A mother, a daughter, a murder
  

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A note to readers

The St. Petersburg Times will provide expanded coverage of the Valessa Robinson trial, which begins Monday.

In recent months, staff writers Sue Carlton, Thomas French and Anne Hull have interviewed many of the principals in the case, and poured through the thousands of pages of evidence gathered by investigators. Today and Monday, they detail the events that began with the disappearance of Vicki Robinson from her Carrollwood home in June 1998, and culminated in the arrest of her teenage daughter, Valessa, and two friends.

Starting Tuesday, the Times will provide daily an in-depth account of the proceedings in the courtroom and happenings behind the scenes.

Coming Monday

Taken from their cells in Texas in the middle of the night, Valessa Robinson, Adam Davis and Jon Whispel tell their stories of the night Vicki Robinson disappeared. Soon, their bonds of loyalty to one another are tested.


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Trial: The Great Divide

The Great Divide

On Monday, a Tampa teenager goes on trial, accused of killing her mother. It is a case where much is familiar but little seems to make sense.

By SUE CARLTON, THOMAS FRENCH and ANNE HULL, Times Staff Writers

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 9, 2000


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[Photo courtesy of Jim Englert]
Vicki Robinson with Valessa in a family portrait taken in the fall of 1997. For months, mother and daughter were locked in an escalating, emotional battle over rules and boundaries. But Vicki continued to reach out to her daughter. Below, a birthday card Vicki gave to Valessa.

card

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[Times photo: Jamie Francis]
Crowds on Seventh Avenue in Ybor City on a typical Friday night in November 1999. While the police searched for Valessa Robinson that weekend in June 1998, she and her friends were barely 10 miles away. For more photos, see Photo Gallery.


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A video camera in a police cruiser captured the arrest of the three teenagers on a stretch of Interstate 10 in Pecos County, Texas, on July 2. With both of its rear tires shot out, the Nissan Quest minivan spins off the interstate after a chase in which speeds reached 130 mph.


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[Times art]
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They left her in the woods.

They had a place in mind, beside a canal, down a dirt road and into the trees, and they put her in the minivan along with the shovels and took her there. It was already hot, even though the sun was not up yet, and the sweat ran down them as they carried her.

After, they wandered. They had the numbers for her money, and they used the money to buy what they needed to fly, and they had their bodies punctured and indelibly marked. One of them purchased a ring and declared his intentions. They were a family, a makeshift family formed out of tears and blood, and they were soaring, and they pretended that nothing could come between them, now that she was gone.

For days they stayed in town, in the shadow of what they had done. At last, when their faces made the news, they cut north, moving across state lines, past countless police departments that knew their names, through moonscapes of truck stops and oil derricks. On and on they drove, along the gulf and across the great river in the dark, and not once in all those hundreds of miles did any of them wonder aloud about her, alone where they had hidden her in the summer heat. Beside the interstate, they paused long enough to buy fireworks, so they could celebrate their own independence day.

They were still on the highway, flying westward with the sun, when they met with a sheriff who paid attention and a deputy who had a gift for shooting out tires at high speed. In the dead glare of a Thursday noon, they came crashing to the ground.

"Where's the mother?" an officer shouted.

The three of them were handcuffed and taken away and then brought back to Tampa to wait for their day before the judge and jury. Over all of them hung a single question, the question they had left behind in the woods. The lawyers came and looked for their answers, and the psychologists came and probed for theirs. Anyone who saw them when they were brought shuffling in their chains into court could not help but wonder.

Maybe there was no answer at all. Maybe only a tangle of half-answers that went beyond mothers and fathers and their children and all that binds them together and rends them apart.

Months went by, and one of them turned, and another cried in front of the jury. And then there was only one left.

The one who still, after all this time, defies understanding. The one around whom everything else revolves. The daughter who goes on trial Monday.

Valessa.

The dog was in the street.

The neighbors noticed the sheltie that Saturday and wondered. They knew this dog; her name was Lady, and she belonged to Vicki Robinson, who lived in the house beside theirs on a quiet cul-de-sac in Village South, just outside Carrollwood Village.

Life in this planned community moved by timers and remote controls. Pool sweeps skimmed silently in back yards. Sprinklers hissed against the palms. Vicki, a 49-year-old real estate agent and divorced mother, was not the type to let her dog run loose. The neighbors had never seen Lady wandering on her own before.

So why was she outside now?

This was Saturday, June 27, 1998. The neighbors, Michael and Susan Kalupa, had known Vicki ever since she and her two daughters moved in a few years before. Mrs. Kalupa, who was up early that morning, had noticed Vicki's green Nissan Quest minivan pulling out of the driveway before dawn, but it was dark and she couldn't tell who was driving. Since then, neither she nor her husband had seen anyone at the Mediterranean-style house all day.

