Hostage Halts Robbery 'Like In the Movies'
Md. Family Is Held at Home, Then Forced to Drive to Bank

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.

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.

Police said yesterday that the assailants timed their attack as the 39-year-old woman returned home from her bank, a SunTrust branch in Silver Spring. At 7:30 p.m., as she entered the house in the 6800 block of Briarcliff Drive, they pounced.

Spruill said he was in the bedroom, preparing for work, when his wife called out. He rushed to the front room, where he saw two men wearing ski masks, one holding a gun to his wife's head. The men tied up the husband and wife, separating them, and forced the boys into their parents' bedroom.

The assailants spoke to their hostages in English but communicated with each other in Spanish. Spruill, bound in one of the boy's bedrooms, said he stayed awake all night, planning and listening as the men rummaged through his kitchen.

"It was like in the movies," he said. "You just had to think it all through and figure it out. I wanted to keep us all together."

In the morning, the assailants said one of them would stay at the house with the boys while the other went to the bank with Spruill and his wife.

Spruill fabricated a story to keep the family together. He told the men that his aunt was expected to visit that morning. He told them that if he was forced to call her to cancel the visit, he would find a way to let her know the family was in danger.

The assailants were fooled into changing their plan. The whole family would go to the bank, they decided. But there wasn't room for both would-be robbers in the car, so one would stay behind.

They headed for the bank, at Elton Road and New Hampshire Avenue. Spruill sped for much of 25 miles, hoping to get pulled over.

When Cameron flipped his lights on, the assailant pulled off his mask, showing his face for the first time. He instructed Spruill to tell the officer that they were headed to breakfast together.

On the right shoulder, approaching on the side away from traffic, Cameron asked for his license. Trying to alert the trooper that something was amiss, Spruill handed him his bank card. Cameron had by then noticed that someone in the back seat was making "suspicious movements," police said.

Cameron asked for his license again. Spruill unbuckled his seat belt and lunged.

After the traffic stop, state police and Prince George's police surrounded the house, concerned that the second assailant might have a hostage inside. About four hours later, police stormed into the house, finding it empty.

Detectives spent part of yesterday working with county police and federal authorities to identify the suspect apprehended in the car. He gave state police interrogators multiple names after his arrest, and police initially described him only as in his teens or early 20s.

About five hours after he was taken to the College Park barracks, the suspect attempted to hang himself by tying his shirt around his neck and to his cell door, police said.

Miller, the commander of the barracks, said the suspect was spotted quickly and cut down by a duty officer before he suffered any injuries. Miller said he was being held overnight at Prince George's County Hospital Center for a psychological evaluation.

Miller said little is known about the second assailant. He was described as black, 5-foot-7 and 160 pounds and was last seen wearing dark pants and black hooded sweat shirt.

A state police forensics team spent several hours combing through the family's home. Miller said those samples had not led to an identification last night.

On Sept. 24, a Southern Maryland bank manager and her two young children were abducted at gunpoint from their home. The suspects drove the woman to the PNC Bank she managed in St. Mary's County and held one of her children hostage while she went inside to get money out of the vault.

The next month, police charged three men and a woman, alleging that they secretly followed the bank manager for several weeks and planned the abduction and robbery. Police recovered about $110,000 of the $168,000 stolen, much of it buried in two safes in the back yard of one of the suspects.

Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan and staff researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company