Charged with one count of Class B robbery, Donald Sturton, 70, appears in court this month. “I don’t know why he went and did that,” says a neighbor who’s watching the South Portland man’s cats. “There had to be a better way.” Staff photo by Derek Davis

On Wednesday, March 7, at 3:43 p.m., Donald Sturton walked into the Bank of America branch in South Portland near the Maine Mall, armed with a plastic water gun.

The 70-year-old man wore a baseball hat over a winter hat, black pants and a yellow rain jacket. He strode to the counter where a young female teller was standing, told her he was robbing the bank and demanded money. He said he had the gun in his pocket, but he never took it out.

The teller, who was visibly shaken, emptied her top drawer and put the bills loosely into a reusable canvas bag. They totaled $895.

Sturton then walked outside and made his way to the mall parking lot in front of JC Penney. There was no car waiting for him. He planned to take the bus back home.

Within minutes, South Portland police were on the scene. Officer Kevin Sager was first. He exited his cruiser, immediately drew his service weapon and aimed it at Sturton. He told him to lay down on the ground.

By that point, another officer, Ted Sargent, arrived. While Sager kept his gun trained on Sturton, Sargent put his knee on the man’s back and handcuffed him.

Police recovered the squirt gun, held together with black tape, and the canvas bag with $895 inside.

Sturton was taken to the Cumberland County Jail and processed on one count of Class B robbery. He appeared in court two days later. Bail was set at $5,000, but he has been unable to post it and remains in jail.

The events that preceded his dramatic arrest in broad daylight this month were unusual in that Sturton made no attempt to conceal his identity while inside the bank and showed no urgency in fleeing.

But there is more to his story.

Sturton never expected to get away.

In fact, he wanted to get caught.

DEPRESSION AND DISENGAGEMENT

This Bank of America branch on Philbrook Avenue in South Portland was held up by a man with a water pistol early this month. Police say Donald Sturton, 70, was apprehended moments later. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Sturton, both through his court-appointed attorney Robert Lebrasseur and through jail officials, declined an interview request. Lebrasseur also said he did not want to discuss his client’s case or provide any background information.

But detailed court documents, which include lead detective Christopher Todd’s interview of Sturton, shed light on what was going through the man’s mind when he left his house that afternoon and caught a bus to the mall.

He had been thinking about robbing a bank for the past month or so, he told Todd, right around the time he turned 70.

He’d been depressed for a while. Disengaged in his own life. He said he had been taking medication to treat depression and anxiety but had stopped because he didn’t think it was working.

When he woke up that day, he told Todd, he saw two options: rob the bank or take his own life.

Neighbors of Sturton in Redbank Village, a sprawling housing complex not far from the bank he picked to rob, said the man seemed to be going through a hard time. But they said he was nice and friendly.

One said Sturton drove a cab for a Portland company, ASAP Taxis.

A representative of that company denied that claim. Sort of.

When asked by a reporter this week about the status of an employee, the man said, “He doesn’t work here,” even before Sturton’s name was mentioned.

“I know who you’re calling about. I can’t help you,” the man said before hanging up.

A taxi driver’s license on file with the city that lasts through April, though, indicates Sturton did, in fact, work for ASAP.

Public records indicate Sturton has a brother in Florida. He could not be reached.

The neighbor said Sturton also had a daughter who contacted him to ask if he’d feed her father’s cats.

He said he’d give the daughter a reporter’s contact information.

She never called.

The neighbor said if Sturton didn’t want to talk, he didn’t feel right talking with Sturton.

Donald Sturton appears March 9 in a Portland courtroom, where his bail was set at $5,000. He has been unable to post that fee and remains in the Cumberland County Jail. Staff photo by Derek Davis

SUSPECT CONFESSES TO THE CRIME

After he was taken into custody, Sturton was put in a holding cell at the South Portland police station.

Todd had already spoken to the officers who responded to the bank robbery. They had interviewed witnesses inside the bank, including the teller who nervously turned over the money in her top drawer.

She said when Sturton first asked her for all the money, she thought he was joking. Then he said he had a gun and eight bullets. She didn’t see a weapon but was scared. At one point, Sturton put his hand on the counter with it still inside his jacket pocket, as if he was holding something.

He told the teller not to put any GPS tracking devices or dye packs in with the money. Then he asked how much was there.

She said she didn’t know. She hadn’t counted it.

Sturton turned around and walked out. The teller sat down on the bank floor and started to cry.

Some employees in the bank told police they didn’t see anything. Others were able to describe Sturton’s appearance, which he did little to conceal.

It turns out, police didn’t need all that.

When police found him minutes later in JC Penney’s parking lot, it was almost as if he was waiting for them.

After Sturton was read his Miranda rights inside the police station, he agreed to be interviewed by the detective. He confessed to robbing the bank.

At first, he told Todd that he robbed the bank because he needed money for his bills. That was true, according to Sturton’s neighbor, who said he talked about money problems.

But as the conversation progressed, Sturton told the detective that it really wasn’t about the money.

“He said he no longer feels like a productive member of society,” Todd said.

Sturton said he used the plastic water gun to train his cats not to scratch things.

The black tape was there to stop it from leaking.

He didn’t think anyone at the bank would take him seriously without it.

CHIEF: CASE NOT AS SIMPLE AS IT SEEMS

There is a reference in one of the police statements filed with the court about Officer Sargent knowing Sturton from previous encounters.

There were no additional details about that, though, and Police Chief Edward Googins declined to provide additional information. He said Sturton has rights and he didn’t want to infringe on them.

But Googins agreed that the case was not as simple as it seemed.

Sturton has no criminal history in Maine. That, coupled with his age, suggests prosecutors may be lenient. The robbery charge, a Class B offense, carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

He gave the bank employees, especially the teller with whom he interacted, quite a scare, but he didn’t hurt anyone.

He later told the detective, flatly, that he wanted to get caught. He said three or four years in jail might be a good thing for him.

Sturton’s neighbor, the one who’s watching his cats, wishes the man had gotten some help instead.

“I don’t know why he went and did that,” the neighbor said. “There had to be a better way.”

As of Friday, Sturton was still being held at the jail. No one had put up the $5,000 bail.

His attorney, Lebrasseur, filed a motion to amend the bail so that he could be released on personal recognizance. He said Sturton is not a flight risk, largely because he has no money, and has no history of violence.

That motion will he heard Thursday.

Lebrasseur said he’s not sure where Sturton will go if he’s released.

“He’s in danger of losing his apartment,” the lawyer said. “He’s clearly someone who needs help.”

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

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