Times Dispatch

In shocking turn of events, Virginia man confesses to two robberies, freeing a man from prison

by Frank Green
June 24, 2017


Christian Lynn Amos (L), who has confessed to two robberies for which Gary Bush (R) spent 10 years in prison.

PRINCE GEORGE — Christian Lynn Amos kept an uneasy secret for 10 years, his mouth shut and his conscience on fire.

Had he stepped in front of a speeding truck, died of a heart attack or otherwise remained silent, a man he did not know would have sat in prison for another year, innocent and with no hope of ever clearing his name.

Instead, on May 17, 2016, Amos, shamed and inspired by an 8-year-old boy, dialed 911 and reached a communications officer with the Prince George County Police Department.

"I told them that I wanted to turn myself in, that I had committed some bank robberies. And she asked for my name and I gave it to her and everything, and she came back on and she said, 'We're not looking for you.' I said, 'I know you're not because I've never been caught.'"

Amos, 63, is now behind bars at Riverside Regional Jail, sentenced to 12 years. Gary Bush, 67, is a free man after nearly a decade in prison. He returned to his family home near Covington on geriatric parole and hopes to win a formal exoneration from the Virginia Court of Appeals.

At Amos' sentencing in Prince George Circuit Court last month, his lawyer, W. Edward Tomko III, said, "Judge, I've never had a case like this, and I doubt that I'll see one like it again. I hope I don't."

"When I first advised him that Mr. Bush had served almost 10 years of incarceration because of these offenses, Mr. Amos broke down and wept. He had no clue, no idea, that anyone else had been serving time for the crimes he had committed," Tomko told Judge W. Allan Sharrett.

"I have never had a client, I don't think, with the depth of feeling with regards to his remorse for what he did," Tomko said.

***

Bush's case is highly unusual, at least in recent Virginia history, but defense lawyers caution that he has yet to be exonerated - and that what happened to him could happen to anyone.

There have been several instances in Virginia over the past few decades where the real perpetrators of crimes for which innocent persons were imprisoned came forward and either admitted wrongdoing or made up allegations against an innocent person. However, in all of those cases, the criminals knew innocent people were in prison serving time. Amos, by all accounts, did not know that Bush - a man he had never met - had been sentenced to 12 years in prison for two robberies Amos got clean away with.

His extraordinary 911 call last year stunned police, prosecutors and Bush, who got the news from his lawyer.

Attorney Christopher B. Ackerman said, “It just doesn’t happen. How often do you hear about someone with a conscience who calls up the police and confesses to a crime 9½, 10 years later?”

Bush always maintained his innocence. “The new evidence was this confession. There was no DNA. ... It was straight up Mr. Amos calling 911,” Ackerman said.

Bush remembers the day in May 2016 when he was called to a prison counselor's office and spoke with Ackerman, who gave him the good news over a conference call.

"I was in there for nine years, six months and two weeks before I was released. Amazingly the guy came forward. I don't know why he did it," said Bush, relaxing on the front porch of his parents' home surrounded by heavily wooded hills and ridges.

"I have no animosity toward him at all," Bush said of Amos. “Tell him I just hate to see anybody get 12 years for robbing banks with a note 'cause it was not a real threat.”

Amos was relieved to hear that in an interview at Riverside Regional Jail last week, but he is still deeply troubled.

"There's no way I can make it up to him. No way at all," Amos said. Had he known Bush was in prison, Amos said he believes he would have come forward sooner. "I just feel like I would have. I had no idea. No idea."

***

Amos wears his silver hair in a biker-style ponytail. Until a few years ago, he was often seen riding his Harley Davidson around Hopewell. He is being housed at a special unit for veterans at the jail until he is transferred to the Virginia Department of Corrections.

Born in Petersburg, he said, "I'm an Army brat. Lived out at Fort Lee for numerous years."

He attended Walnut Hill Elementary School, where he completed fifth-grade, later earning his GED. He was in the Army from 1971 to 1973, serving with the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, N.C. His father, a parachutist, was in the Army and a Vietnam veteran.

Amos is divorced, has two daughters and five grandchildren, and has worked most of his life as a welder, operated a carpet and flooring business, hung sheet rock and has done some carpentry.

His life changed for the worse in 1997 when he broke his leg in a motorcycle accident and became addicted to pain medication. The opioid pills were too expensive to obtain illegally, he said. Heroin, which he snorted and did not inject, was cheaper, so he regularly drove to Richmond to buy it.

"I was addicted to heroin," he said. "My addiction, it had consumed my life. If I didn't get it, I would get sick."

