Anyways, my birthday’s coming up soon and then I’ll be 15 yrs old. I’m growing up way too fast and soon I’ll be dead. (Valessa Robinson writing in her journal on March 21, 1998, three months before the murder of her mother.)
No one has ever argued that Vicki Lyn Robinson’s murder was anything but utterly senseless, unthinkably brutal. No one would dare think it. Not those who were there as she died, in her own home. Not those who could have saved her life in those last chaotic moments, but didn’t.
Not even those who killed her.
* * *
The bailiff ushered Jon Whispel out of his windowless holding cell on the third floor of the Hillsborough County Courthouse Annex into Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett’s packed courtroom. It was the fourth day of Valessa Robinson’s first-degree murder trial in the death of her mother, Vicki Robinson — the day that both the prosecution and defense teams knew would be crucial to their cases. Everything depended on the State of Florida’s star witness. It all came down to his credibility with the jury, and each side knew it well. Each side had spent months in preparation for this day.
Whispel took the oath, sat down, and began to shuffle around in his chair, rotating his shoulders underneath the blue prison jacket that covered his orange jumpsuit. His eyes darted across the back of the courtroom, flashing over the crowd of spectators, seeing none of them. But they were all fixed on him and he sensed it, dreaded it. They all knew that what he had to say could make all the difference in the world for Valessa Robinson, just as it had for Adam Davis.
Jon didn’t bother to look over at the defense table where Valessa and her attorneys sat, staring up at him, waiting for direct to begin. He didn’t look at Judge Padgett above and next to him, not even a glance. He just glowered straight ahead and a bit downward, waiting. Waiting for her voice to offer him the first question.
Pam Bondi, the prosecutor, stood behind the lectern in a muted, tasteful suit, her blond hair pulled neatly back into a full pony tail, her notes at the ready. She was the consummate professional, obviously comfortable in the courtroom, assured, always prepared.
Now, finally, after two frustrating delays in setting Valessa’s trial date, it was time for the show to begin. It was time to hear from the man who claimed to know everything about how Vicki Robinson had been murdered.
After briefly going over the deal that Whispel had made with State prosecutors, Bondi got right to the point. She wanted the jury to hear for themselves what happened on June 27, 1998, to hear from the man who had allegedly witnessed the crime firsthand. Who was involved? What was his role in this brutal crime? Who struck the fatal blow? Why?
Whispel told his story, cool and even for the most part, a bit edgy here and there. He pointed to diagrams of the Robinson house that Bondi had set up to help the jury understand the crime scene, put two fingers to his neck to show where Vicki had been stabbed, held his head in his hands once or twice. It was a story that nearly, but not exactly, matched the one he had told at his best friend’s trial less than 6 months earlier. Now, that friend, Adam Davis, was facing the death penalty, convicted of murdering Vicki Robinson by choking her, stabbing her in the neck with a syringe filled with bleach, and finally stabbing her again in the neck with his knife when she refused to die.
It was Whispel who had been the star witness back then, and it was his turn to do it all over again, to help the jury relive that horrific night, this time at Vicki’s daughter’s trial. It was part of the deal that he had made with prosecutors and now it was time to pay up. Spare his life, take the 25 years in prison, testify against the two best friends he had in the world, do what he had to do. That’s what was on Whispel’s mind.
In fact, Jon had run out of options long ago, even before the night of Vicki’s murder. Since then, the months in jail awaiting the trials and serving out the beginning of his sentence had taken their toll, physically and mentally. Today, he was pale and just recovering from a bout of anxiety so debilitating that his hair had fallen out by the handful. He had lost weight and moved more stiffly now than he had a year ago. The tan smile, lean, easy gait and air of cockiness that he had carried with him when he prowled the Tampa area with Adam Davis, and later Valessa Robinson, had vanished. To make it all worse, he had little left to look forward to for the next two decades.
Still, he did what he had promised he would do. He talked. He had no option.
Whispel’s testimony dragged on through a second day. Direct, cross, a short redirect. It was strong stuff, words and images thrown out to a silent courtroom and a transfixed jury. Bespectacled, gaunt, and obviously more nervous on the second day than the first, Whispel was sometimes testy with Dee Ann Athan, Valessa’s defense attorney. Yet, he survived the ordeal, for the most part.
