Troy Gross Sr. was supposed to turn himself in at a federal prison in Pennsylvania on Feb. 20 to serve an eight-year sentence for possessing an illegal handgun.
Instead, on that day he walked into a Wachovia bank in Northeast Baltimore, pointed a gun at a 67-year-old woman and threatened to open fire if he didn't get money. It was the second time in three weeks he had held up the same bank branch on Northern Parkway.
The woman fainted. An off-duty Baltimore police sergeant who was working security shot and wounded Gross.
Yesterday, Gross hobbled into the courtroom on crutches, still in pain from his injuries, escorted by federal marshals. U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett said he regretted his earlier decision to let Gross report voluntarily to federal prison. He gave the man the stiffest prison sentence he could under the law: nearly 53 years and 10 months.
"I froze, thinking innocent people might have been hurt because of my act of mercy. ... It caused me great distress," Bennett said he had thought after learning Gross had been involved in two bank robberies. "There's no question that the public needs to be protected from this defendant."
Gross had pleaded guilty in June to bank robbery and brandishing a firearm. Under federal sentencing guidelines, Bennett gave Gross the stiffest penalties possible because he has been convicted of felonies more than three times, giving him the status of career criminal.
In addition to the sentence for the bank robberies, Gross also has to serve the eight years for the handgun conviction in November, for which he had been scheduled to report to federal prison Feb. 20.
Gross was first convicted as an adult of robbery in Baltimore when he was 17 years old, prosecutors said. At 23, he was convicted of drug dealing. He had two more robbery convictions in the mid-1980s, according to official statements made in court.
In January 2005, Gross was a witness to a triple slaying in a Remington halfway house. But after Gross was shot and arrested in the bank robbery in February, city prosecutors dropped murder charges against a suspect against whom Gross would have testified, partly because his credibility was now considered to be poor. That murder suspect remains imprisoned for life on another murder conviction.
Gross, armed with a Walther P38 handgun, first robbed the Wachovia Bank branch in the 1700 block of E. Northern Parkway on Jan. 30 and escaped with $11,520. Wachovia hired extra security. Gross came again Feb. 20.
This time, prosecutors said, he grabbed the female customer and pointed the gun to her head. After she fainted, Sgt. Robert B. Eiseman, a seven-year veteran of the city Police Department, heard that Gross said "robbery," saw the gun and fired, hitting the suspect several times.
Gross has spent 17 years of his life in the Maryland Division of Correction, Jeffrey E. Risberg, his federal public defender, said in court yesterday. "He spent his entire time, between young manhood and middle age" in state prison, the attorney said.
Risberg said Gross has had cocaine and heroin habits since he was about 18 - addictions that he said continued unabated while he was incarcerated and after he was released. Risberg pleaded with Bennett to impose a slightly lesser sentence, to give Gross some hope that he could one day be free, even in his old age.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Bonnie S. Greenberg argued for the stiffest possible sentence for Gross. "On the day he was supposed to be reporting for an eight-year sentence, instead he walked into a bank and terrorized a group of people," Greenberg said. She said one employee quit the bank because of the incident.
Greenberg said Gross might have fired a shot, but forensic testing of a projectile found at the scene could not provide a direct link to the suspect's gun.
Gross appeared to be in pain yesterday, frequently wincing as he sat through the proceeding. He complained that he was taken out of the Supermax prison in Baltimore early yesterday, before medical staff could give him his pain medication.
Given the opportunity to comment, Gross told the judge that after he was shot, he was hoping he would die. He apologized to the police sergeant, who was in court yesterday. He said he watched the surveillance video and noted that the sergeant "appeared to be very concerned" for him after he had shot him.
"I ask for his forgiveness, for putting him in that position. ... But for my God, I wouldn't be here," Gross said.
At the end of the proceeding, Bennett said he wanted to reiterate his praise for what Eiseman did at the bank on the day of the attempted robbery. "The fact that he was there to protect the people. ... I salute you, sir, for the job you did."