Published Apr. 10, 2000|Updated Sep. 27, 2005

From their cells came words of devotion to the end. but their loyalty was about to be tested.

The dust had barely begun to settle when the law split them up.

Valessa Robinson, Adam Davis and Jon Whispel were handcuffed and lying on their stomachs along a ragged two-lane road in Texas, trying to keep their faces out of the dirt. Beside them was Vicki Robinson's green minivan, its tires shot out. Above them, in pointed cowboy boots, towered the Pecos County sheriff and the deputies who had chased them down.

It was around noon on Thursday, July 2, 1998. The sun blazed almost directly overhead, flattening them all with a harsh, shadowless light. Valessa and her friends waited for whatever came next.

Sheriff Bruce Wilson did not want the three of them talking and planning their stories. So he told his deputies to place them in separate patrol cars. The two cars that carried Adam and Jon turned toward the Pecos County Jail in Fort Stockton. The third, carrying Valessa, headed to the Fort Stockton courthouse, where Valessa would be turned over to juvenile authorities. Only 15, Valessa was too young to stay at the county jail.

Valessa was still amazed at the drama of the pursuit: the sirens and lights, the bullets ripping into the tires, the van spinning at high speed. Later, she would say that the whole thing reminded her of a scene from a movie.

Sitting alone in the back seat of the cruiser, Valessa asked the deputy behind the wheel why she and her friends had been arrested. The deputy, who did not know his passenger was a suspect in her mother's disappearance, told her it was because they had been caught in a stolen vehicle and were wanted by the state of Florida.

Valessa said the van wasn't stolen. She said it belonged to her mother. She asked if the authorities in Florida were coming to take her back home. They might, said the deputy. What about Adam and Jon? Would the authorities come for them, too? They might, said the deputy.

Are we in serious trouble? Valessa asked.

Yes, said the deputy.

After she was turned over to juvenile authorities, Valessa was taken to a detention center in Odessa. At first, she was quiet. But as she was escorted to a cell, she became hysterical. She said she was sick and needed medical attention. She wanted to know what had happened to Adam and Jon.

She was left alone in the cell. Later, an officer making checks heard a sound seeping through the vents in the cell door.

Valessa was crying.

+ + +

She was no longer just a teenage girl. Somewhere on the road to Texas, she had become a puzzle.

What was Valessa's motive for questioning the deputy from the back of the cruiser? Was it possible that she truly did not understand how much trouble she was in? Or was she simply fishing, trying to find out how much the police knew? Was she just naive, or was she working an angle?

It was the same with her tears in the cell. Why was Valessa crying? Was she crying for her mother, for Adam, for herself, or some combination of all three?

From that moment forward, everything Valessa did would be shrouded with ambiguity. Every word she uttered, every gesture she made, every expression that played across her face _ they would all contain many possible meanings. And they would all become clues to be studied and dissected and applied toward the mystery at hand.

Who was Valessa?

+ + +

The two homicide detectives touched down at the airport in Midland, Texas, late that Thursday.

Jim Iverson and John Marsicano arrived at the juvenile detention center near midnight. They showed their badges, identifying them as investigators with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, and were taken to a brightly lit conference room and asked to wait. A few minutes later, Valessa was brought in. Iverson was struck by how small she was. How young.

Valessa was pale and listless. Later, she would say that when they sent for her that night, she had been lying in her cell, hallucinating about clowns as she sweated off the aftereffects of several hits of LSD she'd taken before the arrest. She would also say that as she sat across the table from the detectives, she thought their faces looked weirdly distorted.

Iverson, the one with the mild voice, the one with a daughter the same age as Valessa, took the lead. He told Valessa that they were looking for her mother.

Valessa said she did not know what to tell them. She had no idea where her mother was, she said.

For 10 minutes, they went around and around. Iverson kept asking her to help them, and Valessa kept saying she had no help to give. Iverson pressed. If Vicki was alive, he said, they needed to find her. If not, she deserved a decent burial.

Finally Valessa broke.

"I stabbed my mom," she said.

The veteran detective knew better than to react. Keeping his voice level, Iverson asked Valessa to tell him what had happened. She went through it all, and then he advised her of her rights and asked her to go through it again, only this time on tape.

