Until he hanged himself with a pair of tennis shoelaces in a Fairfax County jail cell yesterday morning, Robert Wayne Corbett was just a "toad" (inmate) to authorities -- a common criminal with no fixed address, no known relatives and no friends.
To police, the 30-year-old Brooklyn native was known only as "The Star Wars Bandit," a lone gunman who struck movie box-offices in four states in 1977 -- always at theaters showing the smash hit, "Star Wars."
At the jail he was "the lawyer," an articulate inmate who had managed to get $30,000 worth of law books for the inmates, a man whose services were so valued that the county sheriff used him to draft thank-you notes to his political allies.
But to acquaintances in Washington, Corbett was a smart and savvy promoter and producer who suddenly left town after several theatrical flops put him deeply in debt.
Not until jail authorities pulled a crumpled note from his pants pocket -- a page from the current "Who's Who in Finance and Industry" -- did they realize that Robert Wayne Corbett had hidden his celebrated past from them.
"I'm completely stunned," said Sheriff M. Wayne Huggins. "It's amazing. We found a page torn out of the 1979-1980 'Who's Who in Finance and Industry.' His name was on it, with a listing of all his accomplishments."
The man Huggins regarded as a somewhat above-average jail trusty was in reality a talented concert and theatrical producer, director of advertising for Newsworks, a failed Washington newspaper, as well as director of advertising and promotion for the city's Janus Theaters. His shows, including the all-male "Ballets Trocaderos," appeared on the stages of Lisner Auditorium and the Old West End Theater.
Corbett's odyssey from the bright lights of the Washington theater scene to a darkened jail cell began three years ago after a series of business reverses, according to Martin Field, former owner of the Janus Theatres.
"He was depressed, and chose to become "The Star Wars Bandit,'" said Field. "In my opinion, it was a cry for psychiatric help. He was holding up these places with an unloaded gun."
"I don't think anybody pressed him for money, but he felt bad," said Freda Weinstein, a Washington friend."
According to Weinstein, Corbett hit on the idea of robbing movie theaters after seeing the film, "Fun With Dick and Jane," a comedy in which a financially pressed middle-class couple begin robbing banks for a living. "The things he knew best were movie theaters," said Weinstein. "And he had to pay his debts."
Arrested on robbery charges in four states, Corbett first served a brief jail sentence in Delaware. He was then extradied to Pennsylvania on similar charges, according to his Fairfax attorneys, Ian Rodway, but those charges were dropped.
Last year, he pleaded guilty to two robbery charges in Maryland before Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Richard B. Latham and was sentenced to two five-year jail terms, to run concurrently. "I knew that he was depressed," Latham recalled yesterday, "I knew he obviously had problems."
Before serving any jail time in Maryland, however, Corbett stood trial on similar charges in Fairfax County Circuit Court. He was convicted by a jury and recommended to be sentenced to 21 years in prison.
Latham said yesterday that if Virginia dropped the charges against Corbett, he would have also released him. "I was prepared to give him another hearing. I was going to turn him loose," Latham said. The judge said he received a letter from Corbett two months ago, saying his situation "hasn't worked out" in Virginia.
"After Virginia came down on him, he felt the situation was intolerable," said Field, who spoke by telephone to Corbett two weeks ago. "He just couldn't continue to exist in jail. He told me he was considering suicide. He felt jail was a total waste. I think it was the cumulative effect of being moved from one place to another."
Prison in Delaware was especially rough for Corbett, according to Freyda Weinstein who said Corbett told her he had witnessed a murder there.
Field also said Corbett felt isolated because he was a homosexual, and did not dare reveal that to other inmates. He also kept his recent troubles from his friends in Washington, several of whom expressed shock at the news of Corbett's suicide. "It's tragic," said Field. "I think he could have led a useful life."
"I'm just amazed that he would resort to crime," said Dorothy McGhee, former publisher of Newsworks. "He was such a sweet, nice guy, with the most winning smile. It leaves me breathless to think he'd take his life."
"He was so witty and bright," said former coworker Jeff Hyde. "He never seemed to be hurting for cash. I remember being totally shocked when I heard he had stuck up a bunch of theaters."
Fairfax Sheriff Huggins, also could offer nothing but disbelief at the suicide. "He displayed exemplary behavior. I saw him almost every day," Huggins said. "He was the jailhouse lawyer. When we wanted to update the jail's law library, we went to him to figure out what we needed."
At the jail Corbett had been accorded all the priveleges of trusty status: a cell that was never locked, the right to make telephone calls whenever he wanted. When two inmates sought to file a lawsuit against Huggins, Fairfax Board Chairman John F. Herrity and Virginia Corrections Director Don Hutto two weeks ago, Corbett wrote the brief.
"He seemed happy-go-lucky, always courteous, polite, friendly," Huggins said. "He was so articulate that I had him write all my thank-you notes to officials. Jail rumor it that he had finished two years at Howard Law School."
At 7:45 a.m. yesterday, Deputy J. B. Brickner walked past cell B4c to tell Corbett to report for his work assignment, Huggins said. A towel covered the cell window, a practice used to keep light out of the cell.
Brickner found Corbett hanging by the neck from an air vent at the end of a pair of tennis shoelaces. Frantically, Brickner tried to lift Corbett and break the laces with his hand, finally cutting them with a razor. Corbett never regained consciousness.
On the day before his suicide, Corbett had discussed his sentencing scheduled for Sept. 19, and gave no indication of depression or anguish.
"He apparently had had suicidal thoughts several years ago," said his lawyer yesterday, "and he was sent to a Maryland mental institution then for an evaluation."
Corbett was born in Brooklyn July 14, 1950, the son of John Emmett and Norma Francesca Corbett, and he earned a BA degree from Brooklyn College in 1972, according to the "Who's Who" article.
Rodway said he had been captured as he tried to flee a Delaware movie house after committing a robbery in 1977.
"He contributed significantly to this correctional institution," Huggins said. "It will be difficult, if not impossible, to replace him."
Friends said yesterday that Corbett rented an apartment on California street in the Kalorama section of Washington and several years ago thought his mother -- who was institutionalized in a New York hospital -- to live with him. "It was amazing," said Dorothy McGhee. "He never complained about it.
If I had known he was in jail I would have gone down there," said McGhee. "But I imagine it would have been a source of great humiliation to him. I don't think he would have wanted people to know."