(The following story appeared in Tampa Bay Life in 1989.)
Rosie Owen just wanted to cash a check. What she got that clear November morning was a few minutes of sheer terror that will last a lifetime.
“I had just gone up to the teller and she was verifying my check,” remembers Owen. “I heard an awful commotion behind me. I looked back and I saw – it looked like a giant, a man wearing a stocking over his head! He was a big man, close to six feet. He was heavy, kind of clumsy. He was waving a gun – he looked nervous. He told everybody to hit the floor.”
Twenty miles from Disney World, at 10:15 a.m. on November 14, 1988, the Florida National Bank branch at 6306 W. Colonial Drive in Orlando was being robbed by an awkward, six-foot-three, 370-pound bandit wearing pantyhose over his head, green surgical gloves and armed with a .22-caliber revolver.
“He kept yelling at the tellers to hurry up and put the money – all the money – on the counter.” He particularly asked for 50s and 100s.
“If you give me any dye, I will come back and kill you,” threatened the bank robber. “I’ll come back and blow some brains out!”
When the tellers had emptied the money from their drawers on the counter, the bandit came to Owen, 46, who was face down on the floor. He hit her on the shoulder with the gun and said, “Lady, get the money.” He gave her a gray plastic bag to collect the bundles of cash.
“I have no idea why he singled me out. Trying to make my life more miserable, I suppose,” says Owen. “I was so nervous, I kept fumbling the money. He said, ‘Hurry up, lady, or I’m going to start shooting!’
“He was really nervous. Afterward, everybody kept saying he must not have been a professional because he took so long. But part of the reason he took so long was I kept dropping the stupid money.”
Outside the bank, Glen Lannon, a 26-year-old landscape worker, was stuck in traffic, driving his company truck to a job. As usual, he was paying attention to everything but the other cars on the road. “My girlfriend always gets on me for looking all around and not paying attention to traffic,” he says. This particular day, his wandering eye caught something more interesting than a fast girl in a pretty car. This morning, he saw a big man hurriedly exit Florida National Bank and run to a silver 1985 Dodge Caravan.
“I seen him running. He’s a big boy; kinda looked suspicious. I said to myself, ‘I know what that guy’s doing,'” recalls Lannon. “I said, I’m going to catch that fucker.”
Just then, a red dye packet smoked and exploded inside the bandit’s money bag. Realizing the money was no good to him, he dropped it in the parking lot and took off in the van.
“I called my supervisor on the truck’s radio. I said, ‘Hey, guys, I’m going to follow this bank robber!'” Lannon’s boss had a phone in his car and alerted authorities. For the next 20 minutes, the young landscaper – who noted the van’s license plate had been removed but who didn’t know the bandit was armed – followed the bank robber from a distance, passing their changing locations on to the police through his boss.
The bandit became suspicious at a red light.
“He opened up the van door and leaned down like he was looking under the van,” says Lannon. “He looked back and seen me and made a quick turn-around. The police nabbed him right after that.” A .22-caliber revolver and stocking mask were found on the van’s floorboard. Ironically, the man was captured in front of an Orange County Sheriff’s Department sub-station.
(Lannon says Florida National Bank sent him a $1,000 reward and a letter of thanks. Ironically, the same bank later refused him a new car loan. “I didn’t have enough collateral,” says Lannon. “Too risky.”)
Back at the bank, the police brought the bank robber back in chains for witnesses to identify. Rosie Owen had no doubt this was the man who robbed the bank – Hillsborough Community College Director of Student Services William J. “Bill” Strawn.
“I cannot express the fear in words,” says Owen. “You start thinking about your family and the Lord. I thought, ‘If this is it, forgive me for what I’ve done … ‘ It was kind of hard for me to sleep for about a week after it happened. I’d start falling asleep and I’d wake up having nightmares about it.”
* * *
The jails of this country are filled with innocent men and women, law enforcement officials will tell you. They say that sarcastically because few ever admit to committing crimes of which they’ve been convicted. Bill Strawn is different. He confessed to robbing banks, first to the police, then to the Orlando Sentinel, then to Tampa Bay Life. Strawn has seen the evidence, he knows he had possession of stolen money, he knows he tried to get away. He claims he doesn’t know why he did these things and, if you believe him, he has no memory of the events themselves. He says he was in a seizure-induced trance each time a robbery occurred.