He wanted her to go back to the night Vicki disappeared. Valessa had told them that she and Adam and Jon had been out partying and had taken some LSD and that when they got back to the house, she and Vicki had gotten into an argument in the kitchen.

"And if you would," Iverson said, "just go from there and tell me what happened."

Valessa spoke slowly and calmly. Her recollection of that night was not the best, she said, since she had been on LSD. But she remembered that Adam and Jon had been in her bedroom, and she and her mother had been in the kitchen, and she had picked up a knife and stabbed her in the throat, and her mother was bleeding, and she had stabbed her again, this time in the back, twice.

"And then, I couldn't handle all the blood and everything, and I panicked and I went in my room, and I had Jon and Adam clean up the blood. And we took my mom's body, in my, in, in the trash can down past Jon's house, down a little dirt road, and we were gonna bury her. But then there was a couple problems, so we just stuck the body there and we were gonna go back and bury her."

The two investigators circled back for details, filling in the blanks. Where had she gotten the knife? From a friend, she said. How long was the knife? She wasn't sure. What had she done with the knife afterward? Valessa said she had tossed it somewhere, she didn't remember where.

What about her mother? How did the attack take place?

"I had pinned her down," Valessa said. "Before I, like, stabbed her, I had to pin her down."

"How was your mother dressed?"

"In her nightgown."

"How was she dressed when she was in the garbage can?"

Valessa's voice faltered.

"In her nightgown," she said again.

What color was the nightgown? Peach.

And Adam and Jon stayed in her bedroom the whole time? She said she believed so.

"Was the door open or closed?"

"I don't know," Valessa said. "I don't know."

Here she stopped. She said her stomach was hurting, and she wasn't going to tell them anything more.

Iverson turned off the tape recorder. Her words could be interpreted as invoking her right to remain silent, so there was no point in pressing on. Anything she said, at that point, could be inadmissible in court.

The investigators made arrangements to have Valessa seen by a doctor. Then they got back in their rental car and headed for the county jail in Fort Stockton. If Adam and Jon were willing to talk, they would take their statements next.

By now it was in the early hours of Friday. Iverson and Marsicano drove through the dark, moving past the oil derricks that pumped endlessly on both sides of the highway.

Valessa was saying she had done it all by herself. But how plausible was that? At 5 feet 2 and 115 pounds, she was fairly small. How likely was it that she could have pinned her mother down and stabbed her single-handedly? And as this struggle was taking place in the kitchen, Valessa's boyfriend _ a young man with a lengthy arrest record _ was supposedly in the next room, just hanging out. Did that make any sense?

It was possible that Valessa was a murderer, just as she said. It was also possible that she was an exceedingly romantic, deeply misguided young girl, willing to say anything to protect her boyfriend.

+ + +

The two detectives pulled into Fort Stockton just after 3 a.m.

Adam and Jon, who were being held in separate cells, were awakened and brought to them, one at a time. It did not require a great deal of persuasion to get them to talk. They told their stories without much emotion, as though none of it really mattered.

Jon, who went first, had dried blood where the earring he wore in his eyebrow had been ripped out in his scuffle with the deputies. He looked scared. He called each of the detectives "sir" and answered their questions without hesitation.

When his turn came, Adam seemed sleepy. He started off by saying that he didn't know anything, but then Iverson got out the tape recorder and played him a snippet from Valessa's statement and a snippet from Jon's. Iverson did not let Adam hear much, no more than a few words. But it was enough to make his point.

Valessa and Jon had already told them everything. Why shouldn't Adam?

At once, Adam launched into his version of that night. In some ways, his account was not that different from Jon's and Valessa's. They all blamed what happened on the LSD they'd taken. They all said that Vicki had been stabbed and then put into the garbage can and left along a path in some woods not far from Jon's house. Like Valessa, Jon and Adam drew maps showing where to find Vicki's body.

As for the bags of cement they'd bought at the Home Depot, Jon and Adam said that their plan had been to return to the woods, encase the body in the garbage can in cement, then drop the can in a canal. But when they had learned that the police were looking for them, they had dumped the cement, gathered their things and fled.

Still, there was one crucial detail on which the three of them did not agree: Who had committed the murder?

Valessa said she did it.

Jon said Adam did it.