Jon Whispel wasn’t the strongest suit in the deck. In the end, the jury wouldn’t buy his story, at least not altogether. They would only accept what they needed in order to come up with a compromise verdict that they thought they could all live with. The rest they would throw out. Jon wouldn’t make all the difference, but he would make some. In the end, neither the prosecution nor the defense would be happy with what he had to say. Many in the Tampa area would rage about the outcome of the trial; others would shake their heads and wonder how it had all gone so wrong. Whispel would wait out his sentence, his job finished.
The year previous to Valessa’s trial, Whispel had told a different story than he did in court, just different enough to make him an unreliable witness. Still, he had never been a reliable guy when it came to setting a direction for his own life, so this wasn’t out of character. His story, like Vicki Robinson’s, her daughter’s, and her convicted killer’s, Adam Davis, was dark and doomed. He witnessed Vicki’s death, he said. That was for sure.
Or, he didn’t, he said. It depended on when you asked him. It depended on who laid out the question.
Adam had killed Vicki alone, he said.
No, Valessa had also done her share in the horrible attack on her mother, he said.
It depended on who was asking. It depended on . . .
In fact, Jon was all over the map on some points, consistent in others, and always out of options. It was the story of his life. This day in court, when it really counted, there would be no exception to the Whispel way.
* * *
A year before Valessa’s trial, Prosecutor Shirley Williams had taken Jon Whispel’s statement. Like Pam Bondi, she wanted to know what had happened on the night of June 27, 1998. She had a deal for Whispel, she said. A deal that he just couldn’t refuse. So, he was more than willing to talk. The choice was simple enough since the charge against him was first-degree murder. Whispel talked about that horrific night, and much more:
“While we was at Denny’s,” he said, “Adam seen this waitress that he knew that works there and talked to her about, you know, getting Ecstasy and everything. And she said, well, her boyfriend could probably get it, but she has to wait for him to get there.”
“So, we waited there, smoking cigarettes, talking and whatnot. And her boyfriend pulls up, and . . . you know, he’s like, ‘Well, let me make a phone call.’ Talks – talks to him and says, ‘I can’t get Ecstasy, but I can get you some liquid acid on sugar cubes.’”
“And we’re like, ‘All right.’ You know, ‘We’ll do it.’”
It was about then that Valessa pulled up to Denny’s, riding her bike. She was less than 3 months past her 15th birthday. Jon and Adam were both 19. Both had criminal records, although Davis was clearly the heavy player of the duo.
The three went to the dealer’s house, bought the acid, dropped it, and headed back to Denny’s. Jon ordered food and orange juice. The juice was supposed to enhance the high from the LSD. It was a ritual that all three had taken part in before this night. It was nothing new, even to Valessa.
According to Jon, the conversation soon took a lethal turn.
“And then, you know, the food comes, orange juice comes,” he told Shirley Williams. “And then, you know, we’re talking and drinking. And then, you know, Valessa smiles, you know, jumped up and down and is like, ‘Let’s kill my mom.’ And Adam’s like, ‘What?’
“You, know, Valessa’s like, ‘Let’s kill my mom.’ And he’s like, ‘Okay.’”
It was that simple, according to Jon. No problem. Just an ordinary conversation about murder during a routine LSD trip. Later, he would claim that he didn’t believe it would ever happen. It was all just nonsense, he would say. It was the drugs talking. But, within a few hours, it did happen, and it was horrific.
Jon was there, body and soul.
Later, Whispel would change his story. When he would testify in court, there would be a few paths not yet taken, a few twists not foreseen. Small but significant changes. Just enough to make everyone a little uncertain.
For now, though, Williams wanted to know every detail. How about the murder? How did that go down? Who was involved?
Whispel told her that the three returned to Vicki Robinson’s house and went to Valessa’s bedroom. They wanted to “trip out” on her black light, hang out, listen to music. When they arrived, Vicki was in her bedroom, apparently asleep.
It didn’t last long, though. They had made too much noise:
“About a minute later, you know, Vicki comes knocking at the door and says, ‘Valessa.’” Nobody said anything or moved or opened the door or nothing, so she knocked again and said, ‘Valessa.’”
“Adam opened the door and, you know, she – she’s like, ‘Well, what are you two still doing here? I thought y’all left . . .’ And she was like, ‘Valessa, get your sleeping bag now.’ Vicki wants her daughter to sleep in her own bedroom in the sleeping bag and be away from Adam and Jon.
‘So nobody moved, and then she said, ‘Valessa now!’ So Adam went to grab the sleeping bag and give it to her.”
“And then Vicki turned around and walked into the kitchen, and Adam followed – followed her, at which point I – we heard whispered voices. We couldn’t understand what was being said, but we heard whispered voices.”
