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Once an electrician to Potomac’s elite, a 72-year-old bank robber heads to prison

According to police, these surveillance images show James Wersick robbing banks in Montgomery County. He was charged with committing six heists dating back to 2012 and pleaded guilty to one of them. (Montgomery County Police)
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The graying of America’s prisons is well-known. By the year 2030, experts say, at least one out of every 10 inmates will have aged past 60.

What’s so different about Maryland’s James Clyde Wersick is the age at which he entered the state prison system this month: 72.

“They usually come in much younger,” said James Austin, a corrections consultant who studies aging inmates. “This cat is a very unusual situation.”

And his case has been that way from the start.

A skilled electrician, Wersick spent decades working inside million-dollar homes in Potomac and Bethesda — a business that slowed as he entered his 60s, prompting him to begin robbing banks. Armed with a small semiautomatic pistol that he pointed at tellers and customers, police say, Wersick hit six banks over an eight-year stretch in which chronic health conditions and coronavirus shutdowns further weighed on his finances.

“I got to a point where the phone just didn’t ring anymore,” Wersick told Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge David Boynton last month, moments before receiving his prison sentence of five years. “Sometimes, desperation gets in the picture.”

For years, Wersick stayed one step ahead of Montgomery detectives, who knew only that every year or two an older man wearing a variety of face coverings would strike. They finally caught him last summer when he walked out of a PNC Bank flush with $7,717 and the sudden realization that his earlier reconnaissance acumen had failed him.

“How did you get here so fast?” Wersick asked Officer Mark Gribble as the patrolman wrestled him down to the sidewalk.

Wersick pleaded guilty to armed robbery in just one of the heists. Prosecutors dropped charges in the other five as part of his agreed-upon sentence.

In a lengthy interview last year with detectives, though, Wersick admitted to the other robberies, explained why he committed them and offered insights on life as an electrician in Potomac. Wersick told detectives that his weapon — a rusted-out German 6.35mm Walther — didn’t actually work. But he was quick to note that none of the tellers and customers who stared down its barrel knew that.

“I’m not harmless,” he said. “I’ve scared people.”

Earlier coverage: Wersick nabbed after pulling heist 100 yards from cop

Wersick grew up in the Bladensburg area of Prince George’s County and after high school entered a union apprenticeship program. He went on to earn his master electrician license, building a business by word-of-mouth and referrals.

“I’ve worked in over 200 homes in Potomac alone, okay?” Wersick said in court recently. “They left me alone in their home with their kids. They left me in their homes while they weren’t there.”

He also started a hardware supply business that he sold off too early, according to his attorney, who noted it was still operating in Hyattsville.

“He just wishes he didn’t give it up,” said David Grover. “That was one of his mistakes that he says that he himself made in life.”

By early 2012, with no family around and in need of cash, Wersick began eying a branch of M&T Bank in a shopping center in the heart of Potomac — the intersection of River and Falls roads, according to court records. He soon walked inside dressed in a white jacket with hood, brimmed cap under the hood, and a white plastic mime-style mask under the cap. He carried a small umbrella and a small gun, demanded money, and left with $3,444, according to a police affidavit filed in court.

“Just did that and saved to tide me over,” Wersick would later tell Detective Jose Guzman, according to a transcript of his interrogation.

In early 2014, a similarly behaved robber hit a Capital One branch in Bethesda. Eleven months later, an M&T branch in Kensington was robbed — this time by a man in a black balaclava, with a slender leather case hanging from his neck, possibly holding a police scanner, and a wire extending up to an earpiece. The heists netted $22,150 and $12,769, respectively.

Wersick said he again put the money toward bills and business expenses.

“That’s really not that good of an excuse,” he acknowledged. “But it wasn’t like I was out there looking for fame or anything. I wasn’t looking to retire.”

Wersick hit two more banks, police said, as his threats seem to grow worse.

“Hundreds, fifties and twenties!” he yelled from behind a pair of sunglasses to bank tellers in Kensington, according to court records. “I know where you live! If you give me a dye pack, bait or GPS, I’ll get you and I’ll get the whole family!”

For four years, according to court records, Wersick stayed away from banks.

His health worsened — bad knees, diabetes and ulcerative colitis, according to court records — while he still tried to ply his trade.

At a job in Potomac, Wersick told detectives, he tried to reach for a rafter in an attic but slipped, falling through the ceiling into the main bedroom.

“You know one thing about people in Potomac,” he said. “They’re all good-natured people as long as everything’s going okay. But when something happens that they’re not expecting, they’re not very polite.”

The morning of Aug. 4, 2020, Wersick said, he woke up hungry — having last eaten a tuna fish sandwich the day before. He was three weeks behind on rent and two weeks away from receiving his next Social Security check, according to court records.

He entered a Potomac PNC with two accessories consistent with a global pandemic (medical mask, latex gloves) and two that weren’t (glasses with flip-up shades, black handgun.) His actions quickly went out over the police radio.

Officer Gribble was nearby and zipped over, spotting Wersick ambling down a sidewalk, where he took him into custody.

“I was in the parking lot right across the street,” Gribble told him.

A short time later, in an interview room at police headquarters, Wersick was allowed to call a couple he had known for years — a conversation that was picked up by the recording system.

“I tried to rob a bank this morning,” Wersick told his friends, “and it didn’t work out too good.”

He told them how much he loved them and was convinced that going to the confines of a prison amid a pandemic with his chronic ailments was a death sentence.

“I don’t have a gravesite, a grave plot or anything, but I did want to have my ashes sprinkled on my grandmother’s grave,” Wersick said.

Covid-19 has not been as lethal in Maryland’s prison system as Wersick feared. To date, 33 of the approximately 17,000 state inmates have died of covid, according to state figures.

Wersick finds himself one of about 230 inmates 70 or older. He told Boynton, the judge, that he wants to teach an electrician’s class behind bars, imparting life lessons that he’d started giving to young inmates inside the Montgomery County jail while he awaited his sentencing.

“I’ve told them all, ‘You know, you got to leave this crap behind,’ ” Wersick said in court. “ ‘You don’t want to end up like me.’ ”

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He wouldn’t let anyone into his home. Police found his dad’s decomposing body under a file cabinet