Adam said it was all three of them.

He had done most of it, Adam said. That night, he had first wanted to inject Vicki with an overdose of heroin, he said. They couldn't find any heroin to buy, though, so when they went back to the house, he had confronted Vicki in the kitchen and choked her until she lost consciousness and then tried to inject her with an air bubble and bleach. When she started to wake up, he got on top of her and stabbed her.

But it was Jon, he said, who handed him the knife in the middle of the struggle and told him to use it. And it was Valessa who helped hold down her mother.

At the end of Adam's statement, after he had answered all of their questions, the detectives asked if there was anything he wanted to add.

Adam told them he was so high on the LSD he hadn't realized what was happening until it was too late.

"To this day," he said, "I regret what I did."

He said it made no sense. He had told Valessa that, too, he said. The two of them and Jon had wanted to be together; that was their plan. But to do that, he said, they didn't have to kill Mrs. Robinson.

"I told her that we could have just stole the van and took a credit card and run," Adam said. "Instead of doing that."

By now it was almost 5 a.m. In Fort Stockton, it was still dark outside. But back in Tampa, the sun was about to rise over the trees where Vicki Robinson waited.

+ + +

When the call came from Texas, the investigators in Tampa wrote down the directions and followed where they led.

They found the dirt road, just off Waters Avenue, and came to a rusted cattle fence with a chain that Adam and the others had clipped with a bolt cutter six days before. The investigators gathered the broken link from the chain _ it was evidence now _ and then continued down the road, their cars raising trails of dust.

When they reached the designated spot, beside a stretch of wildflowers and scrub oaks, they stopped and got out. Into the woods they walked, following the footpath that had been described to them.

Deep in the brush, they found a shiny black garbage bag that bulged with Vicki's bath towels, stiff with her laundry bleach and her blood. Nearby they found a pitchfork and two shovels from Vicki's garage. They found a scar in the earth where Adam and Jon had struck again and again, trying to dig a grave but hitting only unforgiving rock.

The garbage can was not far away. It was at the end of another path, half-covered under a blanket of dead palm fronds.

Once they pried open the lid, they could see Vicki's feet, wisps of her peach nightgown. Around her neck was a gold cross. On her finger was a ring Jim Englert had given her, a promise for their future together.

That morning, as the reports on TV announced the discovery in the woods, something went dead inside Jim.

At his house in Safety Harbor, where he had waited for days, he dropped into a chair and felt the energy drain from his body. He stared into space, thinking about Vicki and all the time they'd spent together and all the time they'd thought they had in front of them.

Everything was gone.

+ + +

Iverson and Marsicano brought Valessa back home on a commercial flight from Texas that same day. She sat next to Marsicano. She said almost nothing.

The news cameras were waiting in Tampa. As the detectives put her into a patrol car, one of the reporters shouted a question.

"Valessa, are you sorry?"

She nodded, then got in the car.

They took her to the Hillsborough County juvenile detention center and gave her a baggy uniform to wear. For now, this would be her home.

Back at the house in Carrollwood, the trappings of the life Valessa had left behind remained undisturbed. Her clothes hung in her bedroom closet; the top of her dresser was cluttered with sports trophies and a child's doll, standing with its arms outstretched.

One of the walls in Valessa's bedroom was covered with eyes. There were dozens of them, staring out across the room. Valessa had cut the eyes from magazines and then put them on the wall in neatly arranged rows. According to a family friend, she had apparently gotten the idea from a Drew Barrymore movie about a teenage girl whose parents try to separate her from her boyfriend. Eventually, Barrymore's character and the boyfriend flee together, driving across the country.

The movie was called Mad Love.

+ + +

The sky was lead gray as the mourners filed into the massive Idlewild Baptist Church in north Tampa.

Inside the sanctuary, Vicki was everywhere. In nearly every photograph, she was smiling: a little girl with perfect teeth, a blond teenager in a flip hairdo, a shy bride. And later, laughing with her girlfriends, and pressing her cheek to Jim's. Vicki with her daughters, Michelle and Valessa.

It was July 7. This was the day Vicki was scheduled to take Valessa to Steppin' Stone Farm, the Christian boarding school. Instead, it was the day of her funeral.