Strawn had actually robbed four Orlando banks by the time he was caught, netting more than $80,000. The junior college administrator says that in each case, he only remembers getting in his car to go to work and then – much later – coming out of a trance and finding a sack of money in his van.
“It’s a very strange case,” says FBI Special Agent Larry Curtin. The FBI was involved in a joint investigation of Strawn; Curtin says Strawn is not a suspect in any further bank robberies. “It’s unusual that someone in the position Mr. Strawm occupied would be arrested for and suspected of bank robberies. He was gainfully employed.”
Strawn, his eyes red and welling up with tears, insists his capture was the first time he knew for sure where the money came from.
“What would you do,” he asks, “if you were riding along and looked down and saw a garbage bag, a plastic bag, with money in it, wrapped up with things around it where you could see where it was from, and you didn’t know where it came from? What would you do? Would you go to the FBI?
Would ‘ya? No sir. Would you go to the police? What do you do? I had that dilemma. I didn’t know what to do. I wish, now that I look back, I had called Lee (Elam, his attorney and friend) and said, ‘What do I do?’ But I didn’t. I was afraid that all they’d do is arrest you. ‘Man, you robbed a bank, you’re under arrest.’
“Well, they caught me at it,” he says with resignation and shame. “They took me back to the bank several hours later, handcuffed, chains around my waist and walked me up to the window outside the bank, people everywhere, all around. And the people who had been there and witnessed it were inside saying yeah, that’s him.
“Thank God it was that (bank robbery) and not something more serious. Thank God I didn’t have this urge to go out and kill somebody or something like that. I look back now and I think it was like kleptomania or something,” he says. “It had to be. I don’t know how else to describe it.”
Legal and medical authorities don’t know how to describe it either.
A lifelong victim of concussions, seizures and two major auto wrecks, Strawn’s family, friends, ministers, former students and physicians are attempting to paint a picture of him as a long-suffering man in pain, a man beleaguered by demons, voices and blackouts. They have written 66 letters to Orlando Circuit Judge Jeff Miller begging for leniency and mercy on Bill Strawn’s tortured soul.
Independent experts and even Strawn’s own psychiatrist say his behavior could be explained by complex seizures and brain damage once – maybe even twice. But four times strikes all four of them as suspect. They’re not buying the former educator’s story.
Rosie Owen has read all the newspaper reports about Bill Strawn’s mental health problems. Unlike the bank robber’s friends and family, however, she saw what he did. She was the one he threatened point-blank with a revolver.
“He’s pulling wool over their eyes,” she says. “He’s no more sick than I am.”
Strawn pled no contest to four counts of robbery with a firearm in an Orlando courtroom. “It’s obvious,” says Strawn’s Brandon-based attorney, B. Lee Elam, “that on the one count (robbing Florida National Bank), he wouldn’t stand a chance, outside of the fact that he admitted it to a newspaper reporter. And I don’t think he is capable of standing trial. We got through the plea part and I had my fingers crossed. Then they told us to sit in the back of the courtroom while they filled out some paperwork. But we never got to the papers. The bailiff tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘You’ve got a problem.’ And I looked at him (Strawn) and he was having a seizure. So I knew he would never be able to get through a full trial. And I’ve noticed every time I’ve had occasion to have him come into the office, no matter how small an area or topic we’re covering, he has seizures. The smallest stress causes it. I was concerned that maybe trial stress might be life-threatening. … I just didn’t feel comfortable taking him through the stress of a trial. One count or four counts, it’s all the same stress on him. Maybe this is something a lawyer shouldn’t say, but Bill’s not only a client, he’s the closest friend I have. I had to consider that. I had to put that into the equation. Would I take a chance on seriously injuring a friend as well as a client?”
Some might suggest that Elam – who won an out-of-court traffic accident settlement for Strawn in 1983 and donated his services to Strawn pro bono – should have set aside friendship and let another lawyer handle the criminal case. Arguments can be made that instead of pleading Strawn nolo contendre, Elam should have attempted to have him declared not competent to stand trial. At least one nationally recognized psychiatrist examining his case believes that if Strawn were unable to contribute to his defense or control his behavior – demonstrated by the courtroom seizure – his own psychiatrist and attorney had a responsibility to seek to have him declared not competent to stand trial.
