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Crime & Courts

Mom killer who grew up in prison about to be freed

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Published:   |   Updated: December 4, 2013 at 12:03 PM

TAMPA — Valessa Robinson, the poster child for suburban teenage treachery whose matricidal rampage and murder trial more than a decade ago held Tampa in its grip for the better part of two years, is scheduled to walk out of prison Friday a free woman who grew up behind bars.

The fanfare for her release will be considerably less dramatic — and public — than it was 13 years ago when the teenager was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the 1998 slaying of her mother in her Carrollwood home and theft of her minivan.

Robinson's defense attorney, Dee Ann Athan, has kept in with Robinson, who is now 30, since the trial. She last talked to her by phone just a week ago.

“Valessa's case ... was profoundly life-changing for me because it was so public and she was so defiled,” the Tampa lawyer said. “I have three daughters of my own, just younger than she was at the time and now, and I became protective as a mother and as an attorney.”

On the other side of the aisle was Jim Iverson, a retired Hillsborough County sheriff's homicide detective who worked the case from start to finish.

“It was one of the biggest cases I had as a homicide detective,” Iverson said. “She was convicted and that's all you can hope for as a law enforcement officer. I would have liked to see her do a little more time since it was mostly her idea. I think the jury must have looked at her as a child — and she was a child at the time — and, well, at least they did convict her.”

It all started out, Iverson said, as a simple missing persons case and ended as one of the highest profile murder cases in Hillsborough County in decades.

On June 27, 1998, Vicki Robinson, 49, stepped into her kitchen and was attacked by her daughter, then 15, Valessa's 19-year-old boyfriend, Adam “Rattlesnake” Davis, and Davis' pal, Jon Whispel, at the time also 19.

On an LSD trip, the three teens talked about and planned the murder of Vicki Robinson so that Valessa Robinson and Davis could be together. Testimony at the trial suggested that the daughter came up with the idea of killing her mom because her mother had indicated she wanted to end her daughter's relationship with Davis and send her to a school for troubled teens.

That night, Valessa Robinson held her mother down while Davis slashed at the woman's throat with a bleach-filled syringe. He then grabbed a knife and fatally stabbed the divorced real estate agent who was engaged to be married.

The deed done, the killers dumped the body in a trash can about six miles from her Carrollwood home and headed to Ybor City, where they got tattoos and bought drugs. They fled Tampa en route to Arizona, where Davis said he had a friend who could get them to Canada.

For the first day or so, investigators here thought both mother and daughter were missing, said Iverson, who now works as a community resource officer with the department.

“We didn't know, early on,” Iverson said. “It was just a missing persons investigation. We couldn't find the mom and we couldn't find the daughter.''

Then, a few days later, the trio was captured in Texas after a high-speed chase. After questioning the three, detectives learned where the body was dumped, Iverson said. “We still had been searching for the mom.”

Davis was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death; he is still on death row. Whispel, convicted of second-degree murder, was sentenced to 25 years in prison and is scheduled for release in 2020.

Whispel and Robinson did not respond to written requests for interviews.

At Valessa Robinson's trial, defense attorneys tried to paint the teen as being under the spell of her older boyfriend and managed to convince the jury that she was guilty of no more than third-degree murder. She was sentenced in 2000 to 20 years. With credit for two years time served and time off for good behavior - the law at the time also only required her to serve at least 85 percent of the sentence _ she cut seven years off the term.

Robinson's mug shot on the Florida Department of Corrections website reveals no emotion, showing a woman looking nothing at all like she did at her trial, when Athan dressed her to look like an innocent school girl. Her hair is cropped short. There is no smile..

“She's doing well,” Athan said. “She's wants to protect her privacy very much and doesn't want to talk to anybody. I think she has a great chance of making it on the outside. She has really tried to improve herself as much as possible over the 15 years of incarceration.

“She has been taking courses and she teaches aerobics in prison,” Athan said. “She told me she has taken a nutrition course and may be interested in doing something along those lines. She routinely grows her hair out and cuts it, sending it to Locks of Love.

“She's soft-spoken and intelligent,” Athan said. “Remember, she's been incarcerated since she was 15. She raised herself in prison, and she's done a great job.”

Department of Corrections records say Robinson had been shuffled between a handful of women's prisons and a work camp. Four times she called Homestead Correctional Institution home, and that's the prison she will walk away from on Friday.

During those years, she did not have an unblemished record, though she has not had any disciplinary actions filed against her since August 2009.

Three times between 2001 and 2004, she was disciplined for sexual acts or unauthorized physical contact. Once in 2001, she was found to be in possession of narcotics, records show, and she made threatening statements in 2002.

Her visitors consisted of her biological father, Charles Robinson; his wife, Vanessa, and Valessa's sister, Michelle.

Attempts this week to reach Charles Robinson were unsuccessful.

Records show Robinson has taken a wide variety of classes, including a transitional program to help ease her way back into society. She took equine care courses and learned to be a service dog handler. She took auto technology and dance; domestic violence awareness courses and an alternatives to violence program.

She told corrections officials she plans to live in Ocean Springs, Miss., moving into the home of an aunt who passed away in October.

Iverson, the former detective, hopes Robinson will stay out of trouble. He said he has moved on.

 

“I don't think about it,” he said. “I've gone on with my life. I finished raising my kids and my wife and I have a good life. I'm hoping she'll end up that way herself.”

Athan said her former client, with whom she plans to keep in touch, is remorseful.

“Once she got over that childish, 'I'm in love, love, love with this guy;' once we got her past that, she regretted she didn't do something to help her mother,” Athan said. “She failed her mom in some way.

“I think what people fail to recognize is that even though the crime is horrendous, Valessa is a pretty remarkable young woman and the crime doesn't define her, even though that's what society tries to do.”

She paused for a moment.

“I think she's going to do well.”

kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

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