As the afternoon stretched on, a summer thunderstorm gathered, and Lady sought refuge inside the Kalupas' garage. Mr. Kalupa was struck again by how odd this was. Where was Vicki?

A little later, there was a knock at the Kalupas' front door. It was Jim Englert, Vicki's boyfriend. Jim was worried. He said he had been trying to reach Vicki; the night before, he had been over at Vicki's house and they had made plans to go to the beach that afternoon. But she hadn't shown up. When the Kalupas told him about the dog running outside, he grew more anxious.

Jim had met Vicki three years earlier through a Christian group called Single Purpose. Both were divorced and had teenage children. Both understood the difficulties of trying to be good parents in the wake of a divorce. They were talking of marriage. They had even gone house-hunting.

Vicki was petite and radiant. She found joy in the smallest details. Her famous pumpkin cookies. Barnes & Noble. Christian pop music. "Listen to this, listen to this," she would say, turning up the CD player in the minivan. Her favorite song was The Great Divide, by the all-female Christian group Point of Grace.

There's a bridge to cross the great divide

A way was made to reach the other side

But what Vicki barely revealed to her friends was the depth of her struggles with her younger daughter, Valessa.

Vicki's other daughter, Michelle, was 17 and visiting her father in St. Louis. Valessa, 15, had stayed in Carrollwood with her mother. For months, Valessa and Vicki had been engaged in an increasingly emotional battle over rules and boundaries. Valessa, who had just finished her freshman year at Sickles High School, kept running away from home. She smoked cigarettes and drank and used LSD, among other drugs.

Valessa seemed determined not to be what her mother was: cheery, traditionally feminine and awash in suburban pastels. So she tried to make her own identity, usually forged by a crush on a boy. Once, when Valessa participated in a college research project on teens, she told the interviewer that she resented parental control, especially by her mother.

"She wants me to become a prep," Valessa said. "And I was like, well, that's not who I am. . . . I'm a Valessa."

Her latest boyfriend was 19-year-old Adam Davis. Some people called him Rattlesnake because he wore a necklace adorned with a rattle from a snake he'd killed on the side of the road. Adam's mother had disappeared when he was a baby; his father had died in a motorcycle crash when he was 15. Since then, Adam had moved from place to place, living with relatives, friends, whoever took him in. Recently he had been living in a mobile home park not far from the Robinson house. He had a lengthy arrest record and had just spent six months in jail for theft and burglary.

Adam could be polite, even charming. He was impressed with Vicki's house. He couldn't get over the dining room table, with cloth napkins folded into the wine glasses; he thought it looked like the family was always ready to have a birthday party. Vicki and Adam seemed to get along. Sometimes he called her "Mom."

Still, Vicki was worried. Valessa talked about Adam constantly; she had even saved a packet of letters he'd sent her from jail.

One night, after Adam got out of jail, Vicki awoke to noise coming from the other end of the house. In Valessa's bedroom, she found Adam hiding in the closet, a sheet wrapped around him. Valessa was unrepentant. She told her mother she wanted to have Adam's baby. She said they were getting married and would get a place of their own.

Vicki tried to reason with them. Did they know how much rent would be? Utilities? Car payments? Nothing seemed to get through.

Even professional counseling wasn't working. At a therapy session late that June, Valessa had spat on her mother in the stairway outside the counselor's office.

Valessa had made vaguely threatening comments to her mother, telling her that if she tried to separate her from Adam, she knew people who could "take care" of her.

Vicki knew she had to do something more radical. With Jim's encouragement, she decided on Steppin' Stone Farm, a Christian boarding school for troubled girls in rural Hillsborough County. Valessa was scheduled to start there in just a week and a half.

"Does Valessa know that she's going?" one of Vicki's friends had asked her.

"Oh my God," Vicki said. "She would kill me if she knew."

In the meantime, Vicki was trying to keep things as calm as possible. She was allowing Adam to come to the house, even allowing Valessa to go places with him. Valessa and Adam had been together the night before, on Friday, June 26. That was the evening Jim had come over to the house. Jim and Vicki had just finished eating dinner when Valessa came into the kitchen.

"Hey, Jimbo," she said.

The way she said it had caught him off-guard. She'd never called him that before -- normally she referred to him simply as Jim -- and there was a strange familiarity to it that he would remember later.

Valessa didn't stay long that night. She told her mother she wanted to ride her bike to Joffrey's, a nearby coffee shop where her friends hung out. Adam had called and asked Vicki if Valessa could go with him; Vicki had told him yes, as long as he had Valessa home by 11:30.

