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Valessa Robinson is led into the Hillsborough County Orient Road Jail by a Hillsborough County Sheriff's Deputy on July 8, 1998.
[Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe]

'What can I do with her'


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 12, 1998

TAMPA -- In the week since Vicki Robinson's body was found and her
Vicki Robinson on her first golf trip the day after Christmas in 1996.
[Handout photo: Deborah Sartor]
daughter Valessa was charged with two friends with her murder, her family and friends have tried to find an answer to the question that haunts all their conversations:

How on Earth could this have happened?

Some of the friends think back a couple of months, to Mother's Day, and remember the mother and daughter who attended the morning service together at Idlewild Baptist Church. Afterward, mother and daughter had lunch. For the rest of the day, Vicki Robinson couldn't stop talking to her friends about it.

Now, the friends see a grim significance to the fact that the daughter who set aside time for her mother that day was Michelle, 17, and that her 15-year-old sister, Valessa, was nowhere to be found. She had gone off with her friends.

But there are other memories -- memories that confound the portrayal of Valessa in the past week as a distant teenager who despised her mother.

Vicki Robinson's friends recall a very emotional girl who would come up behind her mother and wrap her arms around her during quiet moments. A family video, taken on Vicki's birthday last October, shows Vicki laughing and bouncing on Valessa's lap as she reads a greeting card.

"They had a very open, loving relationship at one point in time," said Shelly Bowen, who worked with Vicki at Seminole Presbyterian School and spent a lot of time with Valessa.

Most friends had seen a deterioration in Vicki and Valessa's relationship in recent months. But they describe Vicki Robinson as a positive, confident mother who would never give up on her child.

"Valessa was not a throw-away child," Tom Klug, Vicki's brother, said at her funeral. "She wasn't going to throw her away."

* * *

The journey that Vicki Robinson took to become a 49-year-old divorced mother of two teenage girls in Carrollwood had a few twists and turns, but nothing too remarkable.

She was born in Benton, Mich., on Oct. 17, 1948, to Donna and Arthur Klug. Her father was a successful lawyer. Vicki was the second child, and grew close to her older sister, Kathy. Two brothers, Tom and Kirt, followed.

With just 16 months between them, Vicki and Kathy were inseparable. "Sometimes they would fight over boyfriends because they were so close together," Tom Klug said.

Vicki graduated from Eastern Michigan University and went on to earn master's credits in education at Michigan State University. She volunteered with the local Headstart Program and planned to become a teacher because she loved children.

She wound up becoming a real estate agent and marrying young, to a Grand Rapids lawyer. A photo collage displayed at Vicki's funeral showed her as a young bride with long, '60s-style blond hair. The marriage ended in the mid-1970s, and there were no children.

In 1979, Vicki came to Tampa, where she met Charles L. "Chuck" Robinson. They opened a real estate office together.

Vicki and Charles Robinson married on April 4, 1980. Charles, who had been married twice before, appeared to be the opposite of the bubbly, bright Vicki. Her friends describe him as quiet, even withdrawn.

Almost immediately, the Robinsons had problems and they separated after only two months. They tried to reconcile and their first child, Michelle Leigh, was born on Dec. 20. But in January 1981, the Robinsons filed for divorce. Charles Robinson kept his 1979 Toyota Supra and their home in Town 'N Country; Vicki kept her 1977 Audi Fox and a home in Hastings, Mich. Vicki retained custody of Michelle; Charles agreed to pay $100 a month in child support.

Less than a year later, the Robinsons reunited. They married each other for the second time on Dec. 27, 1981, in Merritt Island on the east coast of Florida.

Valessa Lyn, who shared her mother's middle name, was born March 31, 1983.

A religious woman, Vicki chose to send her girls to Seminole Presbyterian School in Tampa. From the beginning, Valessa did not fit in with the rest of the children. Her teachers thought she was misbehaving to get attention.

"She was in her own little world," said Anita Romeo, a media specialist at the school. "She did not reach out."

