The trial: Day 4
The prosecution presented its most important witness on the fourth day of the trial: Jon Whispel. As he had at Adam Davis' trial, Whispel told a very detailed story of the night Vicki Robinson was killed, and what happened afterward.
On cross-examination, the defense attacked Whispel's veracity, pointing to inconsistencies in the accounts he has given to investigators, attorneys and reporters. In her questions, Assistant Public Defender Dee Ann Athan also portrayed Davis as the person responsible for the murder, and Valessa as being under his control. When court recessed for the day, Whispel still was on the stand.
The trial will continue into next 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 inquiries on Mrs. Robinson's 15-year-old daughter, Valessa, who had disappeared, too. Mrs. Robinson had been struggling with 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 Mrs. Robinson's disappearance, Valessa and 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 woods a few miles from her home.
Whispel agreed to testify against his friends. He said that on the night of the murder, he, Valessa and Davis had taken LSD. As they sat in a Denny's 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, Davis was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.
Valessa Robinson is charged with first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. Because Valessa was only 15 at the time of the murder, she does not face the death penalty.
About this special report
The St. Petersburg Times is providing expanded coverage of Valessa Robinson's first-degree murder trial.
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.
The Times is seeking to give a full portrait of this case and of the issues that have led so many readers to follow it.
This series of special reports began in Sunday's Times. Back issues can be purchased at Times offices throughout Tampa Bay.
By SUE CARLTON, THOMAS FRENCH
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2000
His lawyer had prepared him for what was about to happen. The prosecutor would help him build his story, and then the defense attorney would try to tear it down.
The witness was nervous. Relax, his lawyer had said. Tell the truth. Don't be afraid to say you could be wrong. Don't be afraid to say you don't know.
Don't be afraid.
* * *
Back and forth they went.
Thursday morning, on the fourth day of Valessa Robinson's first-degree murder trial, the lead defense attorney stood up and argued that the state was changing its theory of who killed 49-year-old Vicki Robinson. Then the lead prosecutor got up and said the state was doing no such thing.
Enough, said Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett.
"I don't want to hear any more about it," he said.
The judge was eager for the lawyers to pick up the pace. And so they did. It was the busiest, most emotional day yet, a day when many inside the third-floor courtroom, including the 17-year-old defendant, were reduced to tears.
Early on, the prosecution called Elva Pena to the witness stand. On July 2, 1998, when Valessa was taken into custody in Texas, Pena was working as an officer at a juvenile detention center there in Odessa. Valessa was brought to the center and placed in Pena's care.
"About what time was it when you first came in contact with her?" Assistant State Attorney Pam Bondi asked Pena.
"It was about 6 o'clock that evening."
Pena said Valessa had been calm when she arrived at the detention center, but that later that night she had grown upset. Pena had not known what was wrong. She did not realize that, only an hour or so before, Valessa had told two detectives that she had stabbed her mother to death. Pena thought the 15-year-old girl in front of her was just another runaway.
"I was just trying to console her," Pena explained to the jury, "telling her everything was going to be okay, that she was gonna get to go home soon."
Then Valessa blurted it out. "I killed my mom."
Valessa's words frightened Pena. She had asked Valessa why she did it.
"And what was her response?" Bondi said.
"Because she said her mother would not allow her to be with her boyfriend."
For the defense, Pena's recollections were potentially devastating. Valessa's lawyers were already fighting to discredit the confession she had given that same night to the two detectives. The statement, the defense was arguing, had just been a story Valessa had made up to protect her boyfriend at the time, 19-year-old Adam Davis.
But if that was true, why would Valessa have felt it necessary to make another fake confession in an unguarded moment with Pena? She hadn't been interrogating Valessa; she hadn't even known Valessa was a murder suspect.
Why would Valessa have lied to her?
* * *
Pam Bondi stood up.
"The state calls Jon Whispel."
He entered through the back door, wearing an orange uniform and a blue jailhouse jacket. Escorted by a bailiff, he took his seat in the witness box and turned toward the rows of faces, all staring at him.
His skin was pale. His dark blond hair, which had fallen out in the months after the murder, had now grown back. He looked anxious, but only a little.
At the lectern, Bondi asked the witness to tell the jury about the deal that had brought him to this courtroom. The state, he said, had allowed him to plead guilty to second-degree murder and receive a sentence of 25 years in prison.
"In exchange for what?" asked Bondi.
"Truthful testimony at any hearings, trials or retrials of Adam Davis and Valessa Robinson."
There was no point in trying to hide the terms of the arrangement. And no point in pretending that Whispel was an innocent.
That was why the prosecution had not even bothered to dress him up in a suit and tie.
He was who he was.
Bondi asked how old he had been at the time of Vicki Robinson's murder. He was 19, he said. So was Adam. Valessa was 15.
"So you were all teenagers?"
The prosecutor had made her point. Just the day before, the jurors had heard Valessa's lead attorney, Assistant Public Defender Dee Ann Athan, calling her client a "little girl" who had been exploited by "these men."
