home with $3,000 stuffed into the Little Tavern bags. Later that week, he would return in the same car to the same bank to deposit some of the cash to his account. He used the drive-in window. No one was the wiser.

Three months later, the FBI found Mr. Springer sitting in a grove of trees behind the same Maryland National branch, looking bewildered and blankly forlorn a few minutes after his third and final robbery.

Thus began the long journey back to stability, sobriety and, he hopes, Capitol Hill, for the 42-year-old Mr. Springer. Last week, in an interview at Allenwood Federal Prison Camp here, he spoke publicly for the first time about the torment that led to his strange personal odyssey.

By telling his story, he said, he hopes to encourage others facing deep personal problems to ask for help before being similarly engulfed by bizarre misjudgment. But he is

also hoping, along with his loyal but still stunned friends, that he will keep holding his demons at bay well after leaving prison in October.

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Figuratively speaking, it is a long way to federal prison from the Chevy Chase neighborhood where Mr. Springer grew up, a shaded, prosperous warren of old homes belonging to professionals, government higher-ups and bankers. Mr. Springer's father was one of the latter.

Mr. Springer decided on a career in media or politics at an early age, and after college, he began a series of Washington jobs that by age 34 landed him a position as press secretary to Wisconsin Republican Representative Toby Roth in 1983. And in an office that other staffers said was known for its pressure and heavy demands on time and energy, "Tom was the stable one," said Christopher Lloyd, a Roth legislative assistant then. "He was the anchor in the office." Mr. Springer's own anchor, however, had been slipping.

In college he had suffered a nearly catatonic anxiety attack after splitting up with a girlfriend. But perhaps the biggest psychological blow struck him right at home the same year he went to work for Mr. Roth, say friends and relatives.

Mr. Springer had moved back home after several of his roommates left to get married. It wasn't an easy choice. Throughout his life he'd butted heads with his father over just about everything, he said. He agreed to pay rent to his parents and set up a basement apartment.

But his father had second thoughts about the living arrangement not long after he'd moved in. And, when Mr. Springer didn't move out quickly enough, his father had him evicted by a court order. They didn't speak to each other again until after Thomas Springer's arrest, six years later.

His parents declined to be interviewed for this article. "We are a close-knit family, but I would just prefer not to give an interview," John Springer said by telephone.

Mr. Springer's aunt, psychiatrist Helen Ossofsky, sees the robberies as Mr. Springer's way of taking something, anything, from his father -- the bank executive -- that he could never get before. When told of this, Mr. Springer said, "Yeah, my brother had mentioned that, too. But I don't buy it." He then paused. "Although, who knows?"

Whatever the causes of his anxieties, he increasingly sought solace from them in beer, and by 1987 the weekend habit had become an everyday medication. That came just as he seemed to be peaking professionally. In 1986 he not only had scored political successes but also had accompanied the congressman a meeting with then-Vice President Bush.

But in late '87, Mr. Springer began moving from job to job, first going to work for another congressman, New Jersey Republican Matthew J. Rinaldo, then working briefly for a Republican congressional challenger in North Carolina. He ended up back with Mr. Roth, helping with the closing weeks of the 1988 campaign, only to walk off the job five days before the election.

After that he mostly kept to himself, living off his savings and ignoring job offers while drinking more and more beer. He was also taking Ativan, a prescription tranquilizer for anxiety. It also 11 magnifies the impact of alcohol.

The only stabilizing influence left in his life was his girlfriend, but even that relationship was falling apart.

Two weeks after he turned 40, an April 13 news account caught his eye. It was about the approaching 20th anniversary of the first manned flight to the moon, and it took him back to 1969. "I was in college then, and I remembered reading in the paper that this guy had robbed a bank. He had said that when he saw man step on the moon, he realized that we're just a little speck in a huge world, and it made that bank seem very, very small."

That set wheels turning in his mind. In a sense, he'd always felt like he operated on a level of infallibility, separate from others. "Then I found that wasn't happening for the last few months," he said.

fTC He suddenly decided that a bank robbery would "rekindle that feeling of being all-powerful. At the time it seemed so simple. It was the excitement. 'This is the best. This is the biggest.' It was perceived to be a tough target, and yet I felt like I could just go in there with a note and carry it off easily."