When Michelle was 13 and Valessa 11, their parents divorced for the second time, on Sept. 13, 1994. Divorce records show that a modest amount of property was divided. Vicki kept the 1988 Cadillac DeVille and Charles the 1983 Audi 5000, Datsun Truck and utility trailer. He assumed responsibility for the $51,000 mortgage balance on their house in north Tampa, and agreed to $800 a month in child support.

Anita Romeo, the Seminole Presbyterian teacher, remembers that Vicki was glad once the divorce was settled.

Charles Robinson has since remarried and lives in St. Louis, Mo. He declined to comment for this story.

After the divorce, friends said, Vicki was left with little money. She was proud and didn't want to burden her parents with her problems.

"She really had a poise and a sense of grace that no matter how tough things got, you wouldn't know she was scraping pennies together," said Deborah Sartor, her best friend.

When her father found out, he insisted on giving her a beautiful $186,000 house in Carrollwood as part of an early inheritance. The white stucco Mediterranean-style home with a red tile roof sits on a cul-de-sac. Lush vegetation surrounds the property and it has a screened pool and lanai.

Vicki's friends say the divorce had a deep and resounding impact on Valessa.

"She suffered more than Michelle from not having her dad around," said Carlton Huff. "I tried and others tried, to be there as a Christian male presence in her life. I wish I could have done more."

In 1994, Vicki began working at her daughters' school, Seminole Presbyterian. Vicki worked at various times as the nursery coordinator, child-care center director and bus driver. They weren't high-paying jobs -- barely $1,500 a month -- but she could be close to her daughters.

"She did a fabulous job with the kids, very mild-mannered and easy-going, a very gentle person," said Rhonda Edwards, whose son was a student at the school.

Michelle was the popular Robinson girl at Seminole Presbyterian, said Shelly Bowen, who worked at the school. "She played sports and joined clubs. Valessa was the outsider."

Valessa is remembered for her black nail polish and black lipstick. She often had an air of surliness. But, "it's not like she was this dark, sinister person," said Bowen. "Valessa had the capability to be a loving child."

One day, Bowen saw Valessa sitting in a corner, crying. She was inconsolable and would not speak. Bowen called Valessa's mother. When Vicki arrived, she put her arm around her daughter and tenderly spoke to her.

"What Valessa had always desired was to be loved," Bowen said.

Valessa had a beautiful voice and sang in the church choir. Outside of school, her musical tastes were markedly different -- she was the singer for a heavy metal garage band.

Valessa became increasingly rebellious; she stopped going to church, began to date high school boys, had made no friends at Seminole Presbyterian.

At 15, Michelle had some problems, too. She was arrested and charged with burglary after she and a group of boys broke into a townhouse in north Tampa. (Michelle quickly straightened out, friends say.)

Vicki Robinson decided it was time for a change. Maybe Valessa would find friends she could relate to at a public school. So, for eighth grade Valessa went to Ben Hill Middle School, and then last year she became part of the first student class at the brand-new Sickles High School in northwest Hillsborough. Michelle also went to Sickles.

Vicki had joined Single Purpose, a non-denominational singles group that met for prayer meetings and social activities. Vicki hosted parties in her home, making an impression with her home cooking and fine china, candles and festive atmosphere.

Deborah Sartor remembers meeting Valessa one time at the Robinson home and the pleasure she took in showing her mother's friends a new video camera. "She was always eager to give us a hug and speak to us and tell us what was going on in school," Sartor said.

Vicki met her boyfriend Jim Englert at a Single Purpose pool party. Together, Vicki and Englert shopped for the Nissan Quest minivan Vicki drove so that they could take all of their kids -- Englert has three children -- on trips. Earlier this year, they traveled to Disney's Fort Wilderness campground.

On Sunday nights -- family night -- Vicki and her friends would go to a bar called American Cowboy to take line-dancing lessons. Valessa went with them a couple of times, said Vicki's close friend Theresa Goscinski, "but it wasn't her thing." Valessa would wander off to play pool or pinball.

