A mother, a daughter, a murder

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About this special report

The St. Petersburg Times is providing expanded coverage of Valessa Robinson's first-degree murder trial.

Over the past year, three Times reporters have interviewed many of the principals in the case, including Adam Davis, Jon Whispel, and friends of Vicki and Valessa Robinson. The reporters also have read the thousands of pages of evidence gathered. Valessa, Charles and Michelle Robinson declined to be interviewed.

Readers will notice some unusual aspects to the Times' coverage. The events in the courtroom, for instance, are being described in great detail; the stories also explore the complexities of the relationship between Vicki Robinson and Valessa.

Why so much coverage of one trial? Because the Robinson case encompasses powerful themes that run through the lives of many families: the struggles between teenagers and parents, the stresses of divorce, the problems of drugs and teens, the efforts of single parents to start over.

In delving beyond the matters being debated in the courtroom, the Times seeks to give a fuller portrait of this case and of the issues that have led so many readers to follow it.

Valessa Robinson's trial is expected to last about a week.

The case at a glance

Vicki Robinson, a 49-year-old real estate agent and divorced mother of two teenagers, vanished from her home in the Tampa suburb of Carrollwood on June 27, 1998.

Police soon focused their investigation on Mrs. Robinson's 15-year-old daughter, Valessa, who had disappeared, too. Mrs. Robinson had been struggling to keep control of her rebellious daughter and was concerned about Valessa's new boyfriend, Adam Davis. Davis, 19, recently had spent six months in jail for theft and burglary.

Six days after Vicki Robinson's disappearance, Valessa Robinson and Adam Davis -- along with 19-year-old Jon Whispel -- were arrested after a high-speed chase on Interstate 10 in Texas. The next day, Mrs. Robinson's body was found in a garbage can in woods a few miles from her home.

Whispel reached a deal with prosecutors and turned against his friends. He said that on the night of the murder, he, Valessa and Adam had taken LSD. As they sat in a Denny's restaurant talking about what to do, Valessa suddenly suggested they kill her mother. Inside the Robinson home, Davis attacked Mrs. Robinson and stabbed her, Whispel said, adding that at one point Valessa held down her mother.

Whispel pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Late last year, Adam Davis was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.

On Monday, Valessa Robinson's trial began with jury selection. She is charged with first-degree murder, which carries a sentence of life in prison. Because Valessa was only 15 at the time of the murder, she does not face the death penalty.

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Trial: Valessa in the tower

Valessa in the tower

Jury selection begins with a litany of questions. But unspoken in the courtroom is the central question: How did a mother and daughter come apart?


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2000

[Times photo -- Jamie Francis]
Valessa Robinson's new look was so dramatic that her maternal grandmother barely recognized her in court Monday. "She never looked like that," said Donna Klug.
On Monday, the day she went on trial for first-degree murder, Inmate No. 98037702 was roused before 5 a.m. in her cell at the Hillsborough County Jail.

A guard knocked on the door. A breakfast of turkey sausage, pancakes, oatmeal, orange juice and coffee was pushed through the door's feed slot.

Alone in her cell, Valessa Robinson, 17, prepared for the most important morning of her life. In a few hours, attorneys would begin picking a jury to decide whether she was guilty of killing her mother, Vicki Robinson.

Valessa was wearing a bright orange jail uniform. When it was time to go, her hands and feet were shackled and she was led to the back of a sheriff's van, escorted by two deputies. The van left the jail and headed toward downtown Tampa. Behind it, the sun was rising.

Soon the van arrived at the Hillsborough County Courthouse Annex, a sprawling slab of a building flanked by two towers. Valessa was taken to a service elevator that carried her to the third floor of the building's north tower. Then she was led through a maze of beige corridors and deposited in a small holding cell, just off the courtroom.

A short while later, Valessa was led to a room normally used for jury deliberations. A bailiff unlocked her shackles, and Valessa removed the orange jail uniform. One of her lawyers had brought her an outfit specially selected for this day.

