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4/6/2006

Feature > Feature

HOW TO END UP IN PRISON
A wrong decision here, a bad situation there, and suddenly you're in Robert Robach's shoes

 

It was just like any other brief. On Page 3 of the Local & State section in the Aug. 4, 2004, Orlando Sentinel, sandwiched between stories about a funeral and a hotel fire, was an article headlined "Car theft suspect hurt in leap." It began, "An unidentified youth suspected of stealing a car jumped off the Interstate 4 bridge over the St. Johns River early Tuesday after leading police on a 17-mile chase."

Three local news stations carried footage of the chase that night. WKMG Local 6 led with the story. "A teenager, a stolen car and a high-speed chase," began the anchorwoman. The grainy helicopter video showed a car surrounded by three highway patrol cruisers slamming into the bridge wall, and then a white speck (the suspect) falling from the bridge. It was great TV.

But it was just another two minutes in the nightly compendium of mayhem that makes up local newscasts, just another 301 words to round out the area briefs in the Sentinel. Neither the paper nor the local stations mentioned the pursuit again.

As so often happens in local news, readers and viewers only got the middle of a story, a snippet of events that led up to the drama, and nothing of what came after, as if the jumper never existed beyond a single desperate act. In a simplistic story like this one, the perpetrator is easy to categorize: thief, criminal, bad guy. But it never mentioned the divorce, the baby, the drugs. How does a talented, hardworking young man with a wife and child decide that jumping off a bridge is the best option available? At what point does he decide to throw his life away?

This unexceptionable brief from Aug. 4 was simple. The backstory is not.

THE GOOD TIMES

Robert Robach is a good-looking kid. The son of a white father and a black mother, he has smooth, coffee-and-cream skin dotted with a batch of freckles on his cheeks. His lips are full, his eyes are deep brown, his left eyelid droops slightly lower than his right.

For Robach, the years between 2001 and 2004 were "the good times," a period of family stability in an otherwise tumultuous upbringing. The good times began with the purchase of a small house on the east side of Orlando.

Until March 2001, the Robachs – Robert; his older sister, Neffy; his younger brother, Bryan; and his parents, Bob Robach and Pam Williams – had hopscotched through apartments on Goldenrod Road, barely getting a foot in one place before jumping to the next. Bob and Pam hadn't married, and their relationship was rocky; happy one day, fighting the next. Bob had been arrested four times on felony charges in the past 12 years.

But in March 2001, Bob signed a mortgage on a four-bedroom house on Janie Court off Goldenrod, set deep into a neighborhood of modest one-story dwellings. It was the first house the family had ever lived in.

Bob and Pam finally got married in May 2001, and soon Bob was working for himself. He contracted for a company called TMC of Central Florida, and he had a couple of workers who did metal framing. It was decent money, and more importantly, a steady income.

Robert got B's and C's at Colonial High School. He was admittedly not always a hard worker, except when it came to his two passions: skateboarding and drawing. He smoked weed once in a while, but his mom was strict. "She would have gone crazy if she found me doing that stuff," he says. "She made sure I didn't get heavy into it."

Robert, 16 at the time, met a 15-year-old girl, Lilly, originally from England, and fell in love. He switched schools to Oak Ridge High School to be near her.

And the stability cleaned up Bob's act, too. From the day he signed the contract in March of 2001 to January 2004, he didn't get so much as a speeding ticket. Bob and Pam laughed together. The family ate meals together. "We were a real family for a little bit," says Robert.

But somewhere along the line, Bob and Pam's relationship went sour. According to court records, they separated on Dec. 3, 2003. Within the month, says Robert, Bob discovered Pam was seeing someone else. She moved out. His parents' breakup devastated Robert.

In January 2004, Pam returned to the house to retrieve some of her stuff and got into a fight with her younger son, Bryan, who was upset about her moving out. According to an injunction Bob filed against Pam following the incident, when Bryan tried to walk out of the house, Pam grabbed at his shirt and scratched his back. A passage written by Bob contained in the court papers reads: "Pam Williams come into the house and hit are son and put 3 big cuts on his back. He is 15." Bob also put a check mark next to a sentence reading, "Respondent (Pam) has an alcohol problem."