The crimes Strawn has pled to carry minimum mandatory sentences of three years each because a weapon was involved. In Florida, bank robbery is a crime punishable by life in prison.
* * *
While the cash from the Florida National Bank job was recovered, none of the money from three previous robberies has been located. Strawn says it never will be found.
“The first time, I put it in a dumpster at the college,” he says. “I put it in two bags so you couldn’t see through it. They came everyday and dumped our dumpster, about 4 o’clock. I put (the money) in it about 3:30. I looked out and there was this guy out there looking for aluminum cans. I had never seen that before – he was going through the dumpster. I nearly had a heart attack. I went out and chased him off. They finally came and picked it up.
“The others – I burned ’em in a 55-gallon drum (at his Plant City farm). I think if somebody went out there and looked in that drum, if they could identify ashes, they could identify that. … I thought about flushing it down the commode, but that’s a lot of flushing. And burning it is not easy. It takes a lot of gasoline and you gotta drop it in a few (bills) at a time. It’s not easy, it’s tough. You gotta stir it. It’s hard to burn money – it’s the hardest thing to burn in the world. I used gasoline and I stirred it, more gasoline, and I stirred it.
“I was scared to keep it. All I could think of was it had numbers on it so if you spent it they’d catch you anyhow. But I didn’t want to spend it. I’m really not a bank robber. I’m not a bank robber.”
Rosie Owen and the staffs of three banks – Florida National Bank (robbed Nov. 14, 1988), Southeast Bank (robbed May 1, 1987 and May 16, 1988), and First Union Bank (robbed Sept. 9, 1987) – might disagree.
* * *
“When I received the call from Orlando telling me Bill had been arrested I wondered if I knew him at all.”
Those are the words of Jean Strawn, Bill’s wife of 35 years. She wrote them in a letter to Orange County Circuit Judge Jeff Miller, begging for mercy on her husband. (Mrs. Strawn declined to be interviewed for this story. She attempted to have this story stopped after her husband had been interviewed at length – despite the presence of his attorney. She also threatened a lawsuit against Tampa Bay Life – “You’ll be sorry if you print any story about us … This is our lives and you better not print this.”) Two weeks prior to her husband’s arrest, Mrs. Strawn purchased the gun he used in the Florida National robbery at a garage sale for $20.
Strawn remembers the moment he had to call home and fess up to what had happened.
“(When) I called my wife, I said dont say anything. Just listen. I said, ‘I want you to divorce me. Tell my grandchildren I died. I want you to forgive me.’
“When I was arrested,” he says, “I was laying out on the concrete, face down. There must have been 30 guys with guns and I was cryin’: ‘Please shoot me. Please do.’ I started to get up and run, so they would. And then I thought, no, if I do that, they’ll think I’m really guilty of something.”
Strawn is a beloved figure in Plant City and at Hillsborough Community College. The inexplicable twist his life has taken has left friends and former co-workers wondering if they, like Jean Strawn, knew Bill at all.
“The whole community was just in total shock,” says Sadye Martin, a city commissioner and former mayor of Plant City. “He was just such a role model in the community for so many young people. When they said what happened, I thought it had to be somebody else. He was an upright citizen.”
Barbara Kent, editor of the Courier in Plant City, wrote an editorial about her friend that began, “Some things are hard to believe” and ended, “Say it ain’t so, Bill.”
“I can’t recall ever hearing anybody saying a bad thing about him,” says Donna Allen, HCC’s director of communications. “If you were down in the dumps, he’d do something to cheer you up. I thought the world of him. He was one of the nicest co-workers I had. I can’t imagine what happened. There’s something not right for someone to have that kind of double personality.”
Two administrators at HCC – Safety and Security Manager James A. Lassiter and Plant City Provost Charles Deusner – wrote sympathetic letters on Strawn’s behalf to attorney Lee Elam, which were forwarded to Judge Miller. Lassiter’s letter was written on school stationery; Deusner’s was not.