She was ready to make her entrance.

* * *

The back door of the courtroom opened, and she walked in. She looked like a parochial school girl, wearing a black pleated skirt and a creamy cardigan set, her wavy hair parted sweetly on the side, held with a simple barrette. With bowed head, she walked to the defense table in a shy, awkward gait. She kept her eyes lowered.

Her father, Chuck Robinson, who had visited Valessa almost weekly in jail since her arrest, watched from the second row.

In the fourth row were Vicki Robinson's parents, brother and sister.

So dramatic was Valessa's transformation that her maternal grandmother barely recognized her.

"She never looked like that," said Donna Klug. "That's not the way she dresses or does her hair."

Valessa settled beside her attorneys; one placed an arm around her shoulder and another leaned forward, blocking her from the cameras.

When Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett called for the first jury pool to enter the courtroom, one of Valessa's attorneys whispered, "Stand up," and she rose.

As the possible jurors filed in, the lawyers on both sides combed over them, calculating and imagining their biases, wondering who would be best.

With the right side of the courtroom now filled with 60 potential jurors, Judge Padgett gave his home-style explanation of a jury's job.

"First the jury will decide, if it can, what really happened at some other time and place," the silver-haired judge said. "Now you make that decision based on what evidence you hear and see, and then that becomes the official version of the events at some other time and place.

"And I like to call that the true facts."

* * *

A criminal trial truncates the truth. Memories are summoned on command, and what emerges -- what is allowed to emerge, after objections and haggling by lawyers -- is some limited version of the events surrounding a crime.

What the jury in Judge Padgett's courtroom will never know is the longer story of how a mother and daughter came apart. Maybe no one ever will.

But much is known about the final months of Vicki and Valessa's relationship. What's clear is that Vicki Robinson, a single parent pushed to the wall, decided her daughter was beyond all control. A plan was hatched.

Secretly, Vicki began researching residential programs for Valessa. A friend told her about a Christian facility called Steppin' Stone Farm.

The 85-acre ranch in rural Hillsborough County had a horse pasture and a creek, but the serene atmosphere was deceiving. The minimum stay was one year. Some young women had to be physically restrained when their parents pulled through the gates of Steppin' Stone and their fate became apparent.

On June 2, Vicki toured the property, viewing the cottages where the girls lived and the schoolrooms where they studied. Afterward, she filled out an application.

What is the primary reason for seeking placement?

To protect her and keep her safe in a Christian environment and bring her back to the Lord, Vicki wrote.

Vicki listed Valessa's problems: drug and alcohol use, sexual activity, threats of violence, running away, failing grades and suspensions at school. She mentioned the attempts at family and individual counseling.

She does what she wants to do when she wants to do it. If I ground her, she sneaks out or runs away. I really have no control over her.

At the $900-a-month Steppin' Stone, Valessa would be in similar company. "Valessa was no worse than any of the girls who come here," said Cindy Churchill, the director of Steppin' Stone.

Girls accepted into the program share common histories: Almost all come from divorced or blended families, and 90 percent are on anti-depressant drugs when they arrive.

"When you get them out of their environment, you take away their cruddy little friends, and you'd think they were Girl Scouts," Churchill said.

Still, Vicki was afraid to send Valessa away for a year. Valessa would fight and cry and feel betrayed. Worse, Vicki thought, she'll hate me.

Yet Vicki's own journal revealed just how long the struggles with Valessa had been going on. From an Oct. 4, 1997, entry:

Valessa didn't come home. I spent until 3 a.m. searching for her with three police cars and (friend's) parents.

There was a trip to University Community Hospital at 4 in the morning after Valessa mixed drugs and alcohol at a party. She'd been caught shoplifting two Lords of Acid CDs from Blockbuster Music. She would disappear for weekends, ignoring the beeper clipped to her jeans, buzzing with Vicki's pages.