If the house on Janie Court marked the beginning of the good times, Bob and Pam's separation signaled the end. The relative peace and normalcy in Robert's life was about to unravel.

THE BAD TIMES

In late 2003, Robert had just turned 17, and he and his girlfriend Lilly were expecting a baby boy. He worked nights at the Bread Connection, a bakery near the Mall at Millenia, to shore up funds. Their son was born in January 2004. They named him Robbie.

Over the holiday break, Robert pulled out of Oak Ridge to go back to Colonial High. When he returned to enroll, however, he was told he had too few credits for a 17-year-old. So he dropped out of school and started working full-time at the bakery. That same month, his car broke down, and he had to skateboard the more than 10 miles from the house to the Mall at Millenia area. In February, Robert and Lilly moved in together, into an apartment her dad had rented for them. When that didn't work out, Robert moved back in with his family in March.

On March 1, 2004, a judge granted Bob's request for a one-year injunction forbidding Pam to be within 500 feet of the house on Janie Court. Pam was also ordered to pay $185 a month in child support to Bob. Six days after that decision, Robert married Lilly in an attempt to keep her in the country.

On March 30, 2004, Bob and Pam filed for divorce. When asked why he should get custody of the two boys, Bob wrote in the court papers, "Because [Pam] has beat up are son's in the past."

In April of that year, Robert started working full-time for his dad. Meanwhile his little brother, Bryan, dropped out of school. Whatever restraint Pam's presence in the house had on the family left with her. The house soon resembled a party pad more than a home.

"As soon as my mom left, it was open season," Robert says. "I could do anything."

Guys Robert had never hung out with before started to show up at the house, often in stolen cars. "All they did was smoke weed and sit around," recalls Robert. He was smoking pot constantly.

"By the time I moved back in [in March], things were already falling apart," Robert says. "It had already been opened up to a world where anything goes, pretty much. Endless nights and drugs. It was just so easy."

Pam fell behind on her child support payments. Meanwhile, Robert's new wife, Lilly, had to move back to England at the end of May when her citizenship papers didn't come through. Robbie, Robert's now-5-month-old baby, went with her.

On June 4 Pam filed a counter-injunction against Bob. In the court papers, she wrote, "I'm under court order to stay away from him and he's going around looking and calling everybody looking for me. I'm scared of him." Asked whether Bob had a problem with drinking or drugs, she answered yes for both.

Bob's response, contained in the same filings, makes similar allegations: "My wife Pam Robach-Williams call me on my job and [said things] about me and my son's that we are using drug's and that my house is a mass and that she was going to get me one way or the other and call my PO (parole officer) and said that I was using drugs and hung up." The judge denied her request because of the injunction already in place against her.

Sometime during the summer, the work stopped coming for Bob. On June 15, the bank notified him that they were seeking to foreclose on his mortgage.

As the summer heat hit, the air conditioning broke, and the home on Janie Court literally became an open house. With the windows and doors always open, friends of Robert's came and went, buying, selling and doing drugs: marijuana, codeine pills. Friends would arrive in two or three stolen cars and leave in one, ditching the others overnight. Bob and his friends spent nights in the garage drinking, while Robert smoked weed and popped pills with friends in his room.

"Every night, it was something to do," Robert says. "My life basically sucked. I always wanted to draw as a career, but I
didn't see that happening. I didn't see school happening. I couldn't see having a career in anything, being good at anything besides skateboarding and drawing. And home just sucked. So I was just like, 'Fuck it! I'm just going to join the rest of these kids.' But if I was going to do these things, I was going to do it to the extreme."

OVER THE EDGE

Aug. 3, 2004, wasn't different than any other night that summer. Robert had been strung out on weed and pills for four days. A stolen white Honda Accord sat in the driveway; Robert could see the "key" – a screwdriver – on the front seat. He and a friend hopped in, jammed the screwdriver in the ignition and took off. The check-engine light was bright on the dashboard panel, but he didn't care – it wasn't his car he was destroying. After his friend stole a blue Honda Accord, the two made their way to Winter Springs, playing bumper cars along the way.