This is the second case of administrative mischief to rock HCC in the 1980s. Back in 1982, Ambrose Garner was pressured to resign as president of the community college after charges he sexually harassed female professors, administrators and students (“Sexual Politics at HCC: Did Ambrose Garner Go Too Far?” chronicled in the July, 1982 issue of the now-defunct Tampa Magazine).
* * *
Bill and Jean Strawn met as students at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green and have been together ever since. They live – along with all four of their parents, Strawn’s brother Richard, twin sons Terry and Perry, 29, daughter Valerie, 32, their spouses and children, six cows, five rabbits, five horses, two geese, a donkey and a goat, 21 people and 20 animals in all – on a 15-acre Plant City farm with an estimated market value of $300,000. They have lived there since 1981.
The entire extended family eats together every night at 6 p.m. in a screened-in dining room. “I use the (Strawns) as an example of what people and families should be like,” says family friend and attorney B. Lee Elam. “They live together; they eat together in a common area. They’re the most amazing family.”
There are a lot of little details about Bill Strawn that describe the kind of man his friends and family know. Born in Norfolk, Va. … Rose to rank of Eagle Scout. … Member, Sigma Nu fraternity at Vanderbilt, which he attended on a football scholarship. Tossed out of Vanderbilt in freshman year when his picture appeared on the front page of the Nashville Tennessean during a panty raid. … Transferred to Western Kentucky and added shotput and wrestling to his athletic prowess. … Declared 4-F by the military because of a bad shoulder. … Drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles as a linebacker/center but left after a few weeks in camp because of his shoulder. … Earned bachelors and masters degrees in counseling and guidance from Western Kentucky. … Learned to shoot a gun in ROTC. … Taught high school in Portsmouth, Va. and college in Kentucky (Lees Junior College) and West Virginia (Marshall University). … Enjoys gardening, fishing, crabbing. … Conducts bible study every Sunday at his home. … Doesn’t smoke and hasn’t had a serious drink of alcohol since 1955.
During 20 years with Hillsborough Community College, Strawn made a lot of friends and rose quickly from a guidance counselor to department head to dean of student services, in which he oversaw the library, counseling, advising, financial aid, custodial staff, admissions, records, job placement services, student government and newspaper. After a 1979 auto wreck, he took a lesser position as director of student services at HCC’s Plant City campus. Still, he was well-compensated for his work and years of service – he earned $46,500 in 1988, $52,000 in 1987. Strawn was suspended with pay from his position immediately following his arrest; he resigned in January.
Early reports indicate he was desperate for cash when an antique business run by his son Terry, 29, went bad – their combined debt was said to be $14,000. From 1982 to 1986, Bill also owned Heaven Sent Nursery. Both businesses operated from the Strawn compound in Plant City. In a telephone interview from jail immediately following his arrest, Strawn told the Sentinel, “I was going to work and I stopped and said, ‘I’ve got to get some money.’ I was in debt badly.”
That may explain one robbery, but not four.
Most people who earn $46,500 have a measure of debt between credit cards, auto loans and home mortgage. Few turn to bank robbery. They negotiate consolidation loans, extended payment terms. Anything to avoid the public humiliation of inventorying your trousers, shoes, blouses, knick knack shelves, bandsaw, fishing rods and surrendering your automobile to the bank.
According to their voluntary petition for personal bankruptcy, Bill and Jean Strawn owe $114,553.37 on their mortgage, $9,000 on the Dodge Caravan getaway van (since repossessed) and $19,252.57 in credit cards and medical bills. (Their list of unsecured debts includes notations for First Union Bank, Florida National Bank and Southeast Bank – institutions Strawn robbed – all with the word “undetermined” where the amount should be listed.) It is a lot of money but leveragable with Strawn’s income and property holdings. He knows he went to an extreme. And that’s what makes his case so strange. Bill Strawn doesn’t go to extremes. By all accounts he’s level-headed, even-tempered and quite bright.
Or at least he was until those two auto accidents.
“I used to be a hyperactive person who was everywhere,” says Strawn. “Now I’m slow. I don’t function like I used to. This is no cop-out, but I’ll guarantee if I hadn’t been in those two accidents, this would never have happened to Bill Strawn.”
* * *
Do you know Orlando very well?
I don’t. I really don’t.
You’re not familiar with the streets?
I have been to Orlando probably 10 times in my whole life. And usually when I go there it’s to a deans’ meeting and then right back.