So, he made his plans for the robbery the next morning and went to bed. By the time he awakened, his mind had registered the plan as an imperative. "It was like an out-of-body experience. . . . I felt like I was under orders to do this. I had made a commitment to myself, so I kind of carried it out without any conscience."

When he returned home, he tossed the cash into a file drawer and fell into a stuporous, beery sleep. He awakened in early afternoon.

"I was stunned, and I thought, 'Oh my God, did I?' I was trying to think, 'was I dreaming or did I really do it?'. . . So I left my bedroom and went into the room where I have my filing cabinet, and opened that up, and looked in there and saw all this cash. And I shut the drawer immediately and said 'Oh my God.' And I walked into the living room and just kind of sat there, thinking. I expected a knock at the door at any moment."

The knock never came, neither then nor after the second robbery a month later of a Crestar Bank a few blocks from the Maryland National. He told no one of the robberies and in between each he tried to put the event out of his mind. But there were reminders.

One day with his girlfriend, he said, "We were in the car, and I went around the corner, and I had all this stuff on the --board. All these papers fell off and I had a lot of cash underneath. And the cash came off and fell in her lap and went down on the floor, and she said, 'My God, what did you do, rob a bank?' I just told her to pick the stuff up."

On July 19, his girlfriend broke off their relationship. "It was the absolute bottom," he said. "It was like hell had a trap door. And I went home about 11 that night. . . . I was kind of mad and wanted to strike back at something." He struck back at the Maryland National branch.

This time his preparations had a new twist. He began tidying a few loose ends of his life, writing long-overdue notes and letters and finishing chores around the house. He feels now that he sensed the end of the line. The next morning, he drank his first swallow of beer and vomited.

"I stopped and I thought, 'I've got to call auntie,' " he said of Mrs. Ossofsky, who had become his family lifeline in times of trouble. "I was thinking, 'I give. World, you've got me.' " But he didn't call. "I just summoned up some more of whatever it is you need to bull ahead."

Although he remembers few details from inside the bank during the first two robberies, the third is still vivid in his mind. After handing the note to the teller, he said, "I can remember standing there, and I was overcome with 'I don't want to be here. I want to get out of here. Forget all this.' And I remember leaving the bank." He walked across the parking lot and into a grove of bushes and trees, then sat down.

"I was thinking, 'No more. No more.' I was going to sit there and let the whole world go by. After a few minutes I started hearing police sirens coming from everywhere."

The sirens closed in. He heard people speaking, coming nearer.

"Then I heard something maybe 10 or 25 feet away, and somebody went, 'There he is!' So I was sitting there with worried fascination and heard a voice say, 'Go get 'em.' And I looked up and there was this dog in midair, coming right at me. I put my left arm up over my face, and the next thing I remember was I woke up in the hospital."

The dog belonged to the police, and its bite left a deep gash in his upper arm, closed by 12 stitches. When he points to the scar, he finds one of the many silver linings he is fond of discussing. By practicing with a stick, he said, he has found that the tendon damage has corrected a longtime flaw in his golf swing.

There were other, more immediate, benefits. His parents visited him in jail and have stayed in touch.

Now, after months of alcohol and drug rehabilitation and counseling followed by a year at Allenwood, Mr. Springer feels he is ready for the trials of the world at large. He is due for release Oct. 25, and in the meantime he is running, lifting weights, playing softball and writing a book, tentatively titled, "Recalled to Life," after a phrase by Charles Dickens.

He also regularly attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and takes doses of lithium to keep his emotions on an even keel.

When he gets out, he said, he will look for work on Capitol Hill. The robberies will make him a tough sell. "For anybody who doesn't want to hire me, that will be a very convenient thing for them to use. But you only need one job, and there are a lot of them out there."

Friends aren't quite as optimistic, though they admire his progress and determination. But even if things go poorly, and even if his anxieties return full-blown, Mr. Springer said next time he'll have help.

"That is the central lesson to my story," he said. "When people have serious problems, there is a tendency of a lot of them to go it alone, for fear that asking for help would be seen as a sign of failure. They are just bullheaded and will plow their way through. . . . But all you have to do is raise your hand and ask."

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