At the pulpit, sprays of flowers - white, red and yellow - surrounded a soft portrait of Vicki. At her family's request, there was no casket at the service.

Outside, the clouds broke. Rain pelted the roof as the voices of Vicki's friends lifted in her favorite song, The Great Divide. Then the minister took his place at the lectern and looked out at the rows of crying faces.

Forgiveness, he told them. Remember that Jesus forgave his killers. Vicki, the minister said, would want that for Valessa.

+ + +

The obituary published in the newspapers was one paragraph long.

Written by Vicki's family, it said that she was survived by her mother and father, one sister, two brothers and her daughter Michelle. No mention was made of Valessa.

The family's anger was beginning to show.

"How could a daughter kill a mother?" 17-year-old Michelle asked a television reporter who stopped by the Robinson house. "How could she do it to me? How could she do it to herself?"

That week, someone hung a white banner on a fence off Waters Avenue, near where Vicki's body was found. Dedicated to Vicki from her friends, it said:

Pray for this world.

+ + +

Valessa stood out.

In those weeks after the arrest, whenever bailiffs brought her into court, she created an unmistakable stir. Eyes would turn in her direction. Whispers would ripple through the room.

Her hands and feet were always in shackles. Her long brown hair streamed down the back of her orange jailhouse uniform. She was so small, her pants were cuffed so they would not drag on the ground. Surrounded by other prisoners awaiting hearings, she looked impossibly young.

Invariably, the faces of the other inmates were weary, beaten down, closed off. Valessa's was open and bright. She had the slightly awkward smile of a schoolgirl, traces of baby fat in her cheeks, an oddly unsettling calm.

Some people, when they first saw her, were struck with an urge to protect her. At the county jail, where she had been moved, some of the deputies had begun to bring her extra slices of cake, one of her lawyers said.

She was isolated in a single-person cell with a concrete bed and a bolted-down steel toilet. Her meals were delivered through a feed slot in the steel door. She was allowed one hour a day in a small recreation yard, alone, where she could look above the 20-foot walls to glimpse a patch of blue sky.

From her cell, she could see a TV that played educational and religious shows. She could select worn paperbacks from a cart that came around. And she could have visitors.

The first to come was her father.

Since his divorce from Vicki in 1994, Charles Robinson had not seen much of his younger daughter. Robinson, 48, was a salesman. He was living in St. Louis now and had remarried.

Two days after a grand jury indicted Valessa, Robinson arrived in Tampa and went to the county jail. Only the two of them know what they spoke about through the plexiglass that first day. Did he ask Valessa for some kind of explanation? Did she try to answer? Later, Valessa would say he had told her he loved her.

Michelle Robinson took longer to visit. But eventually she, too, went to the jail.

Vicki Robinson's family could not bring themselves to go, nor could most of Vicki's friends. But the pastor of Idlewild Baptist Church visited Valessa. So did several members of Single Purpose, Vicki's Christian singles group.

Valessa was not allowed to speak to the person she wanted to hear from most. At one of the first hearings, a judge had informed Valessa that she could no longer talk with Adam, as well as Jon or any of the witnesses in the case.

"If you have had relationships with any of these people," the judge told her, "that relationship is now over."

Valessa frowned but said nothing.

In the months that followed, she and Adam did their best to circumvent this order, even though they were in separate jails. They arranged to phone a friend outside the jail, who would patch them through to each other for a conference call. Their friend also purchased a $90 recording device from Radio Shack that allowed them to leave long phone messages for each other.

Jail officials got wind of these efforts and took away their phone privileges. The two of them were also prohibited from writing letters to each other.

Valessa and Adam still found ways to communicate. During hearings in court, as their lawyers argued motions, Valessa and Adam would smile at each other, raise their chains to exchange furtive hand signals, silently mouth a few words.

Up at the bench, Circuit Judge Cynthia Holloway soon tired of these displays. Valessa and Adam were carrying on like lovesick eighth-graders flirting across a classroom. She told her bailiffs to start keeping them apart. Whenever possible, she said, she would hold their pretrial hearings separately. One of them would wait in a holding cell outside the courtroom until the other was done.

