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Slaying results in probation

An 83-year-old man's sentence for killing his great-grandson is well below state guidelines.

By CHASE SQUIRES

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 15, 2000


DADE CITY -- A courtroom packed with Ernest Nielsen Rodbro's friends and family erupted into applause Wednesday as a judge sentenced the 83-year-old to probation instead of prison for shooting his great-grandson to death Thanksgiving Day.

Rodbro, originally accused of first-degree murder, then indicted on a charge of second-degree murder, pleaded no contest to an amended charge of unnecessary killing to prevent an unlawful act. Circuit Judge Wayne Cobb withheld ruling on his guilt or innocence and went well below state guidelines, sentencing him to two years of probation.

Cobb said he agreed with Rodbro's attorney, Ray Lopez, that a host of circumstances allowed for a departure from the 7- to 15-year sentence that would normally apply.

Rodbro, Lopez said, acted in self-defense when he fired two .32-caliber bullets into 19-year-old great-grandson Brian Adam King at the family's home in the Williamsburg subdivision, off Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. Rodbro also suffers from ailments that could not be treated in prison, and has no criminal record -- not even a traffic ticket -- his attorney said.

"He did what he felt at that time was the only thing he could do to protect himself and his family," Lopez said. "It's clear this is not a violent man. He's been known as "the gentle giant' by those who love him."

More than 30 friends and relatives sat behind Rodbro wearing a blue ribbon in solidarity. Dozens of others wrote letters to the judge seeking mercy, and as Lopez and others addressed the judge Wednesday, many in the courtroom wept.

Lopez said Rodbro and his wife, Willo, were having Thanksgiving dinner with their daughters as King alternately sulked and ranted in his room, Lopez said.

The teen had lived with his great-grandparents since his mother -- their granddaughter -- died of AIDS when he was 9, Lopez said. The teen began having emotional trouble at Land O'Lakes High School, falling into drug use and eventually dropping out. His family said he became withdrawn, refused to speak with family and friends and couldn't hold a job.

King became violent on Thanksgiving, Lopez said. He trashed his room, and when the Rodbros summoned Pasco County sheriff's deputies, he refused to come out. Deputies left the family a packet on domestic violence.

King emerged after the deputies left, flipping furniture and threatening to kill the family and deputies if they returned, Lopez said.

In his tirade, the teen brandished a baseball bat, ransacked the house looking for a hidden shotgun, and snatched butcher knives from the kitchen, Lopez said.

"He actually took Mr. Rodbro, pushed him up against the wall in the hallway," Lopez said.

In fear, Willow Rodbro locked herself in a bathroom and called 911 again for help.

Moments later, Lopez said his client fired one shot at his great-grandson in self-defense as King brandished a kitchen knife. The bullet struck the teen in the chest.

As King began flailing around the kitchen, Lopez said Rodbro tried to convince him to settle down so he could call an ambulance. When King came at him again, Rodbro tried to fire a warning shot, instead striking King in the neck, possibly as he turned his head, the attorney said.

The bullet crashed through the base of King's skull, behind his left ear.

Sheriff's deputies reported when they arrived, Rodbro only gave a brief statement: "If you guys had gotten here sooner, I wouldn't have shot him. I hope he dies."

Rodbro explained that statement Wednesday. He said the remark was made in the midst of remorse as he worried about his great-grandson living in a comatose state. He said he was praying that if the teen was going to die, then he would go quickly and not suffer.

Rodbro later remembered the boy fondly, recalling his active childhood and his love of sports. When King was born and the father nowhere to be found, Rodbro said he was at his granddaughter's side in the hospital.

He said he always thought of King as the son he didn't have.

Rodbro's granddaughter, Kirsten Riveiro, collected more than 100 testimonials from friends and family, each describing him as a good, gentle man.

She told Cobb on Wednesday her grandfather is the "quintessential family patriarch," taking a loving interest in every member, providing a place to live or money -- even when he didn't have enough for himself.

When she returned to college in 1994, Riveiro said her grandfather enrolled in the same classes, so that when her job kept her from attending a class, he could take notes and share them with her.

Through tears she read a letter King's mother, Barbara, wrote to Rodbro in 1986. In the letter, Barbara King thanks her grandfather for helping her and for the love he showed her son, Brian.

"You are giving Brian the best role model that I could ever hope for," Riveiro read from the letter.

Rodbro tried to speak in court on his own behalf, but was quickly overcome by emotion.

"He was my only son," Rodbro told the judge. "I didn't want to hurt him. I just wish now we had just left the home ... it was scary."

Prosecutor Phil Van Allen, who had objected to a reduced bail for Rodbro at a hearing in December, said the state agreed during negotiations last month not to object to the defense request for a below-guidelines sentence.

Van Allen said the decision to offer the lower charge was made by State Attorney Bernie McCabe after Lopez explained Rodbro's version of what happened.

After he was fingerprinted and checked in with the courtroom probation officer, Rodbro accepted congratulations from his friends, then stopped to rest on a bench in the hallway.

"I'll never get back to normal, never," Rodbro said later. "When Brian died that night, I dreamed about him every night for months. Even later, a couple times a week I would wake up thinking of him. This morning, I woke up at 2 o' clock, he's always in my mind. I don't know as I'll ever get over it."

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