Bondi asked Whispel to go through the events of Friday, June 26, 1998, the day Vicki Robinson died. Glancing toward the jurors, he explained how he and Adam and Valessa had spent much of the day with Vicki. She had taken the three of them with her on errands, driving them in her Nissan Quest minivan to JCPenney to have some shoes repaired and to Burger King for lunch.
That night, he said, he and Adam and Valessa had smoked marijuana, snuck out of the house, bought some LSD and then sat around at a Denny's in Carrollwood, talking about heading back to Valessa's room to trip on the LSD and stare at her black light.
Then Valessa, he said, came up with an idea.
"We're sitting around -- nobody's sayin' nothin' -- and all of the sudden, she gets happy and she says, "Let's kill my mom.' "
"What did you say?" asked Bondi.
"I was, like, how could you get away with this?"
A plan was formed, Whispel said. Adam wanted to get some heroin and inject Vicki with a fatal overdose. It didn't pan out; Adam couldn't find any heroin to buy. But he did obtain a syringe. So they returned to the Robinson house, where Vicki was asleep, and went into Valessa's room. Adam suggested using the syringe to inject Vicki with bleach and an air bubble.
Adam got the syringe ready, Whispel said, then went with Valessa into Vicki's bedroom. A few moments later, they came back and said that Vicki had woken up. They were about to hide the syringe when Vicki knocked at Valessa's door. Adam opened the door, and Vicki told Valessa to grab her sleeping bag and come with her. Vicki had just turned away when Adam went after her.
Whispel said he and Valessa heard sounds of a struggle. They went into the kitchen, and there was Adam, his arm in a choke hold around Vicki's neck. Adam told them he needed the syringe; he wanted Valessa to restrain her mother until he came back. Adam found the syringe, then returned to the kitchen. Whispel said Vicki was on the kitchen floor, struggling to get away from her daughter.
"And what was Valessa doing?"
"She was sitting on her mom's legs."
Adam put the syringe with the bleach into Vicki's neck. Valessa was still on top of her mother, hitting her in the stomach. Adam had a folding knife in Valessa's bedroom. Whispel said he grabbed the knife, then handed it to someone in the kitchen. He didn't see who.
Why did he do it? Bondi asked.
"To this day, I don't know," he said, rubbing his eyes. "And I don't think I'll ever know."
He went back into the bedroom with Valessa. A few minutes later, Adam joined them, holding the bloody knife.
"Baby," Whispel remembered Valessa saying, "you need to wash your hands."
Adam went to the bathroom to clean himself up, and then he joined the other two in Valessa's bedroom. They were sitting there, smoking cigarettes, when they heard moaning from the kitchen.
"The bitch won't die," Adam said.
As Whispel spoke these words, the courtroom was overflowing. Aside from Bondi's questions and Whispel's answers, the room was silent. The details, recited so starkly, were painful even for a veteran prosecutor to hear. A year before, when Whispel had first given his account to the state, Bondi had been so sickened she had to leave the room.
Now, here in court, she again found it difficult; later, she would say it made her stomach hurt. She asked the witness to continue.
Whispel said Adam went back into the kitchen and finished stabbing Vicki.
Quickly, Whispel went through the rest. How he and Adam had cleaned up the blood. How they had put Vicki's body into a garbage can and then left it in some woods near Whispel's house. How the three of them had spent the next few days wandering from one Tampa motel to the next. At one point during that weekend, he said, Valessa had spoken briefly of her mother, saying she was glad that Vicki was dead.
"She's, like, "Well, now I'm free. I can do whatever I want.' "
Whispel said that throughout the weekend, the three of them had ridden in Vicki's minivan, with Adam driving.
At the lectern, Bondi asked Whispel where he'd sat in the van.
Right behind Adam, Whispel said.
"And where was Valessa?"
"Right beside him."
Early on the Tuesday after the murder, Whispel said, the three of them had left town. In Texas, they had finally been apprehended by deputies from the Pecos County Sheriff's Office. Adam had tried to outrun the deputies. When he saw the first flashing light, he had floored it.
"Where was Valessa?" Bondi asked again.
"Right beside him."
"And where were you?"
"Right behind him."
Bondi's point was obvious. Valessa had gone along with everything.
* * *
Long before he entered the courtroom, Jon Whispel's life had an invisible quality. In hundreds of pages of depositions, Whispel revealed himself to be a lost boy.
He once had lived in a working class, asphalt subdivision in Town 'N Country with his parents and an older brother. He began smoking pot daily in the 10th grade at Jefferson High School, despite his parents' protests.
"They could tell because I used to come home high," Jon said. "The only thing they really knew I was doing was the weed. They didn't know about the acid, the coke."
He describes a home life where parents quarrelled, partly over his dad spending too much time in an Internet chat room. His dad moved out of the family's house in 1997, when Jon was in the 12th grade.