Goscinski has another vivid memory, from one of the prayer meetings at which Valessa would babysit. Valessa had something to show Goscinski -- a simple, inexpensive silver ring with a stone in it.

She said it was from her boyfriend, "but he was in jail," Goscinski said. "She said it would be okay, he was an okay guy."

* * *

The new boyfriend was Adam Davis, a 19-year-old drifter with a record for theft. Sometime last year, friends at Sickles High introduced Valessa to Davis, and they soon were a couple.

Vicki's friends and family noticed disturbing changes in Valessa around the same time. She disobeyed her mother and ran away from home.

"Every time we saw her growing up, she was a real nice girl," said Vicki's brother, Kirt Klug. "When she got to be a teenager, she started running around with the wrong crowd. In the last two years, she had become aggressive and hateful."

Friends of the two teens saw the relationship differently. They said Davis cared deeply for Valessa and was very protective of her.

"Adam would do anything for people he cares about," said one friend, Josh Moon, 15. "If you had a problem, he was there."

For Vicki Robinson, the first sign of increasing trouble came late last year. Valessa was caught shoplifting two compact discs by a group called the Lords of Acid from a Blockbuster Music store.

"She had absolutely no respect for her mother's authority and she felt she could take things into her own hands and she got away with it," Deborah Sartor said.

Two months ago, Davis helped Valessa run away from home. Tampa police Officer Keith Billingsley found the couple at a friend's house. They lied about their identities until Billingsley discovered Valessa's book bag. It said "Valessa loves Adam" and "Adam loves Valessa" all over it. When Billingsley arrested Adam Davis, Valessa began screaming.

"She said "Why are you arresting him, you son-of-a-b- -- - -?' " Billingsley recalled. "She said no matter what anybody did, they were going to be together."

For Valessa's mother, Davis' arrest was a welcome interruption.

"We were relieved when he was in jail," Deborah Sartor said. "We thought that would end things."

But once Davis got out of jail pending sentencing, the couple were together again.

Vicki Robinson reached for a compromise. She agreed to allow Davis and his friends to come to her home to swim, and even at times to spend the night.

By now, Valessa was telling friends that she and Davis were trying to have a baby.

And just days before Vicki was killed, there was another peculiar development. Jim Englert, Vicki's boyfriend, was over at the Robinson house when he overheard Valessa talking on the telephone about raising bail money for Bernice Bowen, the girlfriend of Hank Earl Carr who killed three police officers. It appears that Valessa and Davis knew someone who had been friendly with Carr.

Vicki was frustrated, Theresa Goscinski said. "She was like, "What can I do with her?' "

In St. Louis, Charles Robinson was worried, too.

"He realized the seriousness of the situation and he and Vicki were in contact quite a bit," said Deborah Sartor. "He was willing to step in."

Vicki researched sending Valessa to a special school for troubled girls. She chose Stepping Stone Farm in Plant City. It is a school for girls ages 13 to 17 who have emotional problems. They live on the farm in cottages and attend school. The girls are not allowed contact with anyone for the first 30 days, and then they must earn visits from relatives and friends.

Though most girls are not supposed to know they have been enrolled at the school until they arrive, Valessa found out somehow. Her friends say she told them about her mother's plan and confided that she and Adam had a plan of their own: to run away to Las Vegas and get married.

Stepping Stone had a waiting list, so Vicki had to bide her time. Finally, a date was set: Valessa would start at the new school July 7.

That day would end up being the day of Vicki Robinson's funeral.

* * *

On the night of Friday, June 26, Valessa, Davis and a friend named Jon Whispel went to the Robinson house. What happened in the next few hours is still not known, but two days later the three teens set off across the country in Vicki's Nissan minivan when they learned police wanted to talk to them about Vicki Robinson's disappearance.

"It seemed pretty clear that Valessa and Adam understood Vicki was probably the only thing that could stand between the two of them," said Vicki's friend Gibby Wilson, "and the only thing that could separate the two of them."
-- Times staff writers Sue Carlton, Angela Moore and Amy Herdy and researcher John Martin contributed to this story.

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