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Hostage Halts Robbery 'Like In the Movies'

Headed to the bank, James Spruill drove erratically on the Beltway, getting a state trooper to pull him over, then jumped the gunman in the back seat.
Headed to the bank, James Spruill drove erratically on the Beltway, getting a state trooper to pull him over, then jumped the gunman in the back seat. (By Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)

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By Aaron C. Davis and Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 28, 2008

Speeding on the Capital Beltway, James Spruill knew he had to act fast. His wife and boys were packed into the family car, and a masked man was in the back seat, jabbing a loaded gun into his 11-year-old son's ribs.

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Twelve hours earlier, two gunmen had forced their way into his Prince George's County home. Spruill said they tied him and his wife up with cords from a clock radio and a PlayStation, holding them overnight in separate bedrooms and keeping the two children in a third. The men had said they would hold the boys hostage and use his wife, an assistant bank manager, to rob her branch in the morning.

"I wasn't sure what was going to happen," Spruill said. "A lot of times, criminals don't leave witnesses."

Spruill had gotten lucky once. The gunmen allowed him to drive to the bank. Then, about 7:30 a.m. yesterday, within a few miles of the target, Spruill got another break: In his rearview mirror, he saw a Maryland State Police car approaching quickly on the Beltway's outer loop near Route 1.

Spruill, 40, began to swerve his red Mitsubishi Gallant slightly. The one gunman who accompanied them didn't notice -- but Trooper Barrington Cameron did.

Cameron, a 22-year-old rookie, pulled the car over and walked to the passenger side, where Spruill's wife was seated. Spruill glanced back at his son, tilting his head to motion the boy away from the gunman.

In an instant, Spruill was in the back seat, pinning the man's hands and screaming about the gun. The trooper pulled his weapon, and the ordeal was over.

Late yesterday, the suspect was in custody and a search was on for the other man. Spruill, a maintenance worker with Metro, his wife and children -- the 11-year-old and his 8-year-old brother -- were back in their home in Clinton, shaken but unhurt.

"He put his family first, jumping on the guy with the gun," said Lt. Carl Miller, commander of the College Park barracks. "He did what most people would have done with their families bound up like that. Whether they would have done it to that degree, I don't know."

Spruill described the ordeal in an interview, denying the mantle of hero but saying he played "psychological games" with his family's abductors and gained advantages that made the difference.

"They were a bunch of amateurs," he said.

The attempted bank robbery, though unusual, comes three months after a similar attempted robbery in Southern Maryland. Both involved a scheme taken straight from the plot of Hollywood thrillers.

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