Have you ever been there for a week?
No. In fact, I don’t have any idea how I found these banks. And frankly, I don’t even know where they are. If I had to take you to them right now, I couldn’t take you to any one of them.
You were charged with four armed bank robberies. Did you commit any bank robberies?
I had the bag of money. I dont know. … But from everything I’ve read, I think I did. I didn’t know what I did. I didn’t have any idea of what I did, from the time I left Plant City. I really couldn’t tell you. I didn’t know what I was doing. I really didn’t.
You don’t remember driving from Plant City to Orlando?
You don’t know why it was this bank and not that bank?
I have no idea. But I’ll say this: It’s not uncommon for me not to know what I did that day. It’s not. There are so many days that I couldn’t tell you one thing that happened to me all day long. On the others, I came to somewhere around Lakeland when I was driving back. I thought, ‘Oh, God.’ The last one, I came to when I was coming out of the bank.
You realized then that something was wrong?
That’s when I realized I had done something wrong, when I found the sack there. I wish I’d been caught the first time.
You remember burning the money the first time?
Oh, yeah. I was perfectly sane then. But I’ll tell you this – there wasn’t any way that I could figure out – and I still can’t figure out – any way to have turned it in. Especially the second and third times.
I’ve got my whole family saying, ‘Why didn’t you turn it in, why didn’t you tell us?’ My wife, especially.
Did she have a hard time understanding why you didn’t confide in her?
Well, yeah. Because I confide in her in everything. But this was a horrible thing to me.
The money was gone. What did you do then?
I prayed every night that I wouldn’t have this thing happen again. One day when this happened, the next day, two guys from the FBI came to visit me. It was about something unrelated, nothing to do with this. But it scared me to death. I thought, they must know. They must be checking me out.
* * *
Strawn’s claim to being unfamiliar with the locations of the banks he robbed is dubious at best.
The first two banks, Southeast and First Union, are both located on Sand Lake Road, mere blocks from Interstate 4. “Easy-on, Easy-off,” as read the fast-food drive-thru signs that beckon to hungry highway travelers. Theoretically, Strawn – who allegedly used a lever-action rifle in at least one of these crimes and a short barrel shotgun in others – could have exited I-4, robbed a bank and been 10 miles west toward Plant City before police arrived. Except that Sand Lake Road provides access to Orlando’s Hotel Row, International Drive, making ingress and egress slow at best. Authorities say banks in this area are frequent robbery targets; Southeast has at least six video cameras visibly trained on its lobby.
Explaining the choice of the Florida National Branch may be more complicated. Its West Colonial Drive location is far off the beaten trail, five miles – and a few dozen traffic lights – west of I-4. Along that route Strawn would have passed branches of almost every bank in town. But Strawn likely knew a faster route than I-4 to Colonial Drive because of his many years as a junior college dean. State Road 435 intersects I-4 and ends north at Colonial. How could Strawn, who claims to barely know Orlando, find his way across town on such a local road? Perhaps because Valencia Junior College sits midway between the bank and I-4 on S.R. 435. Even on this route, he had to pass branches of C&S, Barnett, Sun, and Orange Banks before arriving at Florida National. The route also passes the Mystery Fun House and under-construction Universal Studios Tour.
Just after being arrested, Strawn told the Orlando Sentinel he chose the tiny Florida National Bank branch over another institution across the street, The First Financial Center, abecause there were fewer cars in its parking lot.
What puzzles most people examining these crimes is – if Strawn planned the robberies – how he ever expected to get away unrecognized with a stocking mask over his face. His sheer girth – 370 pounds – made him memorable to witnesses; he couldn’t possibly be confused with a medium-build bank robber.
* * *
Tom Oatmeyer wrote a letter to B. Lee Elam, Strawn’s attorney, to be used in his defense. In it, Oatmeyer balances tales of Strawn’s humanitarian gestures with what he calls “unusual occurrences.” Once, he writes, his friend Bill gave a speech to HCC students and suddenly spoke in Turkish. Four Turkish students thanked him afterwards for his comments and asked where he had learned their language. That same morning, his secretary found a note he had written – in Arabic. A student had to translate; Strawn couldn’t read his own note. “It said that Bill would come by to pick up the president of Hillsborough Community College in a rickshaw,” writes Oatmeyer. The stories are also confirmed by another witness and letter writer, Earl Hartman. “It was very obvious … these experiences were tormenting Bill,” according to Oatmeyer.