By the spring of 1998, Valessa, a freshman at Sickles High School, was talking about having a baby with her 19-year-old boyfriend, Adam Davis.

Vicki suspected they were having sex in the house while she was at work. The thought, she told a friend, made her physically ill.

Valessa had a pet ferret she neglected to give water. "How can she take care of a baby when she can't even take care of a ferret?" Vicki asked her boyfriend, Jim Englert.

Vicki had been dating Jim for nearly two years. A divorced father of three, he was in love with Vicki, but Valessa gave him serious pause.

That spring, Vicki and Jim were attending lots of weddings as a couple. Their own question hung in the air.

Vicki felt Jim's hesitation. One night, she tearfully asked him, "Why would anyone want to marry into this family?"

In May, the month before the murder, they were getting ready to tee off on their regular Wednesday-after-work golf date when Vicki's pager beeped. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office had Valessa. She'd run away again.

Vicki was tired of being held hostage. "Why don't you just keep her?" Jim remembers Vicki telling the deputy. "When I get there, I'll get there." Vicki said she'd pick up Valessa after golf.

The Sheriff's Office threatened to charge Vicki with child neglect if she didn't come for Valessa right away. Vicki and Jim packed up their clubs.

"I don't know if I still have any love for this child," Vicki told Jim during this period.

Not long after, Vicki made the appointment to tour Steppin' Stone.

* * *

"This is real. What we're doing here is real," Assistant Public Defender Dee Ann Athan said as she faced the prospective jurors gathered in the courtroom Monday. "This is scary, defending a child. We play for keeps in here."

Watching her were mechanics and teachers and insurance agents, retired and self-employed and unemployed. Weeks earlier, each of them had been picked randomly, with nothing more in common than a driver's license. Each had received a rectangular summons by mail and reported to a courthouse auditorium as ordered. Together, they had stood and sworn to do their duty if picked to be jurors, and then they had waited in a dim auditorium with its tattered National Geographics. Then they were sent to Judge Padgett's third-floor courtroom.

Murder cases are usually assigned a pool of 30 potential jurors. Because publicity and notoriety could make it tougher to find people who hadn't already made up their minds about Valessa, Judge Padgett ordered a pool of 60.

As the prospective jurors were led into the courtroom, one of them glanced at the crowd of TV and newspaper cameras.

"Oh dear," she said.

Jurors are normally asked whether they have heard about the case at hand on the news. Prosecutor Shirley Williams, trim and businesslike, reversed it.

"Let me start by asking you if there is anyone who has not heard about this case," she said. There were few.

The crowd got a quick quiz on legal concepts. Did they understand the presumption of innocence? The burden of proof? How did they feel about legal theories such as voluntary intoxication, that a person could be too drunk or high to have intended to commit the crime?

Next it was Athan's turn. Her voice was gravelly, as if she had not slept.

"I am here with the awesome responsibility of representing that child, Valessa Robinson," she said, pointing across the room.

Earlier in the day, Athan had won a small victory: the right to refer to her client by her first name or as "this child." As the morning wore on, she showered Valessa with maternal affection.

"How you doing? You okay?" Athan said softly during a break. "We care about you."

Turning back to the prospective jurors, the lawyer kept pounding away with more questions.

She asked about their attitude toward drugs. Would they have any difficulty being fair and impartial in a case that involved LSD and other drugs?

Repeatedly she asked about divorce. She wanted to know how they felt about single parents, how they viewed mothers who worked outside the home.

* * *

What kind of parent was Vicki Robinson? Her heart was enormously, dangerously big. She sought the loving course of action. She wavered between being a mother and being a friend.

For three weeks in March of 1998, while Adam Davis was in jail, Vicki allowed a 21-year-old friend of Valessa's to stay in the Carrollwood house. James Hardee was a redhead with a lopsided grin; Valessa adored him.

Vicki taped Days of Our Lives on the VCR, and each day when Valessa returned home from school, the three of them -- Vicki, Valessa and James -- would sit on the couch, glued to the soap.