He committed three bank robberies over the years -- one in Prince George and one in Petersburg, both in 2006, and another one in Petersburg in 2014 -- to support his habit. He used notes that threatened he had a firearm, but he never carried one. He said he rationalized robbing banks because they were insured. "I wasn't really hurting anybody. They'd get their money back. The only one I was hurting, you know, would be the teller - frighten the heck out of her," he said.

The first bank robbery was in Petersburg on Oct. 6, 2006, and the second in Prince George County in Nov. 8 of that year. The take totaled roughly $6,000.

That same year, Bush was living in Prince George and had just retired after 23 years as a machine operator for DuPont when he was caught with cocaine by police that October.

Awaiting trial on the drug charge, Bush returned to live on his family's property, where he was born and raised, near Covington. He wanted to sober up, straighten out his life and stay clean. "Every time they gave me a drug test, I passed it with flying colors,” he said.

But then around 5 p.m., Nov. 13, 2006, a family friend, Dwayne Paxton, a police officer, knocked on the back door and was invited in. “We sit here and talked for a little while,” recalled Bush - him, Paxton and his parents. “We all knew each other," he said.

Paxton told him, “‘Gary, I have a warrant for your arrest.’ And I asked him, ‘What for?’ And he said, ‘I can’t discuss that right now.’”

The two men went outside so Bush would not be taken into custody in front of his parents. Paxton said, “‘I’ll put the handcuffs on you up front, that way it won’t bother you so much. But I have to put the handcuffs on you.’"

“He wasn’t too happy about it,” said Bush. “And, he took me in and four hours later police from Prince George showed up. They took me back to Prince George.”

He asked them what he was accused of doing. When they told him robbery, Bush said, “I was shocked. I was amazed.”

"I was charged with a bank robbery. About two weeks later, I was charged with another bank robbery, one in Petersburg," he said. After the Prince George arrest, his mugshot appeared in a local newspaper. He said the two witnesses in the Petersburg robbery, which occurred seven weeks earlier, "probably saw my picture in the paper."

Bush said he offered to take a polygraph test but the police told him they did not need one, that they had their man.

In the Prince George robbery, a witness who claimed to have used cocaine with Bush said he saw Bush leaving the bank when it was robbed. "I didn't know the guy from Adam," Bush said. A teller also misidentified him.

He was convicted by a judge in Prince George and by a jury in Petersburg. The Petersburg conviction was on April 16, 2007, the same day as the massacre at Virginia Tech. "They came back after lunch and they were ready to convict anybody," complained Bush of the jury.

"I was in shock. I couldn't believe it," he said. Bush was sentenced to five years in Petersburg on June 16, 2007, and to 50 years with 43 years suspended in Prince George on Aug. 2.

The Prince George judge told him that with a 12-year sentence, he would be out in 10 years and could start collecting Social Security.

***

Loved ones remained loyal despite the convictions.

"Nobody believed it. Everybody stuck by me. The whole family stuck by me, most of my friends stuck by me,” Bush said. He spent time at six prisons in different parts of the state, but he always had visitors.

He handled things one day at a time. "To be honest with you, I'd lay awake at night and try to figure out how in the world I got there. I kind of accepted it." Nevertheless, "I told my story to anybody that would listen to me while I was in prison. I always thought that somehow I would be proven innocent. But then I didn't know ... how I would ever prove that I didn't do it."

Meanwhile, Amos stopped using heroin and said he was always troubled by the robberies. "There was not a day that went by that I did not think about it. It weighed heavily on me," he said. "What I had done, it was eating at me from the inside out. I was scared. I wanted to own up to it but I was afraid to do it."

He stopped using heroin after losing friends to overdoses and said he wanted to be a role model for his grandchildren. "I quit cold turkey, just by myself," he said. "I've been clean and sober - it'll be three years in July."

Last year, his 8-year-old grandson was playing outside his home in Disputanta, threw some rocks and broke some windows in a mobile home that was being renovated nearby. Amos confronted the boy, "And he said, 'No, Grandpa, I didn't do it.' I let it go. The next day, out of the blue, (he said) you know, 'Grandpa, I did it.'"

After school that day, Amos walked the boy over to the owner of the mobile home and Amos stayed back as his grandson confessed to David Manning, owner of the Manning Mobile Home Park. Reached by telephone last week, Manning recalled the incident well. "He came up to me, his granddaddy stayed behind, and he came up on his own and told me what he had done and apologized for it."