In February, Jean Strawn asked Oatmeyer to “come quick, something was wrong with Bill.” He arrived to find Strawn in the midst of one of his spells. He announced he was leaving his family and never coming back.
“He left with nothing,” writes Oatmeyer. “I decided to check the airport because Bill loved flying. I arrived to find a ticket in Bill’s hand for a northern city. He had no luggage, (he was wearing) a short sleeve sport shirt and (was) going to a city that had temperatures in the 30s. When I went to him, he was in a daze. He acted like he didn’t know me. I kept talking to him until finally I reached him. At that point he said, ‘I don’t know why I have this. I don’t even know anybody in this city.’ He was now ready to go home, shocked at how he even got to the airport.”
There is a huge body of circumstantial evidence such as Oatmeyer’s letter that supports the claim of Strawn family members, friends and physicians that Bill Strawn is mentally ill. While certainly biased, the authors build a caseload of bizarre twists in Strawn’s life. They tell wildly different stories which form an undeniable pattern of abnormal events and behavior.
o Joe Menendez wrote a very moving letter about Strawn. After describing his familiarity with Strawns blackouts and seizures, Mendendez got to the root of their relationship: “Many years back he counsled (sic) me, week after week because I was in a very bad stage of depression and I was about to kill a few of my coworkers (sic). If the Lord have (sic) not put this man in my path I just don’t know what I would have done.”
o William Seeker is now president of Florida Keys Community College in Key West, but from 1970 to 1979, he was Strawn’s supervisor at HCC. “I noticed Bill would have periods of memory lapses and/or blackouts. He did not remember conversations we had, assignments I had given him or meetings that he had attended. At one particular staff meeting he actually went into what I would call a convulsion.”
o Strawn himself tells many examples of his troubles, including pre-cognitive experiences wherein he foresaw a friend having a heart attack or his father being struck by a train.
Being at work did not make him immune from seizures and blackouts; secretaries, teachers and administrators used to cover for him regularly.
“My secretary and I worked on a grant one day,” he remembers. “We worked on it from seven in the morning until 5:30 at night. We finally got it finished and we mailed it. We were so happy. The next morning when she came in, I said, Stella, we’ve got a big job today – we’ve gotta get this grant done. I had already worked on it for an hour and she said, ‘We worked on that yesterday.’
“I had secretaries who would really help me, who would keep up with me if I wouldn’t come back on time. They’d try to find out where I was. They probably should have been getting my salary.”
o Jean Strawn’s eight-page letter is the most revealing and poignant plea to Judge Miller. In it, she traces a number of steps in the life of her husband that helped set him apart from most men. As a high school history teacher in his younger days, he gave anti-communism speeches at night at Baptist churches. Drawn by a need for teachers in Appalachia, he moved his family to Jackson, Ky. There was the time he pulled a man from a burning car shortly before it exploded. Or when the bleachers collapsed at a basketball game and Strawn pulled them apart to release trapped arms and legs. A neighbor stopped breathing and Strawn got him started again with CPR.
Despite all of these super-human acts with neighbors and strangers, Strawn faltered when it came to dealing with family crisises and job stress, according to his wife. “He would want to lie down and within minutes he was out of it and talked out of his head a lot. One time he really scared me because he was talking to his dead grandfather. (Strawn) said he wanted to go with him. I pleaded with him for about an hour not to go because I needed him here. He has also seen his dead uncle Francis. He tells me about places we used to go and it would be so real to him. He said he could taste the chicken at Farrells which was a place back in (our) college days.
“I used to accuse him of being too weak to face up to problems. I told him every time I needed him most he folded up on me. Now that I look back he was having a form of seizure then whenever he got under pressure or stress.
“His life has been memorable,” Jean writes. “Some day I know I will find out what God’s plan for him really is and then I’ll know why Satan has tried to destroy him.”
On the day she wrote the note, Jean Strawn writes, her husband had survived 15 seizures.