"Her mom made the best raisin bread," said James, who a few months later would be charged with possession of crystal meth.

By all appearances, Vicki looked the part of a Carrollwood suburban mom and real estate agent. At home, heart-shaped, mauve pillows on the couch accented the pink drapes. Even her perfume bottles -- Obsession, White Diamonds, Oscar de la Renta -- were arranged like glass stones on her dresser.

"She was so beautiful, so feminine," said Anita Romeo, a friend. "She had a soft melodic voice, her hair was soft, she wore dresses, just very beautiful. Everyone loved her."

Her bank checks were engraved with Scripture: The Lord is my strength and my song. But Valessa was a storm she wasn't prepared for.

It's impossible to say how much of Valessa's problems were caused by divorce.

Chuck Robinson had been married twice and was selling timeshares on the Gulf of Mexico around the time he met Vicki. She'd moved to Florida after a failed marriage in Michigan.

Vicki and Chuck married in 1980, but Chuck filed for divorce the next year, after the birth of their first daughter, Michelle.

They remarried the following year, and Valessa was born in 1983. This time, the marriage lasted longer, but in 1994, when Valessa was 11, Vicki filed for divorce. Vicki was working two jobs at Seminole Presbyterian School, where her daughters were enrolled. For extra money, she was driving the school bus.

Vicki and the girls moved into a $186,000 house in Carrollwood, bought by Vicki's father.

At Seminole Presbyterian, Vicki was transferred out of the preschool. She told friends she suspected the Christian school didn't want a divorced woman teaching young children. She stayed employed there partly so her daughters could receive a break on tuition. Valessa's mildly insurgent behavior -- uniform infractions, not doing her schoolwork -- was not glaring in middle school, yet was enough to catch the attention of teachers.

"There was an inner rebellion there," remembers Dee Jordan, dean of students. "She walked with her head down, dragging her feet, shuffling down the hall. She would walk like she was tired."

At first, Vicki and Valessa had typical mother-daughter struggles. Vicki wished Valessa would wear something more feminine than baggy JNCO skateboard jeans. Vicki encouraged Valessa to use her beautiful voice in the choir; Valessa wanted to start a metal band.

Vicki had trouble saying no to Valessa. Some of Vicki's friends worried that she gave in too easily.

On her 14th birthday, Valessa begged Vicki for a guitar and amplifier. Vicki couldn't afford the extravagance, but she didn't want to disappoint Valessa.

"How's Valessa been acting?" asked Theresa Goscinski, a close friend.

"Bad, maybe a little better," Vicki answered. "I don't know what else to get her."

"They are big girls, Vicki," Goscinski said. "They can comprehend you can't afford expensive gifts."

A week later, Valessa showed off her new guitar and amp to Goscinski.

It's unclear whether Vicki knew when Valessa's problems accelerated. One of Vicki's brothers in Michigan would later say that Vicki started reading Valessa's journal for clues. This is how she learned Valessa was sexually active, according to a friend.

At home, Valessa had turned her bedroom into a gothic antithesis of her mother's mauve world. She had a black light and a strobe. Pulsing from her stereo was the driving profanity of Insane Clown Posse.

When a school friend was considering running away from home, Valessa responded as the youthful desperado:

I guess the real question is, are you willing to give up everything? Everything you own, everything you care about? Your home, your parents, your friends, if you have any brothers or sisters, think about them. Once you leave, if someday you want to come back, everything will be different. Have you ever run away before?

And then she gave an eerie foreshadowing of future events:

Because once we get into that car we prepare for a life on the road, w/cops looking for us and parents worried sick. Since this summer, I've been getting used to depending on myself for anything and everything. I've run from the cops too many times, and finally I was caught and arrested. I always used to talk about running away, since this summer's that's all I've been doing.

On weekends, Valessa began hanging out at Three Lakes mobile home park, a modest trailer court off Sheldon Road in Town 'N Country, where a friend lived.

