Tormented, he robbed banks to restore sense of power

August 18, 1991|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

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.

*

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.

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