For both of them, it was a potentially disastrous decision. There was much at stake. Like Jon, Adam faced the possibility of death in the electric chair if he were convicted; Valessa, too young to be sentenced to death, faced life in prison. Maintaining solidarity could be a matter of life and death. If any of the three decided to turn and testify for the prosecution, the chances of the others being convicted would increase dramatically.

It was too soon to know what any of them would do. But from her cell, Valessa was writing letters gushing about Adam and her hopes for their future. Sometimes she wrote in code, using an alphabet made up of her own hieroglyphics; to help decipher the code, she included a key.

These letters _ at least the ones that were intercepted and made public _ did not sound like the anxious concerns of someone awaiting trial for first-degree murder.

Hopefully one day Adam and I will be together again. If so, then we'll be able to continue our plans of getting married and starting a family. If that happens, then my life long dream will have come true. . . . True love always finds a way.

The breathless cliches, the vows of eternal dedication, the amateurish attempt at a code _ the letters came across as the ramblings of just another teenage girl, head over heels for a boy.

Even if Adam's love for me dies, my love for him will continue for the rest of eternity. Even if Adam says that everything that happened was my doing, and he gets set free and goes off and gets married and starts a family, and I spend the rest of my life in jail, that would be fine with me because I would give my entire life if it made Adam happy.

Maybe she understood what she was saying.

I've always tried to be there for Adam when he needs me. I just wish that I could be there for him right now.

Maybe she did not.

+ + +

They had become celebrities.

One of their friends announced to a reporter that Valessa and Adam were "like a Romeo and Juliet for the '90s." The phrase was repeated again and again in news reports on the case.

A friend of Adam's arranged for a reporter at WFTS-Ch. 28 to talk to Adam by phone. In the interview, Adam made it clear that he was backing off the confession he'd given in Texas. Now he said he would never have hurt Valessa's mother.

"Me and her mom got along great," he said. "We never had problems."

His greatest fear, Adam said, was losing Valessa. The two of them considered themselves a family. "She's pretty much all I got right now," he said. "She's my soul mate."

From jail, Valessa gave an interview to the same reporter. She echoed Adam's words. "We've pretty much given each other a reason to live," she said. "And we're going to spend the rest of our lives together."

As for her mother's death, Valessa was more cryptic. "Whatever happened that night wasn't supposed to happen," she said.

She talked about her mother, saying she missed her "terribly" and cried "every single day." She said she believed that Vicki had forgiven her: "I think that she understands what happened that night."

Valessa did not seem to grasp what was about to happen in the courtroom.

"I'm willing to accept the responsibility of going to prison," she said, her voice flat and unemotional. "I think I deserve it. I think I deserve to go for a while to think about what has happened and what I've done."

But someday, she hoped, she would be reunited with Adam.

"In the eyes of God," Valessa said, "anything is possible."

+ + +

Through it all, Jim Englert kept trying to understand.

He and Vicki's family had gone through Vicki's possessions. Jim had been given some of the souvenirs Vicki had saved, commemorating things they'd done together: ticket stubs from movies, menus from restaurants, a theater program for The Phantom of the Opera. He also had collected several photo albums from their time together, yearbooks from Michelle's and Valessa's schools, and videotapes showing Vicki with him and her daughters.

Jim would look at the images captured in these photos and videos. He would see Vicki smiling, see her holding his hand, and remember all they had shared. He would get out the pictures of Valessa, leafing through her yearbooks, studying shots of her as a little girl with her swim team and her softball team. In every picture, he studied Valessa's face, searching for whatever it was inside her that could have led them all to this place.

To Jim, it was all so senseless. Valessa and Adam had wanted so desperately to be together; they were still talking about it, even now. Yet if they had killed Vicki, it was the one thing they could have done to guarantee they would spend the rest of their lives apart.

What had they gained?

+ + +

Something was happening to Jon Whispel.

His dark blond hair was falling out. Not just a few strands, but fistfuls.

Eventually, Jon was taken to the jail's infirmary, and his hair was shaved to a crew cut. Still the round bald patches showed through, giving him a bizarre, spotted look. They were the size of silver dollars.

It's the stress, they told him.

Most days, when it was time for another court hearing, Jon came shuffling into court like an afterthought, stooped and shackled and sometimes weeping. Because he had no money for a lawyer, the judge had appointed someone to represent him at taxpayer expense.

