Did the Good Soldier Just Crack?

Thompson beat his wife, robbed a bank twice, after 10 years of impeccable military service.

He was a good kid, a good soldier, and a law-abiding adult. Then, for 17 days in March, Fort Lewis Army Sgt. Christopher Thompson, 29, went haywire--drinking heavily, beating his wife, and robbing the same bank twice. "It is highly unusual for an individual with impressive credentials and a 10-year history in the military to come before this court for sentencing under these circumstances," Thompson's attorney told a federal judge. But U.S. District Judge Franklin D. Burgess sent Thompson away for 11 years and 9 months two weeks ago in Tacoma, noting that while the 9 mm Beretta the sergeant used in the heists may have been unloaded, frightened bank employees and customers were unaware of that fact. Thompson, 29, from Virginia Beach, grew up in a Navy family, participated in his high-school ROTC program, and joined the Army upon graduation. He earned promotions and accolades such as "total Army asset" and "unlimited potential." He was squad leader in a 2nd Cavalry Stryker unit out of Fort Lewis, and was to be deployed to Iraq in May. He also had a DUI a few years ago. But on March 5 of this year, he chalked up his first felony, stealing $7,400 from the KeyBank on South Tacoma Way. He assaulted his wife a few days later. Facing domestic violence charges, he returned to the same bank on March 22 and made off with $8,200 before being arrested at his home, the money sitting on his kitchen table—at which point he confessed. "The question in everybody's mind," wrote Thompson's attorney, Zenon Peter Olbertz, in a presentencing memorandum, "is how did this highly motivated and decorated E6 Sgt. First Class come from a squad leader in a Stryker brigade to his present circumstance?" There were some "obvious suspects," Olbertz said—alcohol, gambling, and a marriage on the rocks. But the attorney couldn't pinpoint an overriding cause and concluded that "we will probably never know." Stella Barkley, a defense contractor in Baghdad who knows Thompson, said in a letter to the judge, "I have met many soldiers that are at the edge and can see no other way." Stress, depression, and marital problems pushed him over, she figured. Thompson's mother, in another letter, made her best guess: "He just lost it." Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Dion had another view. Yes, Thompson's life fell apart this year, and he owed as much as $30,000 to payday loan companies. However, Dion said, the sergeant was an aggressive and intimidating robber, brandishing his gun menacingly and informing tellers they'd be shot unless they filled a bag with money within 30 seconds. Thompson could have gotten a 32-year sentence, but earned points for his law-abiding past. "He will still be young when he leaves jail," Dion said, "and he will have a chance to build a new life for himself. If Thompson squanders this second chance, he should not expect another."

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