Then, sounds like someone gasping for air.
The prosecutor pressed him for even more, and Jon was willing to oblige. He had everything to lose if he didn’t:
“So me and Valessa, we run out into the kitchen.” According to Whispel, Adam now had Vicki in a chokehold, strangling her. She was gasping for air.
“And Valessa’s like, ‘What do we do?’”
“He’s [Adam] like, ‘Give me the syringe!’ So me and – Valessa , we turned around, go back into the room and knelt down on the floor, you know, acting like I was looking for the syringe and everything, I said, ‘I can’t find it.’” Earlier, Adam had planned to buy heroin and inject Vicki to “put her to sleep.” He was never able to purchase the heroin and decided that household bleach would do just as well.
“Valessa [was] all afraid, and she’s screaming, ‘I can’t find the syringe, Adam! I can’t find the syringe!’ I looked out the door, and I seen – I seen Adam and Vicki in front of the door but in the kitchen area but by – by right next to the cabinets where the sink is.”
Jon went on, and on. How Valessa went to the kitchen to help subdue her mother by sitting on her legs. How the syringe reappeared. How Adam slammed the syringe filled with bleach into Vicki’s neck. How Adam screamed, “It’s not working! It’s not working!” How Jon turned away from the kitchen, ran into Valessa’s bedroom, grabbed a knife and handed it to Adam saying, “Here. Use this.” How Adam raised the knife and plunged it into Vicki’s neck.
How they stood there and watched her die.
And, it was done. Valessa’s mom was gone, her carotid artery and jugular vein severed.
Jon and Adam cleaned up the kitchen, the house, themselves. They stuffed Vicki’s body into a garbage can from her basement, took her down a dirt road, abandoned her. With Valessa’s help, they went on to steal her minivan, rob her account, use her money to buy drugs and tattoos, flee the state, and end up finally being arrested in a wild chase and shootout down a Texas highway. They were tracked by investigators the whole way, leaving a trail of ATM transactions and ATM videotapes showing Adam Davis making withdrawals, with Vicki’s minivan in the background of each frame.
And that was how it had happened, Jon said. That was the witness for the prosecution months before he sat next to Judge Padgett at Valessa’s trial. That was the truth and the whole truth, he swore.
It should have been that simple, but it wasn’t.
Jon had earlier told investigating officers that he had not even seen Vicki murdered, that he had been lying on Valessa’s bed with Valessa when Adam killed her mother in the kitchen, alone.
Later, he changed his story.
Valessa had told her arresting officers that she had murdered her mother by stabbing her in the throat, stabbing her twice in the back, all while holding her down. She had done it all alone. Her lover, Adam, was innocent of the crime, she calimed. Amazing and unbelievable to all who even remotely knew the details of the murder. Somehow, Valessa had committed this horrific crime all by herself, at 5’2” tall and weighing 115 pounds, while her two male companions just waited for the outcome in her bedroom. Somehow, she had managed to subdue her mother and stab her to death, while her friends sat around tripping out on the black light only a room away, oblivious of the death struggle. It was a story with no hint of believability.
Most of the investigators in the case believed that she was just protecting her lover, Adam Davis. How could anyone believe anything else? But, Jon disagreed.
For his part, Davis initially told investigators that all three had killed Vicki. It was a combined effort, a conspiracy, and they all took part. They were all guilty and should all be treated equally in the eyes of the law, he claimed.
Then, Adam Davis also changed his story.
Suddenly, it was Valessa who had done it all. Suddenly, he was not even in the room at the fatal moment. It was not a persuasive change of story. In the end, it combined with his earlier confession and Jon Whispel’s testimony to earn him the death penalty.
And Valessa? Yes, she changed her story, too. She hadn’t killed her mother, she finally said. Her ex-lover, Adam Davis, had been Vicki’s murderer. She would never have killed her mother. That was the truth and the whole truth.
The dancing and weaving of stories, the frightened young girl, the two adolescent males, one with a hefty record, the other following in his footsteps, all combined to create confusion, uncertainty, and outrage. Much of that outrage still lingers, much of the uncertainty still enshrouds Vicki’s memory. All of the despair, the desperation, and the sense of cruelty of the crime continues as strong today as it did in 1998.
Still, there is one certain fact that remains – the one that will always rise above the doubts. Vicki Lyn Robinson, a woman loved by everyone who knew her — including the daughter who many believe murdered her — is dead for no reason.