* * *
It is difficult to compile an exact list of incidents contributing to Strawn’s head injuries because there are insufficient medical documents and only family accounts to go by. But problems seem to have begun at age seven, when a baseball bat fractured his skull; other incidents include a number of concussions, two broken jaws and a fracture skull in 1952 and 1953 while he was in college playing football; multiple hospitalizations in Bowling Green, Ky.; a 1979 head and neck injury in a Tampa automobile accident that left Strawn unconscious for an hour and paralyzed for ten hours; a second auto accident, in Brandon in 1982, resulted in back surgery. He won out-of-court cash settlements in both accidents.
Strawn has suffered from grand mal and petit mal seizures off and on since 1975. Grand mal seizures take place when the victim falls down, begins convulsing on one side, bites his tongue, foams at the mouth, wets his pants and/or wakes in a stupor, unaware of having had the seizure. Petit mal seizures cause the person to stop, sit silently and not know what is going on around him, then regain consciousness and not realize anything was amiss. They are considered physical, not mental, problems caused by electrical disturbances in the brain’s temporal lobe.
Strawn’s frequency of either seizure type occurring varies between daily and every few weeks depending upon how well he controlled he is medication-wise. Stress is widely considered a trigger to the seizures. Strawn has had seizures at home, church, school, doctor’s and lawyers office and in court and jail. They manifest themselves differently from incident to incident.
“There are times when I can’t carry on a conversation, times when I forget a whole day,” he says. Sometimes he sees and hears things that aren’t there. “I would actually see these creatures telling me to hang myself. I’m not the kind of guy to do that. But there were times when I really felt like I was going to do it.”
* * *
Is Bill Strawn telling the truth? Could seizures and blackouts have caused him to rob four banks over 19 months?
A quintet of nationally recognized experts in epilepsy and neuro-psychiatry say yes, it is possible that Strawn was not in control of his actions when he committed the first bank robbery, maybe even the second. But none is convinced such a pattern could occur four times.
The four authorities consulted by Tampa Bay Life for comment who were not directly involved in the case were given details during individual telephone interviews, including hearing direct comments from the deposition of defense psychiatrist Dr. Walter Afield and from an interview with Strawn. Participants in the “psychiatric autopsy” were:
o Ann Scherer, director of Information and education for the Epilepsy Foundation of America in Landover, Maryland.
o Dr. Dietrich Blumer, a psychiatrist specializing in epilepsy at the University of Tennessee Epicare Center. The Epicare Center is the largest center for the treatment of epilepsy in the Southeast. Blumer was recommended as an expert by the Epilepsy Foundation of America.
o Dr. George Dohrmann is a neorosurgeon at the University of Chicago and was recommended as an expert by the Brain Research Foundation.
o Dr. Helen Morrison, an M.D. who is certified in general, child, adult and forensic psychiatry, has been an examiner for the American Board of Forensic Psychiatry. Morrison – who was recommended by Dohrmann – is also director of The Evaluation Center, a neuro-diagnostic program in Chicago for the evaluation and treatment of people with organic and emotional problems. She has examined serial killers Michael Lockhart and Bobby Joe Long as a witness for the prosecution.
o Dr. Walter Afield, a former professor and chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at the University of South Florida College of Medicine, was retained by the defense to examine Bill Strawn and form conclusions about his mental fitness. Afield is an accomplished psychiatrist who has a private practice in Tampa and works as an expert psychiatric witness in criminal trials across the country. He worked for the defense in the trials of Bobby Joe Long (opposite Dr. Helen Morrison), William Cruise and fire-bomber Billy Ferry.
Afield says that in reviewing a battery of neuro-psychiatric tests (including EEG, Luria, Halstead) and documented seizures, he has no doubt that Strawn has suffered severe brain damage and intractable seizures. He says that Strawn did not undergo the now common magnetic resonance imaging tests because he was too big to get in the machine. There could have been a “definite correlation” between Strawn’s seizures and the bank robberies, according to Afield, until he learned the number of crimes had grown from two to four.
“That was the hardest part for me to understand,” says Afield. “That was a little difficult. I’d be a little hard pushed with the evidence that four were due to that. But you do have a man with brain damage and it can make a man do strange things.”
The expert consultants agree that criminal activity is rare as a result of even complex seizures, but not out of the realm of possibility for a man with Strawn’s history of head injuries and brain damage.