Amos said he made the 911 call just a month or so after his grandson confessed. "I was just so proud of him. I've always been proud of him. But that day, especially, I was just so proud and it just left me feeling like a hypocrite. I knew that day that I had to turn myself in. I had to. But it still took me a month."

He said his conscience does not stem from religion - he lost his faith on May 16, 1969, when he was 15 years old and saw his father die.

"I had a premonition that it was going to happen that day. And I remember my mom driving us to Fort Lee for Armed Forces Day," Amos said. "I was in the back seat and I was like, 'Please God, don't let nothing happen to my dad.'"

His father, Robert Roy Amos Jr., was a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army. He was part of a holiday skydiving performance in front of 3,000 spectators at Fort Lee. He had just returned from Vietnam where he served with the 1st Air Cavalry Division, Amos said.

An account in The Progress-Index of Petersburg said Robert Amos was descending with his main canopy open when, at about 300 feet, he released it and fell to his death.

The last sentence in the newspaper story noted that he was survived by his widow and nine children.

As Amos recalls, "He was just above trees and he released his main chute. I don't know if it was suicide. That's what I assumed it was. He released his chute right above the trees. When I was young, when it happened, I used to have nightmares about it.

"Ever since that day I really don't believe in God."

His conscience, he said, comes from his father, not a church. "He was a strict father. He wasn't my biological father but he was the only dad I ever had."

The recording of his 911 call to Prince George police at 1:18 p.m. May 17, 2016, is not available. Amos said two police officers showed up, interviewed him and took him into custody.

After business hours that same day, police called Prince George County Commonwealth’s Attorney Susan O’Prandy Fierro, who was not in office in 2006.

“The next day I had the file and found out who the defense attorney was," she said.

She called Ackerman, told him what was happening and that officers were looking into whether there was some kind of connection between Amos and Bush.

Fierro said the police investigated Amos' confession, came to believe it was genuine and that Amos had no idea someone else was in prison for the robberies. They let Amos' lawyer break the news to Amos about Bush.

Ackerman contacted the Virginia State Parole Board. Fierro said, "At that point we felt pretty confident that Mr. Amos was telling the truth.”

“I told the parole board investigator that I would have no objection to him being released. And then I called the Petersburg Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office and talked to them and they also had no objection," she said.

Virginia no longer has parole but Bush was eligible for geriatric release and the board quickly granted it. He returned to live with his elderly parents in Covington.

Amos has since been convicted of the bank robbery in Prince George. While he admitted he committed both Petersburg bank robberies, authorities elected to prosecute him for the 2014 robbery, not the 2006 bank robbery for which Bush was convicted. Amos netted seven years in Petersburg for the 2014 robbery when he was sentenced in February.

When Amos was sentenced in Prince George Circuit Court on May 12 by Sharrett, the judge made sure the case had been thoroughly investigated to rule out collusion between Amos and Bush and to make sure Amos did not have any psychiatric issues that might prompt a false confession.

His lawyer put Amos on the stand and asked him what his sentence should be.

A transcript of the proceedings shows that Amos, referring to Bush, answered: "I think I should serve every day that he had to serve."

Sharrett imposed a 50-year sentence with 45 years suspended that, when combined with the other conviction, left Amos with the same 12-year term that Bush received.

The judge noted that Bush and Amos both had some drug issues but otherwise essentially had no prior criminal records. He said, "It's deeply disturbing because an innocent man has spent a number of years in prison for a crime he simply did not commit."

"It does, in fact, give lie to the euphemism 'victimless crime.' There was an unintended victim, but a victim nonetheless," Sharrett said.

Nevertheless, Sharrett noted that Amos "has voluntarily, without any compulsion, except from his conscience, confessed to a crime and essentially sentenced himself to a significant term of incarceration."

Amos is adjusting to imprisonment and said he is taking medication for depression and anxiety and is receiving counseling in the veterans' unit at the jail.

"I'm having nightmares that I'm going to be leaving prison in a wheelchair," he said.

He saw a recent television interview with Bush in which Bush said that after his convictions he considered taking his own life and that his biggest regret in the decade behind bars was missing a daughter's wedding.

"I feel really bad that I robbed Mr. Bush of 10 years of his life," Amos said. "He wasn't able to walk down the aisle with his daughter for her wedding. I saw him on TV. And he said that he contemplated suicide. That would of like just tore me up if that would have happened."

"I broke down and I cried again," he said.

"I'm just so glad I came forward. There's a reason for everything in this world. I'm just glad that I was able to clear Mr. Bush's name."


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