Shortly before the curfew, Jim and Vicki were sitting in the living room when Adam and Valessa returned, along with a friend. Jim didn't know this third person; all he knew was that he was a friend of Adam's and that his name was John.

Jim was on his way home, so he offered Adam and John a ride in his car. But Valessa told her mom that they weren't ready to leave. Jim had kissed Vicki good night and driven away.

Now, the next day, Vicki was nowhere to be found. Jim had called her at home, called her cell phone, called her pager. Nothing.

At the house, Jim did not go inside. He didn't have a key. But through the windows, he saw that the lights were off and that no one appeared to be home. Vicki's minivan was not in the garage.

It turned out that Vicki had missed several engagements that day. She'd had appointments at work; she'd also made plans to go shopping with a friend for a bridesmaid dress at Brandon TownCenter.

Vicki -- responsible, considerate Vicki -- had shown up for none of it.

The call came into the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office that Saturday night at 8:29.

It was Jim Englert. He wanted to report a missing person.

Deputies met Jim at Vicki's house. Jim said he was worried that something had happened to Vicki. Maybe she was inside the house. Maybe she was hurt and could not answer the door.

When the deputies forced their way in, they found no one inside. They also found no blood or obvious evidence of a struggle, no note or message from Vicki. Just a dark and empty house.

One of the deputies spoke with the Kalupas, who told him how they had found Vicki's dog running loose and how one of them had seen her van leaving the house early that morning. Another neighbor also reported that he'd seen the van drive away before dawn and return a short while later. Though the van was now gone, no one appeared to have seen when it last left.

Jim had noticed something else.

In the garage, Vicki kept a large green plastic garbage can. Jim had taken some trash out to the garbage can just the night before; it had been empty.

Now, as he looked through the garage, Jim realized the garbage can was missing.

That Saturday, Valessa and Adam were riding in the Nissan Quest.

From interviews and statements given later, it is clear that the two of them roamed aimlessly that day. They had a friend with them, and together they went to a Kmart to buy some pants. Somewhere in those first hours, they also headed for a cemetery.

Adam wanted to see his father's grave. He had been close to his father and talked about him often. On his left arm, he wore a tattoo of a cross, marked with his father's initials: KD, for Kenneth Davis.

That day, Adam told the others he wanted to go to Sumter County, to the place where his father had been buried after his motorcycle accident in 1994. They stopped at a convenience store and bought a plastic red rose. Then they drove to the Florida National Cemetery and found the grave site and placed the rose on the grave. Adam and Valessa stood there for a moment, holding hands in the sun.

"Say a prayer if you want to say one," Adam said.

He dropped to his knees, lowered his head, closed his eyes. Valessa knelt beside him.

A few minutes later, they got back in the van and drove away.

As the police began searching for Vicki, an alarming picture was emerging.

Interviews with Jim Englert and with Vicki's boss and friends showed that they were aware of Vicki's problems with Valessa. Just a month before, Valessa had run away again with Adam. A Tampa police officer had found them hiding at a friend's house; at first they had denied their identities, but they were given away when the officer saw Valessa's book bag, decorated with writing that said, Valessa loves Adam and Adam loves Valessa. When the officer led Adam away, charging him with aiding in the flight of a minor, Valessa had turned on him.

"Why are you arresting him, you son of a bitch?" she'd screamed.

A check was made with the Denny's in Carrollwood, where Adam had briefly worked as a dishwasher. His supervisor, an assistant manager at the restaurant, said that he had last seen Adam on the previous Friday afternoon, when he'd stopped by to try to pick up his paycheck. Adam had been scheduled to work the next morning -- this would be Saturday morning, the day of Vicki's disappearance -- but had called around 10 a.m. to say he wasn't coming in.

By Monday morning, Vicki and Valessa were both listed as missing persons in the sheriff's reports. The homicide squad had been called in, just in case.

One of the first things the detectives did was search the house in Carrollwood. The kitchen and living room were clean, almost immaculate; in the laundry room, clothes were still inside the washing machine and dryer. In the master bedroom, a nightgown of Vicki's lay draped across a chair, along with a bra. The bed was unmade, with the covers turned down on both sides.

In Vicki's office, the detectives noted a pile of papers on the desk, including Vicki's calendar book and an invitation to an event at the Tampa Yacht & Country Club. There was also a subpoena summoning Valessa as a possible witness against Adam in the charge that had arisen from their running away the month before. Beside these papers was a religious booklet, What Does God Expect of a Woman?

Valessa's room was messy, with trash strewn on the floor beside the bed and a small garbage can filled with cigarette butts and beer cans. On the bed was a backpack, a Beastie Boys CD and a map of Florida.