At about 1:30 a.m., Robert pulled into a parking lot along State Road 434 to see what his friend wanted to do. He was getting tired and thought about going home. As they talked, a Winter Springs police car pulled up at a nearby stoplight. Robert and his friend got spooked, returned to their cars and pulled out in front of the cop heading east.

At 1:37 a.m., the cop radioed dispatch to run the tags on the white Honda. At this time, Robert's friend pulled off on a side street and ran away from the blue Honda. The cop stayed behind Robert and got the word from dispatch that the white Honda was stolen. Heading west on State Road 434, Robert turned right on State Road 17-92 and headed north. The cop turned on his lights and siren. Robert drove on.

"I was scared. The police in Sanford suck, and I didn't want to get pulled over by them," he says.

Robert continued up State Road 17-92. As he neared the Seminole County courthouse, he could see police cars blocking the northbound lane. He hopped the median and continued north. Then, according to the police report, Robert "turned off his headlights and began to accelerate rapidly." The Winter Springs cop, adhering to the department's chase policy, stopped following.

Robert turned west onto the Central Florida Greeneway, heading toward I-4. Ten minutes had passed since the cop first called in the tag numbers. Robert was cruising along the Greeneway alone.

"My God," he recalls thinking. "This little Honda burned the police."

He didn't know that a Seminole County Sheriff's helicopter had been contacted and was following him from above. He also didn't know that Sanford police had radioed three Florida Highway Patrol troopers a couple of miles north of Robert's speeding car.

Troopers Hector Castro, Bryan Vincent and Carl Simpson were eating at Denny's when they got the call. Castro drove down
I-4, got off at the Greeneway and waited. At 1:53 a.m., Robert zipped past at 97 mph and got on I-4 heading east. Castro followed. Robert saw the flashing lights coming up on him in the rearview mirror. He gripped the steering wheel tight. He knew he couldn't outrun a highway patrol cruiser. With the windows open, Robert could hear the sirens blaring over the wind. Not more than a minute after Castro caught up with Robert, the two approached the back of the other FHP cruisers driven by Vincent and Simpson. Robert swerved to the right shoulder to pass the two patrol cars, and the four – Robert and the three troopers – continued east on I-4. Two miles ahead, the St. Johns River Bridge awaited their arrival.

This is the one point in the chase where Robert's story and the FHP's investigation differ. According to FHP, Castro pulled up on the left side of the Honda and shined his spotlight in the car. Castro states in his report, "I saw the driver look at me and point a chrome hand gun at me." Castro hit the gas and pulled ahead.

But Robert says he never touched a gun. "I was high off four days of drugs," he says. "I was paranoid and scared. I thought I was going to crash. I never took a finger off the steering wheel."

The police report states a chrome paintball gun was later found in the back seat of the car. Whether or not Robert ever touched the gun would later play a big role in his fate.

As they drove onto the bridge, Robert was in the far right lane. Castro was in front of Robert on the left, and the two other cruisers were behind Robert. The Honda, with its check-engine light still bright, began to slow.

"The car just stopped going," Robert says.

Video footage shows Castro drifting to the right, forcing Robert's rapidly slowing car to the wall. The Honda's tires climbed the concrete barrier, leaving only the left two tires on the road. Robert came back down before Castro bumped the Honda's front left side, again putting it to the bridge's wall as the car slowed further. The car was still rolling when Robert climbed into the passenger seat and out the window and found himself balancing on the edge of the concrete barrier, 45 feet up. He sat on the foot-wide wall for no more than a second.

Then, without hesitation, he jumped.

Robert remembers thinking during the fall that it was taking a long time to hit the water. Instead of the anticipated splash, he hit with a thud. The chase had taken him farther over the bridge than Robert realized, all the way to the other side of the St. Johns River. He had fallen 45 feet onto a patch of sand and mud. He tried to yell, but the internal bleeding wouldn't allow him. He tried to crawl toward the water, but his left leg – jutting out at an odd angle – wouldn't let him. So he lay there, knowing he was caught.

"I thought I was going to hit the water," he says. "If I would have hit the water, I felt like I would have gotten away, I would have got out. I guess I'll never know."

