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Valessa Robinson pleads not guilty


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 21, 1998

TAMPA -- Valessa Robinson sat slumped in her chair early Monday alternately smiling and frowning as she waited to appear before a Hillsborough judge.

Then she stood with her attorney, Joe Registrato, as he entered a plea of not guilty to the charge she murdered her mother, Vicki, last month.

Without saying a word, Robinson, 15, shuffled out the door and returned to the Orient Road Jail.

All three teens charged in Robinson's murder appeared before Circuit Judge Cynthia Holloway for arraignment Monday, but they were not allowed in the courtroom together.

Earlier, Jon Whispel and Adam "Rattlesnake" Davis, both 19, were granted 10-day continuances to give their families time to figure out if they can pay for private lawyers. They will reappear before Holloway on July 30.

Prominent defense attorney Mike Benito appeared with Davis after a friend of Davis' asked Benito to give Davis some time to come up with the money to hire him.

"Whoever is hired, one of his biggest jobs will be to try to save the boy's life," Benito said. "That's a very heavy burden for any defense lawyer."

Whispel's attorney, Stephen Crawford, said he doesn't know whether Whispel's family will be able to afford to hire him either. But Monday he was more concerned with asking the judge to let Whispel call his mother.

His client's phone privileges were revoked over the weekend because of attempts by Robinson and Davis to talk to each other by a conference call with a friend. Their phone privileges also were taken away.

"It's not fair for him to get lumped in with the star-crossed lovers," Crawford said. "He was not violating the rules."

Holloway told Crawford she had no jurisdiction over the jail and suggested he speak with Hillsborough sheriff's officials. Before noon, jail officials agreed to allow Whispel to use the phone.

Whispel's aunt Cheryl VanNuil (pronounced VanNile) said Monday that she and Whispel's mother had visited him for the first time at the Hillsborough jail on Saturday.

"He has a good attitude, which I told him was really important," VanNuil said. "He knows he's in trouble. He's apologetic. He's remorseful."

VanNuil clasped a dozen photographs of Whispel which she brought to show reporters. One photo, taken a decade ago, showed a smiling boy in a green football uniform. Another depicted a small tyke standing in front of a pool. A portrait of the Whispel children included his sister Holly, now 26, and his brother Christopher, now 24.

"Do I believe he did it?" VanNuil asked. "No."

Holding up a photo of a young and smiling Whispel, VanNuil added, "This should have been on the news, not the picture you have."

VanNuil said her nephew had always been a good kid and any involvement he had in the murder was out of character for him. Until recently, she said, he had no criminal record.

"He's never been in trouble," VanNuil said. "A year ago today you couldn't find anything in the courthouse on this boy."

VanNuil said she has never met Robinson or Davis, but she believes that Davis took advantage of Whispel when he was vulnerable -- after his parents divorced.

"I think with the family being disrupted, he found someone that could help him deal with it," VanNuil said.

"When you get to the bottom of the barrel, if there is someone going to be there at the top to offer you help out, I think you are going to raise your hand to that person."

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