The house was filled with pictures of Valessa and her sister and their mother. On her desk, Vicki had a framed picture, obviously taken before the divorce, of herself and her daughters and husband, all of them smiling as a family for the camera.

On a kitchen counter was a card that Adam had given Valessa, wishing her a happy anniversary. The exact anniversary was not apparent. The teens had known each other for only eight months; for most of that time, Adam had been in jail. But at the bottom of the card, Adam had written Valessa a message.

My love for you is like flowers that bloom in the sky. I love you.

Beneath these words, Adam had signed his name. Not just his first name, but his last too, as though he was not sure "Adam" was enough.

Searching through the drawer of a desk in Valessa's bedroom, the detectives found letters written to her from the Hillsborough County Jail. The letters were not from Adam, but from someone named Jon Whispel.

Was this the "John" who had been at the house the night Vicki was last seen? The detectives soon discovered that a Jon Whispel, age 19, had been arrested with Adam Davis the previous year and charged with breaking into a vacant house.

A detective went to a Papa John's pizza outlet where Whispel worked. An assistant manager there confirmed that she had seen Jon on Friday evening; he had left with Adam and Valessa. A detective also went to the house where Whispel lived with his mother, in a Town 'N Country subdivision. Whispel's mother told the detective that she had no idea where Jon was but that he was probably with Adam. Whenever Jon got into trouble, she said, he seemed to be with Adam.

The last time she'd seen Jon was Friday afternoon. She thought he'd been home sometime after midnight Saturday, though. She had heard the sliding glass door open around 1 a.m.; when she got up to see who it was, no one was there. When she woke up on Sunday morning, some of Jon's clothes were gone, along with his Green Bay Packers duffel bag.

On the table, she found $9 that Jon had owed her for long-distance calls.

Nothing the three of them did in that long blur of a weekend made any sense. They ran away from the Robinson house, but they didn't leave town. They lay low, but only half-heartedly. They visited friends. They prowled Ybor City, always at night, under the yellow cast of the street lamps of Seventh Avenue. They ate chili dogs from a street vendor. They used Vicki's cell phone to score drugs. As long as they had her ATM card, they were flush.

Later, investigators would piece together their weekend from interviews with Valessa's and Adam's friends, with others who saw them and with Jon Whispel. Eventually Whispel would describe these days in detail, in statements made to prosecutors and defense attorneys and in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times.

According to Jon, they wandered around Tampa for three days, with Adam behind the wheel of Vicki's van. They talked about getting passports and fleeing to Australia. They talked about leaving for Arizona. Or maybe heading north and slipping across the border into Canada and buying a cabin in the woods.

Of Vicki, Whispel remembers, they said almost nothing.

Saturday, after visiting the grave of Adam's father, they checked into a Motel 8 off Interstate 4, not far from downtown Tampa. They registered under Jon's name; he was the only one who had a driver's license. They got a room with two beds; Jon took one, Adam and Valessa the other. They slept for a while, then decided to go out.

"As long as we're under their noses, they won't find us," Adam said.

That night they drove to Ybor City. They splurged on new tattoos and piercings. At first they went to a parlor in Ybor called the Blue Devil Tattoo Gallery, but the line was too long. So they went to Valhalla instead. A sign on Valhalla's wall prohibited intoxicated customers from getting tattoos, but Adam and Jon were already high. Adam got a joker on his arm; Jon picked out a skull.

From a couch inside the parlor, Valessa watched them spend her mother's money. She was the one who had given them the code for her mother's ATM card; Vicki, she said, had always used the same code for all her cards.

People who saw Valessa that weekend said she didn't look well. Maybe it was the drugs. She complained about not feeling well.

"I want a baby," she said to Adam. "When are we going to have a baby?"

"When you support me," Adam replied.

Using Vicki's mobile phone, Adam and Jon called their drug connections. They were looking for "beans," or ecstasy.

Saturday night melted into Sunday morning. Adam and Valessa and Jon drove to Cream, a rave club in downtown Tampa, where they scored three hits of ecstasy for $60. They sat outside Cream, watching the street scene.

At 1:43 a.m., they stopped at an ATM at a BP gas station on 14th Avenue and took out $200. At 5:32 a.m., they used another ATM, this time at a Winn Dixie, and took out another $100; at 6:40 a.m., at another Winn Dixie, another $100 and then $100 after that.

It was daylight when they returned to the motel. They were still high. Jon was sweaty and took a shower. He was under the water when he heard loud banging, then shouting. "Police!" someone screamed, pounding on the bathroom door. Jon threw open the door.

Adam was standing there, smiling. "I scared you, didn't I?"

Later that day, they packed their things and checked out. Valessa was tired and growing more withdrawn. Repeatedly, she said she was ill.