ALMOST MADE IT

Robert was in the hospital for a week with a broken femur, multiple fractured vertebrae, a tear in his colon and bruises to his kidneys and pancreas. He had to wear a back brace. He underwent surgery to place a metal pin in his leg.

His parents visited a couple of times. "That was nice to see my family together again," Robert says. Because they didn't have insurance, Bob had to get emergency Medicaid to pay the bills. Even with that, Robert would later have to pay more than $100 for his own prescription painkillers. While Robert was in the hospital bed, he wondered when the police would come to arrest him. They never did.

On Aug. 10, Robert was discharged. When he got home, he found much of his artwork destroyed and his clothes gone. He suspected his brother had done it, but no one confessed. The day he got home, the bank foreclosed on Bob's mortgage.
For a few weeks after he returned, the house seemed almost normal again. "The craziness and the drugs – it stopped right after I got out of the hospital for a little bit because my mom was helping out," he says. "She was in the house doing mom stuff, cleaning up." But as the goodwill that kept Bob and Pam civil during Robert's hospital stay dried up, Bob invoked the injunction and told Pam to leave.

Doctors recommended Robert see a physical therapist. He never did. Robert tried to manage the pain without pills, but one day it became too much. When he opened up the prescription bottle – a bottle he paid for himself – he saw about 20 of the painkillers were gone. Nothing had changed.

In late September, Robert spiked a high fever and was having pain in his stomach. His father never offered to take him to the hospital. Finally, a friend's mother did. Robert had a serious infection in the incision on his stomach.

In November, he got a job doing prep work – slicing vegetables, preparing chicken – at Athena's Roasted Chicken in Maitland.

"He was a hard worker," says Edgar Rodriguez, a manager at Athena's. "He'd have kind of this cocky attitude that he was needed here, but he was always real polite, too."

Robert's contact with his family was minimal by now. Sometimes he stayed with them. Sometimes he slept in his girlfriend's car. And every day, in the back of his mind, he wondered why the police hadn't picked him up yet. A hesitant sense of joy crept in as the months passed, and he wondered if they had forgotten about him.

"I'd heard crazy stories about people slipping through the system," Robert says.

By the start of 2005, he felt so confident that he went to get his driver's license and received it with no problems. What he didn't know at the time was that FHP was conducting an investigation of the pursuit.

FHP policy says troopers may not engage in a chase "unless the original reason for the traffic stop was a crime of violence." The investigation report stated that Castro "did not believe under his initial engagement that the crime was classified as a crime of violence." Boxing in and driving alongside suspects during a pursuit – both tactics used by Castro – are also against FHP policy.

FHP's investigation found that all three troopers had violated chase policy. Nonetheless, in memos to the three dated March 14, 2005, the commanding lieutenant wrote, "This letter is only counseling and is not to be construed as any form of disciplinary action."

Unbeknownst to Robert, a warrant for his arrest was issued May 24, 2005. He was still working full-time at Athena's. He also still smoked weed occasionally, but it wasn't the crazy life with his father anymore. He didn't see Bob that often. He hadn't seen his mom in months. Life was less bleak than a few months earlier. He still slept in a different place almost every night – the hotel where his father and brother stayed, his girlfriend's car, the street. But he also had a full-time job paying $8 an hour, and the anxiety of waiting to be arrested was virtually gone. He thought he was moving on.

Then on June 20, 2005, nearly a year after the leap from the bridge, Robert was in his girlfriend's Volvo when she was pulled over by Maitland police. He gave the officer his license and was arrested on the spot.

"I couldn't believe it," he says. "I thought they had forgotten about me."

He faced charges of aggravated fleeing and eluding an officer punishable by up to 15 years in prison, and assault on a law enforcement officer punishable by up to a year in prison. There wasn't a mention of the stolen car, just what he had done with that car. Robert searched the Internet for a lawyer and found Mark O'Mara, the same lawyer who defended the suspect in a chase that changed pursuit policy in Florida a year earlier. Robert met with O'Mara and asked whether a public defender would do the trick.

"He made it sound like the public defenders weren't trained," Robert says. "He made it sound like, 'You go with a public defender, you're fucked.' I was totally scared, so I trusted him."

