At 28 Thomas E. Bruce, a mentally ill Vietnam veteran, stares out the window of his Northwest Washington efficiency apartment and speaks with bitter resignation of an out-of-court agreement that has effectively banished him from his Virginia home.
"I have got to live with this till the day I die because of the way justice in Virginia has treated me. I done lost my wife and everything. What more do I have?" he asked, drawing deeply on his cigarette.
Convicted of shooting a store owner in rural Virginia last year and later charged with murder in a separate incident, Bruce now lives the life of an exile. He was released from Albemarle County jail last week after agreeing not to return to the state before 1988.
That agreement, sharply criticized by Virginia Attorney General Marshall Coleman as probably unenforceable, followed a decision by the Albemarle County prosecutor to drop the murder charge for lack of evidence.
Bruce spent eight months in jail before the murder charge was dropped. During that time his wife, Linda, left him. He now passes most of his time in his apartment watching television, or looking at photographs of himself and his wife together. He also thinks a lot about going home.
When he leaves the apartment, he says, he uses aliases. "I just don't want anyone to know anything about my past. I've been railroaded. I don't want no more trouble. I want a new life."
Bruce's probation officer, Sterling Proffitt, said last week that once the murder charge was dropped Bruce was a free man, that the agreement, not to return to Virginia was purely voluntary.
Bruce's account differs considerably. "He [Proffitt] told me the only way I could walk out of the jail was if I caught the first train smokin'," Bruce said. "If I'd known I could have walked out of jail I wouldn't have signed it."
Bruce's attorney, J. T. Camblos, and Proffitt both said Bruce signed the agreement "without pressure."
"I didn't have no other choice. They wouldn't let me out of jail," Bruce said yesterday.
Attorney General Coleman is now looking into the agreement. "There seems to be a lot of conflicting opinion as to what happened there," an aide to Coleman said.
For Bruce, the banishment is the latest blow in an adult life marked by internal conflicts and disappointments. He speaks slowly of his Army experience in Vietnam that led to his being mentally disabled.
"I couldn't stand the violence, constantly being shelled and mortared. I lost my best friend over there. A lot of people thought we were brothers 'cause we were together all the time," recalled Bruce, who says visions of combat still haunt him.
"My mind definitely wasn't on earth anymore. I hated tractors, anything that could kill."
Bruce was treated for his mental disorder in 1970 at Walter Reed Army Hospital, but is not currently receiving medical care. He lives on veterans' disability checks.
"I kind of miss being at home," he said, speaking longingly of the tiny town of Esmont, 20 miles south of Charlottesville, where he grew up and where he lived until recently with his mother.
"My mother, my father, stepfather, brother, aunts and uncles - they're all at home. I can't even see my mother." CAPTION:
Picture, Thomas Bruce silhouetted in his D.C. apartment: "I've got to live with this till I die." By James A. Parcell - The Washington Post