Jon asked what was wrong.

Valessa pointed to her crotch. "It hurts down there."

She was possibly suffering from a urinary problem or a yeast infection. Either way, she and Adam and Jon were not ready to risk a visit to a doctor.

They checked into a La Quinta Inn not far from where they'd stayed the night before. Again, they registered under Whispel's name. In Room 207, they lay in their beds, watching Scream 2 on pay per view.

Sunday night, they returned to Valhalla for more tattoos. As always, Adam drove. They took LSD. They bought a pepperoni pizza. When Ybor City shut down for the night, they went to a 24-hour Walgreens and bought a screwdriver. Adam had an idea.

They cruised the streets of a South Tampa neighborhood off Westshore Boulevard -- "we're like in where the rich stiffs are," Jon said later -- until they found another Nissan Quest minivan, parked outside a house. Adam crept up to the porch and unscrewed the motion detector light bulb. Using the new screwdriver, he removed the license plate from the minivan and switched it with the one on Vicki's van.

"There," said Adam, climbing back behind the wheel. "I feel safe."

They went to Apollo Beach and watched the sun coming up through the trees. They went to a Taco Bell. They went to a friend's house and hung out. They went to a Best Buy and bought CDs by Korn and Insane Clown Posse, all paid for with Vicki's money.

That Monday, when they stopped at the Wal-Mart at Dale Mabry Highway and I-275, Adam had a surprise for Valessa. In the lobby of the store, after they went through the checkout line, he held out a bag for her.

"Here, this is for you," he told Valessa.

"What is this?" she asked.

"Open it up and see."

In the bag, she found a small jewelry box. Inside the box was a ring.

Valessa looked at Adam.

"What's it mean?" she said.

"What do you think it means?"

"We're married?"

"For right now."

It was enough. When they left the Wal-Mart, Jon later recalled, Valessa was "sailing."

It was now Tuesday, June 30.

Working with Vicki's credit union, detectives were tracking the use of her ATM card. More than $1,000 had been taken from the account since Saturday. The most recent withdrawals had been made in the early hours of Tuesday. Two $100 withdrawals had been recorded at 12:30 a.m. at an Amoco station on Dale Mabry; another withdrawal, this one for $200, had been made a half-hour later at an ATM inside a 24-hour Home Depot.

Studying surveillance videotapes of the transactions, the detectives could see Adam Davis standing in front of the ATMs along with a van in the background that appeared to be the missing Nissan Quest.

Arrest warrants for Adam and Jon were issued, charging them with stealing the van and money from Vicki's account. Valessa was not charged; like her mother, she was still listed as a missing person.

People were calling the Sheriff's Office with tips. One came from a Tampa police officer who had seen Adam and Jon at the Home Depot about 1:45 a.m. on Tuesday. The officer had not recognized them until he saw TV reports on the case. He told detectives that he had seen Adam and Jon loading bags of concrete into a van.

The officer had even stood next to Jon inside the store's restroom. He had asked Jon about one of his tattoos.

"That's fresh?"

"Yeah, I just got it the other day."

The ATM card remained the most promising lead. Instead of closing Vicki's ATM account, the investigators and the credit union decided to keep it open; that way, Adam and the others would keep making withdrawals and giving away their whereabouts. A limit was put on the amount they could take out: $100 a day, just enough to entice them to come back for more.

Every time they used an ATM, they would be telling the police where they were. Without knowing it, they would be dropping electronic bread crumbs along their path.

The next morning, Vicki's credit union called with a hit. Several hits, actually.

The ATM card had been used five times during the night. At least, someone had tried to use it. Once the card maxed out on the daily limit, no more cash was being distributed. The first two attempts had been in North Florida, then twice more in Alabama, then once in Mississippi.

Valessa and her friends were on the move. They had fled the area, then headed north. Now they were driving west, skimming across the belly of the country.

They had found out they were newly famous.

In the early hours of Tuesday, just after Adam and Jon bought the bags of concrete at Home Depot, they got a page from a friend. Adam stopped at a pay phone.

"You guys were on the news," the friend said.

Adam got back into the van.

"We're getting out of here now," he said.

"It's about time," Jon said. "Let's go."

Why hadn't they left town right away? Maybe the cash and the minivan gave them a false sense of freedom. They could fill the van with gas. They could buy all the drugs they could find. They were on an absolute spree.

Only when they learned that they had made the news did they realize they needed a plan. Adam and Jon returned to their latest motel -- a Budget Inn -- and woke Valessa. Time to go.

They decided on Phoenix. Adam knew a drug dealer there who sold crystal meth; he thought they could sell the van and buy some drugs and get a cheaper car. Then they would cut north and drive to the Canadian border.