Two days later, from the money he had saved working, Robert put down $2,000 for O'Mara's services. Robert amped up his workload, taking on 60 hours a week to make more money. Under court order, Robert couldn't drive. So with a pin in his knee and a back he'd broken just 10 months earlier, he skateboarded up to 10 miles to work in the morning and 10 miles back late at night. When cold weather rolled in, he could feel the crick in his knee; even on warm days, the joint made a clicking noise when he bent it.

During this time, Bob and Robert talked little. When they did, it was hard. Conversation had never been Bob's strong suit. Since Bob told Pam to leave following Robert's release from the hospital, Robert hadn't spoken with his mom. After he got the job at Athena's, the 18-year-old had to negotiate everything for himself – a place to live, getting to work, the court system.

Before long he had the rest of the $5,000 attorney fee. Robert explained his full situation to O'Mara, and the attorney eased Robert's fears. He told Robert he knew the names of the officers involved and that Robert would probably get probation.

On Nov. 3, 2005, Robert went to the Seminole County Courthouse, the same courthouse he sped by when eluding a roadblock a year and three months earlier. He sat outside a room while, inside, O'Mara and the state attorney negotiated his fate. O'Mara came out numerous times to inform Robert it was going well. For all Robert knew, he was out of any serious trouble. He felt more relaxed about the situation than he had in a long time. O'Mara went back into the room a final time.

When O'Mara came out again, however, he looked defeated. He told Robert the state said he pointed a gun at Castro. Robert was never questioned by any law enforcement and hadn't heard the allegation until then.

Robert told O'Mara he didn't do it. "I don't think he believed me," Robert says. "He sounded almost mad that I hadn't told him, but there was nothing to tell." Robert asked about proof. His lawyer told him the cops are the proof.

O'Mara said he had a choice: Take the two years in prison the state was offering or take a chance on a trial where he'd most likely get slammed.

Again, the 18-year-old kid had to make a life-altering decision by himself. Bob and Pam hadn't been to any of the court dates and knew little of what was now happening to their son. Within a matter of minutes, Robert's fate had shifted from probable probation to a probable two years in prison.

"It sounded like there was no way out," Robert says. "I could tell in [O'Mara's] voice, the way he was talking, that he was pretty much stumped."

According to O'Mara, Robert got as good a deal as any kid in his situation. "Either [Robert] pointed a paintball gun at the officer or they were lying through their teeth," O'Mara says. "Either way, the cops were going to come to court and testify to it. There's really nothing we could have done."

Robert signed the plea agreement right there. The sentencing was set for Jan. 11, 2006.

On the evening of Jan. 10, Robert was on his way downtown to meet some friends at a bar. He wasn't really in the mood to drink. He had gotten pretty trashed the night before and was still feeling the effects. "Last days of freedom, right?" he said, curving around Winter Park roads.

He doesn't like to talk about O'Mara. That's one topic that pisses him off. "That was a waste of money."

His tone on the night before going to prison was that of resignation. He'd hung out with his dad a few nights before. "It was nice to actually hear that he was broken up about what was happening." He'd talked to his mom, but he still didn't know where she was living and had to contact her sister to find a working phone number.

He had plans for prison. Stay busy. Stay out of trouble. Read. Write letters. Get a GED. In between that, draw all the time.
"This is what I get," he said, still driving toward downtown. "This is my karma. This is my punishment for doing what I've done, for all the drugs I've done and all the people that I've taken from."

With 15 hours to go before prison, there was still time for a lot of what-ifs: What if he'd gotten out and run away like his friend? What if he'd stopped the car? What if his parents had never separated?

"Every time someone talks about jail, I think, 'It could have been so different,'" he said, driving past Colonial on Orange. "I did so much bad stuff before that I could have got caught for. What if that would have stopped me? But I couldn't stop, and I got caught for the stupidest of things: driving around in a stolen car."

These days Robert is drawing pictures for his fellow inmates at the Lake City Correctional Facility in Columbia County. He's set to be released on Jan. 5, 2008.

jcarlson@orlandoweekly.com
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