When Jon got a car that year, he dropped out of school.
He moved within a loose coalition of floaters: Taco Bell jobs, partying at Three Lakes mobile home court in Town 'N Country, weekends in Ybor City.
At night, high on LSD, they would go to "Trip Park," a stretch of grass and trees downtown on the Hillsborough River, to look at the skyscraper lights.
Jon usually worked -- Golden Corral, Winn-Dixie, Albertsons -- but never one place for long. He was fired from Walgreens for stealing cigarettes.
He wanted to leave Florida, he said, "because Florida sucks. . . . Just to get out of the atmosphere of the people."
Jon met Valessa and Adam in October of 1997. Valessa, he says, had run away.
"She gave me her beeper number to see if she got home all right," Jon said, "because she said she was going to go home after she ran away."
The year before Vicki Robinson's murder, Jon and Adam stole a van. Adam wanted to go to Arizona. They got as far as Tallahassee, where they were chased by law officers and ditched the van. The owner of the van didn't press charges, but Adam and Jon were supposed to get jobs to pay for the damages.
"We never had the time," Jon said. "We was either at Valessa's house, or we was out."
Not long after, Jon and Adam were arrested for sleeping in an abandoned house. Adam, who had a record, was sentenced to six months in jail. Jon's father bailed Jon out six weeks later, for Christmas.
With no school, Jon drifted. He went to Legends Field to watch the New York Yankees. He went to the beach. He got fired from jobs. He used liquid LSD and paper jack-in-the-box LSD.
When later asked to describe what it felt like to be on LSD, Jon could barely articulate the sensation. But what he said captured the essence of his life:
When tripping, he said, "You're not really there."
* * *
"Good afternoon, Mr. Whispel," said defense attorney Dee Ann Athan.
Then she attacked.
For Athan, this would be the most critical cross-examination of the trial. She had to convince the jury that this man -- the one who said Valessa helped murder her mother, the one who claimed her client had said she was glad her mother was gone -- was a liar. But even that would not be enough. She had to show Valessa as a victim, and Jon Whispel and Adam Davis as the guilty ones.
Athan paced behind the lectern.
How many hours, Athan asked Whispel, had he spent with prosecutors preparing his testimony?
Plenty, he told her evenly.
Wasn't Valessa just a child back then, while Jon and Adam were already adults? Wasn't it true that if they had all three wanted to go to an R-rated movie, Valessa couldn't even get in?
Whispel paused. She pounced.
"Why are you looking at the prosecutors, Mr. Whispel?"
He dug in. "I ain't looking at the prosecutors, I'm looking at you."
Athan worked to separate Valessa from Jon and Adam. After the murder, who scrubbed the blood from the white tile floor of Vicki's kitchen? Who shoved her body into a garbage can, who chose where to dump her, who tried to dig the grave?
Me and Adam, Whispel acknowledged. Not Valessa.
Wasn't Adam always in control when the three were together?
No, Whispel said. They had all made decisions on what would happen next. "Nobody was running the show," he said.
Athan bore in on the night of the murder, and a conversation Whispel recounted in his direct examination. He had testified that when the trio had driven to an apartment to buy heroin to inject Vicki with, Adam had been protective of Valessa and Jon, telling them to wait in the van because it might be dangerous.
Why, Athan wanted to know, hadn't Whispel bothered to mention that conversation in the reams of pretrial depositions and the interviews he had given?
"Tell me what page, Mr. Whispel," she taunted
Pam Bondi was on her feet. "Objection, your honor."
"Let's don't argue with the witness," Judge Padgett said mildly.
Athan tried to chip away at the most damning part of Whispel's testimony: that Valessa had held her mother down.
At first, Athan's question seemed neutral enough. He was certainly bigger than Valessa, wasn't he?
"Yeah," Whispel said.
Then she got to the point.
"While this horrible thing is going on, do you want this jury to believe that Adam Davis called for this little thing to sit on her mother," Athan said, motioning toward Valessa, "and not you?"
"That's right," Whispel answered.
Athan moved on.
She got him to admit that on one point his story appeared to have changed. In pretrial depositions and in court Thursday, Whispel said that Valessa had been on the bed next to him when Adam came in from the kitchen, knife in hand.
But in Davis' trial last November, Athan said, Whispel implied that Valessa was in the kitchen with Adam when Vicki was stabbed.
Whispel tried to explain. "I made a mistake," he said.
"You made a mistake?" Athan said in mock disbelief.
"I was nervous," Whispel said. "Like now I'm nervous, like then I was nervous."
"And you could be making a mistake today?" she said.
"No ma'am," he said.
He had been answering her questions for more than two hours, sometimes with defiance, sometimes with frustration. Athan had scored a couple of blows, but Jon's story had held.
She would get another shot in the morning.
* * *
Cross-examination of Jon Whispel continues today.
* * *
- Research by John Martin. Transcription by Michael Canning and Suzanne Scruggs.
© Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.