With the license plate stolen from the other Nissan Quest, they felt like they had some room to move. Still, they were worried that the police were closing in and might even have placed roadblocks on the interstate. Jon actually wondered if officers were searching for them at that moment with a helicopter and spotlight. They decided to avoid I-75 and take a detour through Pinellas County.

"So we left," Jon would later say, "went down the Howard Frankland, caught 19 and just rode."

It was still dark when they began the long crawl up U.S. 19. The strip malls and aluminum retiree encampments gave way to pastures of scrub pine. The lights of town disappeared until there was nothing but the red taillights of the logging trucks rumbling through Chiefland and Flat Branch. They pierced the dense pine forests of North Florida. Korn and Limp Bizkit blasted from the CD player.

Valessa rode in the front passenger seat while Adam drove. Jon was laid out in the back seat. The van was cluttered with the belongings they were carrying into their new lives: Adam's tattered copy of Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Identity, CDs, cartons of Marlboros, a cooler with lunch meat, bread and sodas. They also had Valessa's guitar, amplifier and Casio keyboard. They thought maybe they would start a band.

Somewhere among these items lay Vicki Robinson's purse. Inside was her pager. Tired of hearing it beep, one of them had turned it off.

Near the rural Florida town of Perry, they checked into a motel to sleep.

Back on the road that Tuesday night, they binged on ATMs along Interstate 10 near the Florida-Alabama line. At 11:17 p.m., they stopped at a Lucky 13 truck stop in Mossy Head. At 12:35 a.m., they tried another ATM in Crestview, and then another at 12:43 a.m. at an Oasis Travel Center when they crossed into Alabama. Another, at 1:11 a.m., at an Economy Travel in Loxley, Alabama; then one more, at 4:01 a.m., at a Flying J truck stop in Gulfport, Mississippi.

The truck stops flashed like garish pavilions sprawled beside the interstate. The parking lots were choked with diesel fumes and fleets of trucks, and inside, everything was for sale: cowboy belts, postcards, mufflers, country fried steak, coffee, pillows, phone cards, haircuts, anything for the travelers who pushed through on I-10.

"Showers, $5," advertised a sign at Oasis Travel, where the threesome stopped.

"Twenty-four ounce T-bone, $9.99!"

The Fourth of July was still three days away, but Adam and Jon and Valessa couldn't resist the fireworks stand next to a truck stop. They loaded up on bottle rockets, firecrackers and Roman candles. They planned on being in the Arizona desert on the night of the Fourth.

On the highway, Adam kept the cruise control on 75. All of them wore their seat belts, not wanting to invite the attention of a trooper. Adam ate sandwiches Valessa made; he and Jon took LSD and smoked marijuana.

They crossed the Mississippi River at night.

Looking through the window, Jon saw a wilderness of water and darkness. Below them, the river flowed; to the south stretched the Gulf of Mexico. Jon stared out toward the black expanse of the gulf and saw ship lights. For a second, he found himself wishing he could be on the water, away from the van and everything else.

Away.

The investigation was quickening.

Bulletins had been issued to law enforcement agencies along Interstate 10. At Vicki's credit union, employees were checking their computer every 15 minutes or so to see if any withdrawals had been attempted using the ATM card. The most recent activity had been in Gulfport, Mississippi, earlier that Wednesday. Since then, nothing.

Where were they?

That evening, a systems manager with the credit union monitored Vicki's account through the night, using a laptop computer at home. The detectives wanted to be alerted of another hit, no matter the time.

Bread crumbs. They needed more bread crumbs.

Adam kept the van pointed west.

Nocturnal creatures, the three of them were traveling almost exclusively at night. With the Mississippi River behind them, they flew through the low country of Louisiana, past the cypress swamps and the rice fields.

Outside Beaumont, Texas, they flew past an oil refinery, silvery against the darkness. As they came up on Houston, they passed the outline of the city's chrome towers.

Jon dozed in the back seat. He dreamed that the police were after them. He saw the sirens flashing behind them. He saw officers taking them away.

When he opened his eyes, the van was still hurtling down the highway.

Shortly before 4 that Thursday morning, one of the detectives in Tampa awoke at home to a ringing phone.

It was the credit union. Someone had just tried to use the ATM card at a truck stop in Luling, a small town in east Texas just off Interstate 10.

Officers in Luling were dispatched to the truck stop.

The van was already gone.

The trio was oblivious.

They had driven more than 1,100 miles. They had crossed through the territories of dozens of police agencies. Despite the bulletins alerting these agencies to the van's approach, no one had caught them.

They were halfway through Texas now, and only two states away from their destination in Arizona.