One particular mobile home was a weekend party house. Drugs -- $7 hits of acid, $20 hits of Ecstasy -- flowed freely, Korn and Marilyn Manson were on the stereo, and whoever wanted to chipped in for beer. James Hardee remembers seeing Valessa for the first time, in this mobile home, asleep in a chair.

For a while, Valessa and her older sister, Michelle, were both rebelling. Michelle bounced back, but Valessa just kept falling. Vicki was parenting alone; the girls saw their father, who'd moved out of state with his new wife, a few times a year.

Still, Vicki's Daytimer was crowded with real estate appointments, Bible studies, open houses at Sickles High, barbecues and day cruises with Jim Englert.

"She felt if she continued to celebrate life, she would bring them out of their dark little negative world," said Deborah Sartor-Englert, Vicki's close friend and wife of Jim's brother.

And then Adam Davis arrived on the scene.

He'd met Valessa early in her freshman year, but their friendship was cut short after a month or so, when he was sentenced to six months in the Hillsborough County Jail for grand theft and burglary.

In April, when Adam was released, he and Valessa had spent little time together. But in less than three months, Vicki Robinson would be dead.

* * *

In the courtroom, Athan conferred with Harvey Moore, a Tampa sociologist who helps lawyers pick juries. Although he usually commands a sizable fee, Moore had agreed to assist Valessa's lawyers for free. He sat in the front row, studying the men and women under consideration for Valessa's jury.

Athan wanted to probe the prospective jurors on their attitudes about parental discipline, about juvenile crime, about what it might mean for a 15-year-old girl to fall in love and have sex with a 19-year-old adult. Though she did not mention his name, Athan was clearly referring to Adam. She asked, would such a relationship be considered abuse? Would the girl be susceptible to the manipulations of the man?

Repeatedly, Judge Padgett reeled in the defense attorney, telling her she was ranging beyond the scope of jury selection.

"You're testing your case, Ms. Athan," he said. "You're not supposed to do that."

Athan moved on.

* * *

By the summer of 1998, Vicki Robinson had finally decided what to do.

After taking the tour at Steppin' Stone Farm, Vicki believed that the boarding school was the answer for Valessa. Even her ex-husband was part of the decision. Unbeknownst to his daughter, Chuck Robinson came to Florida to tour Steppin' Stone; the school required both parents, even if divorced, to agree to the placement. An admission date of July 7 was set for Valessa.

Trying to keep the plan a secret, Vicki asked that all Steppin' Stone correspondence be sent to her Re/Max realty office and that no messages be left on the home answering machine.

The weeks that followed were oddly calm. Vicki relaxed the reins on Valessa, not an unusual strategy.

"Parents are just keeping it in the middle of the road until they get here," said Cindy Churchill, the director of Steppin' Stone. "Keep them happy, no riot in the home, buy some time."

Vicki allowed Adam to spend the night in a guest room. It was the only way she knew to keep Valessa home. Vicki began to have second thoughts about her plan. What was she about to subject her daughter to for a year?

"She's driving around, she's happy, she's in love," Vicki told a friend.

"Vicki, you've got to do it," said her friend, Deborah Sartor-Englert.

Vicki would tell Valessa they were going horseback riding on July 7. In case Valessa was suspicious, Vicki wrote "dude ranch" in her Daytimer on that date. She would tell Adam that Valessa had unexpectedly gone to visit her father for the summer.

Vicki told Jim that she had the locks changed in the house, and a new pass code for the alarm system.

"All I have to do is handle Valessa," Vicki told a friend.

* * *

From the bench, Judge Padgett rumbled that it was time to call it a day.

It was 5:30 Monday. The lawyers were still searching for a jury. Many candidates had been questioned, some had been excused, others told to return for the next round of inquiries.

A bailiff walked over with handcuffs. Valessa held up her wrists.

* * *

Jury selection resumes this morning.

-- Research by John Martin. Transcription by Michael Canning.

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