According to Dohrmann: “Some people who do things out of character can have something wrong with the left frontal lobe, impairing their judgement or understanding of right and wrong. The frontal lobe’s function is to ride herd over a person’s impulses. When that’s gone, people can be quite impulsive. Normally they wouldn’t say, ‘I don’t know what I did.’ They’d say, ‘I did it – so what?'”
All three doctors doubted epileptic seizures alone could cause Strawn’s repeated criminal activity. But they believe the seizures might be part of a greater neuro-psychiatric malady.
“There are a tremendous number of possibilities,” says Morrison. She says robbing a bank would not be unusual in the “Fugue” state, a form of amnesia. In this state, someone can do incredible things, like disappear only to “wake up” years later. It is caused when people are unable to handle extreme stress and become amnesiac as a result. Another possibility she cites is multiple personalities, which the mind creates as a defense mechanism. But she is ultimately skeptical of a stereotyped crime being repeated over and over with the same highly organized pattern.
“Why not just rob a bank and a gas station or a speeding ticket?” wonders Morrison. “If he has brain damage, why would it be limited to bank robbery? Does brain damage explain the robberies? It doesn’t. Can you definitely connect the damage to the action? No, you can’t. No one can prove this man’s seizures led to the robberies.
“A thousand things can aggravate seizures,” she continues. “If the person is going to have a seizure, why wouldn’t he have a seizure while robbing the bank? Or while going through the complex act of burning the money? Does that seem like the action of someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing? He was scared? One time, okay. Twice, maybe. Three, four times? Forget it. It doesn’t take any psychiatry to figure that out.”
* * *
What should society do with Bill Strawn?
He robbed four banks at gunpoint. That seems beyond dispute. Pre-meditation is more to the question. Did failing health and looming debt push Strawn to knowingly commit these four criminal acts? Can his claims of being in a trance-like state be borne out by medical evidence? And if he was not responsible for his actions, does the state still have its own responsibility to his victims to mete out some form of justice?
In some ways, society has already begun taking its measure of the Strawn Family.
“We’ve gone through bankruptcy, we applied for food stamps the other day” – Strawn pauses as tears well up in his eyes – “we’re about as poor as you can be. I’ve taken my family through a lot of embarrassment, I know. I can’t get near water, I can’t get near machinery, I can’t drive a vehicle. And yet everything I’m trained to do requires those kinds of things. I can’t go up steps, I can’t walk near a durn ditch that’s got six inches of water in it – I could drown. I almost drowned one night in the bathtub, taking a bath. Now I have to take showers. Part of the real punishment I’ve had is seeing my family go through this. Every day is something in the mailbox. Every day is another call. Every day there’s another hell to face.”
Dr. Walter Afield, who examined Strawn, thinks the accused is ashamed, embarrassed and of the opinion he should be punished for what he did. That worries Afield.
“He’s depressed, suicidal,” the psychiatrist believes. “If he makes it to jail I wouldn’t be surprised if he kills himself. He’s not a jail kind of guy.” Afield feels that because of Strawn’s continuing need for medical attention, justice, the community and Strawn would be better served by community control. “House arrest is cheaper on the taxpayer. If he falls down on his head, we’re going to get a $50,000 bill.”
“Obviously, the gentleman’s going to prison,” says Assistant State Attorney Gary Dorst, who is the new prosecutor on Strawn’s case. Dorst notes that sentencing statutes in firearms cases have been rewritten to take discretion out of the hands of judges. They are required to issue minimum mandatory sentences and there is no “gain time” for good behavior in firearms cases. He estimates Strawn could get anywhere from six years to lifetime in prison or 100 years probation. One possibility that could reduce prison time would be to run sentences for each bank robbery concurrently. “It’s a crime punishable by life,” says Dorst. “He’s looking at four life sentences. That’s the possibility. He probably won’t get it.”
“I wish they would put me in a situation where I could do something worthwhile,” says Strawn, wistfully.
Whatever Bill Strawn’s fate is, he has changed Rosie’s Owens’ life forever.
“I have a great fear of going in the bank,” says the woman who felt Strawn’s gun at her back on the day he was caught. “It was a frightening experience – it goes with you. It’s something you never forget.”