Mile after mile, the land flattened out to the ends of the brown horizon. The Texas emptiness between towns was so vast that car radios went dead for long stretches until at last a station crackled back onto the air. As they crossed that void, Adam and Valessa talked about the possibility of getting caught. What would they do? Later, Jon would recall their conversation.

"I'm gonna take all the blame," Valessa was the first to offer.

"I'll take the blame," Adam said.

Adam looked into the rearview mirror.

Jon said nothing.

The sheriff of Pecos County was having lunch with his wife when he got word.

Bruce Wilson was 51, trim, with sandy red hair and a soft but steady voice that did not invite debate. He looked like a Texas lawman is supposed to look. He wore a cowboy hat, a Western-style shirt with his sheriff's badge affixed to the pocket, blue jeans and cowboy boots; in his holster he carried a .45-caliber automatic with a scrimshaw carving of a bald eagle on the handle. He had worked for the Pecos County Sheriff's Office for more than 30 years; he had been sheriff since 1984.

It was a point of pride with Sheriff Wilson that he and his deputies did not allow suspects from other jurisdictions to slide right past them down the highway. Over the years, they had caught dozens of accused criminals: drug runners, car thieves and convicts on the run.

"We get lots and lots of business off I-10," Wilson would say.

Often, these accused criminals were running from someplace in Florida. For this reason, the sheriff was not particularly fond of Florida. He thought of the Sunshine State as a place that sent bad people his way, people who could end up hurting or even killing some of the citizens of Pecos County.

"I don't know how they get this far sometimes," he said, shaking his head.

That Thursday, at the Sheriff's Office in Fort Stockton, Wilson knew all about Vicki Robinson's disappearance and the search for her daughter and the two young men in the minivan. He had been reading the bulletins on the case. Around 7 that morning, when he came to work and sat down with his first cup of coffee, he noted that the latest teletype showed the fugitives stopping in the night at an ATM in Luling. They were coming his way.

Still, Luling was more than 400 miles to the east on I-10. It would take them some time to reach Pecos County.

That day, while he was home for lunch, the sheriff got a call from his head secretary, Shirley Young. A new teletype had just come over. There'd been another hit on an ATM, an hour or so before. This one was at a convenience store in Ozona, 100 miles to the east.

"What time?" he asked.

Shirley told him.

Wilson was familiar with the stretch of I-10 between Ozona and Fort Stockton. He knew how long it took to make that drive, which meant he knew when he and his deputies needed to be out on the highway, waiting for the van from Florida.

He climbed into his Chevrolet Blazer and drove out of Fort Stockton, past the Good Times Lounge, Raymond's Radiator Service, the Comanche Motel, past the giant statue of a roadrunner at the edge of town. He headed east on I-10. On both sides of him, coppery mesas jutted into the summer sky.

After 7 miles, he stopped at an overpass and joined a Texas Highway Patrol trooper who was parked in the median. Like him, the trooper was there to stop the minivan. A few moments later, one of the sheriff's deputies pulled up in his cruiser.

Thinking quickly, Wilson decided that he and his deputy would move farther down the highway. If the van appeared, they would turn on their lights and try to stop it. The trooper was to wait at the overpass. If the van did not stop, he was to throw a chain of spikes across the road and shred its tires.

Wilson and his deputy -- his name was Larry Jackson -- headed down the road in Jackson's cruiser. The sheriff drove; Jackson sat in the passenger seat. Wilson wanted them in one car, so that if there was any shooting, he would take care of the driving and his deputy would be free to aim carefully. The sheriff had seen police officers in the movies, driving their cars and shooting out the window at the same time; he thought it was a good way to shoot a hole in your own fender.

He parked the cruiser in the median of the highway, several miles down the road from the overpass where the trooper was waiting with the spikes. He and Jackson stopped at the end of a curve that made it impossible for approaching motorists to see them until the last second. They had not been sitting there for more than three minutes when a green Nissan minivan rolled around the curve.

"That looks like them right there," said the sheriff.

The van passed. Wilson pulled out of the median and fell in behind it. Inside the van, they could see at least two people; they also saw that the tag was from Florida, but it did not match the one listed on the bulletins.

Wilson was not satisfied. He flipped on the cruiser's sirens and flashing lights.

"And shooooo," he would later say, "they took off."

Within moments, both van and cruiser were racing down the highway at close to 100 mph. Wilson radioed the trooper down the road.

"Set up the spikes, 'cause they're running."

As they approached the overpass, Wilson hit his brakes and watched as the van sped straight through where the spikes were supposed to have been. They weren't there; the trooper hadn't thrown them down yet. Now the van was pulling away.

Wilson pushed his foot on the accelerator. Soon the cruiser was doing 130. In front of them, the van was veering back and forth through traffic, forcing other cars off the road. It cut in front of a Chevrolet carrying a man and woman and two small children, nearly clipping the car's front fender.

The sheriff was trying to pull alongside, but the van kept swerving into his path, blocking him. When Wilson finally managed to edge beside the rear of the van, the van forced the cruiser into the median.

Wilson got back onto the pavement and caught up with the van. They were traveling at close to 100 mph; they were also approaching the exits for Fort Stockton.

More traffic. More chances of someone getting killed.

Wilson told his deputy to shoot out the van's tires. Jackson had a 16-shot, .40-caliber semiautomatic Glock pistol. Leaning out the cruiser's passenger-side window, he aimed the gun and started pulling the trigger.

The left rear tire went first.

Then the right.

Then the van began to spin.

Inside the van, Adam and the others were panicking.

"They're shooting at us!" someone shouted over the blare of the CD. "They're shooting at us!"

They felt the rear tires thudding out. Then Adam lost control, and suddenly they were going round and round.

In that instant, the music went dead.

The van skidded across the pavement. Still spinning, it left the highway, went down the embankment and disappeared in a cloud of dust.

The sheriff and his deputy followed. Behind the cruiser, the highway patrol trooper and another Pecos County deputy had joined the chase in their cars.

For a moment, Wilson and Jackson thought the van had crashed. Stopping his cruiser, Wilson radioed for an ambulance.

Then they saw it. Even with the rear tires shot out, the van was still moving. Materializing out of the dust, it was driving straight at them.

"Here they come again," said Wilson.

Like his boss, Deputy Jackson was not a man who ruffled easily. By now he had stepped out of the cruiser. As the van careened toward them, he aimed his Glock and shot out the front tire on the passenger side.

Not enough. The van was still coming at them.

Jackson did not budge. He raised the Glock higher. Now it was pointed at the head of the approaching driver.

Suddenly the van jerked to the right and headed down the service road. By now, with three tires gone, it was not moving quite as quickly. But it was still moving.

The sheriff and his deputy got back in the cruiser. They and the other officers swarmed after the van, trailing more dust, as it turned onto a two-lane blacktop road that cut underneath the highway.

Wilson drove up alongside the left of the van. From only a few feet away, Jackson had a clear shot and took out the left front tire. The van was now riding only on its rims.

Still not enough.

Jackson squeezed the trigger again and fired into the side of the van, close to the driver's seat. It was a warning shot, telling Adam that if he continued he would be fired at next.

The van stopped.

They were still on the two-lane blacktop, near some railroad tracks. They were almost 10 miles from the curve in the interstate where the chase had begun, and almost 1,500 miles from the house in Carrollwood where everything else had begun.

The sheriff, his deputies and the highway patrol trooper converged on the van. Their weapons were drawn. They were shouting.

"Get out of the van!" Jackson told Adam.

Adam stayed behind the wheel even as Jackson opened the door. He began pushing Jackson, the deputy would later say, and tried to hit him with his fist. Jackson thwacked Adam on the side of the head with his pistol and dragged him out, throwing him to the ground.

Officers were hauling Valessa and Jon out of the van as well. Jackson, who had handcuffed Adam, saw Jon moving an arm underneath his body and thought he might be pulling out a weapon.

"Watch his hands!" he yelled to the sheriff.

Wilson kicked Jon until he held still. Soon he and Valessa were handcuffed, too.

The officers looked inside the van, making sure Vicki Robinson was not there. They turned to Adam and the others and asked where she was. They said they didn't know.

"The last time we saw her," one of them said, "she was at the house."

All three were face-down on the ground, beside the van that had brought them all this way. In their pockets, they carried the souvenirs of their journey.

Jon had a motel receipt and a pack of menthol Marlboros. Valessa had a black lighter, a brown pocketknife and $200 in cash. And Adam? His pockets were heavy with eight $20 bills, one $5 bill, a Wal-Mart receipt, plus Vicki's ATM card and her American Express card and her Barnett Bank card and her Citibank card and her Mobil card.

Wilson surveyed the three of them. He looked at the two young men, with their pierced eyebrows and their brand-new tattoos. He looked at Valessa, with her oversized pants and her long brown hair and her pale white skin, almost untouched by the light of day.

The sheriff was struck by how unremarkable she appeared.

"Just a girl in baggy britches," he'd later say. "Just another girl."

Late that night, after the three of them were taken away and sent to sleep in separate cells, two detectives flew in from Tampa to hear what they had to say. The detectives sat down with Valessa first. Like the others, she had a story to tell and was willing to tell it.

As the detectives listened, one of them was struck by how cold Valessa seemed. She did not cry. She did not break down.

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