His attorney was Brian Gonzalez, a former University of Florida pitcher who practiced law as if he were hungry for another winning season. He talked so fast that sometimes it was tiring just listening to him. For Jon, Gonzalez was a gift. Around the courthouse, the Tampa native was well-liked by almost everyone, and he had defended clients long enough to know how things worked and how to make them work for him.

By now it was the spring of 1999. Analyzing the case, Gonzalez was sure his client had the best chance of any of the three teenagers to get a deal from the prosecution.

Unlike Valessa and Adam, Jon had not implicated himself directly in the murder. The facts seemed to indicate that he had simply followed Adam and Valessa into this mess, tagging along. The two of them had an obvious motive for killing Valessa's mother; Jon did not. When Gonzalez talked with Jon at the jail, he grew more confident about his client's prospects. Jon seemed quiet, reserved, polite.

Gonzalez tried looking at the case from the prosecutors' side.

Maybe they didn't need Jon to testify against Adam, since they had Adam's own damning words on tape. But Valessa was different. Almost no one believed her statement to police that she had killed her mother by herself.

Gonzalez thought Jon could add considerable bite to the state's case against Valessa. But before the lawyer could talk about a plea deal, he had to be sure Jon's story held up. So Gonzalez drove to Carrollwood, to the house on Cartnal Avenue. Since Vicki's death, it had been sold. Gonzalez had called the new owners and arranged to look through the house one day while they were gone.

Inside, Gonzalez tested Jon's account of the murder. He took pictures; he made measurements; he walked back and forth between the kitchen and the bedroom that had been Valessa's.

Gonzalez went into the bedroom, to the place where Jon said he'd been during the murder. Jon had been specific about what he could and couldn't see going on in the kitchen. Gonzalez stood where Jon said he had stood, and sat where Jon said he'd sat, and tried to see what Jon said he had seen.

All of it checked out.

+ + +

Gonzalez saw the lead prosecutor, Shirley Williams, in the crowded hallway of the courthouse.

I'd like to talk to you, he said.

I'd like to talk to you, she said.

If convicted of first-degree murder, Jon was looking at either a death sentence or life in prison.

The state offered 40 years.

Gonzalez countered. Less than 30.

For a few days, the negotiations simmered.

Then they talked again. Williams wanted Jon to plead guilty to second-degree murder. He would get 25 years in prison; in return, the state would get his truthful testimony against Adam and Valessa.

They had a deal.

+ + +

The fault lines were widening.

Somewhere in these long months waiting for their trials to begin, Valessa and Adam began to veer in opposite directions. Adam started writing letters to another woman; jail officials were disciplining him for trying to chat up female inmates.

One day, there at the jail, Adam gave an interview to some Times reporters. With one of his attorneys at his side, Adam talked about his childhood, the death of his father, his years of getting in trouble. He showed off his tattoos, including the ones he'd bought with Vicki Robinson's money. Again and again, he vowed undying love for Valessa.

When asked why he cared so much about her, Adam could not really say. When asked what it was that drew him to her, he was vague.

He still said he would do anything for Valessa. But as he spoke those words, there was no spark in his voice, no light behind his eyes.


+ + +

Jim Englert wanted to see the place where they had taken her.

He thought it might help if he went to the woods off Waters Avenue where Vicki's body had been found. If he saw it for himself, at least he would no longer have to wonder about that part of what had happened.

So he called Jim Iverson, one of the detectives who had taken Valessa's statement, and asked for help in finding the spot. Iverson agreed to take Jim there.

They drove to the woods together. Iverson pointed out where the investigators had found the shovels, the towels, the garbage can. He showed Jim the shallow hole Adam and Jon had dug.

Iverson, who wore a WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) bracelet, stood under the oaks with Jim. The two men clasped hands and prayed for Vicki. They asked that Jim be given the strength to heal. They asked that Valessa and her friends be given the clarity of seeing what they had done.

They asked for justice.

+ + +

On Nov. 1, 1999, Adam walked into court in an ill-fitting black suit and bookish eyeglasses. A jailhouse barber had given him a neat trim, and his tattoos were covered. He looked like a Bible salesman.

Grinning, Adam took a seat at the defense table next to his lawyers. One of the lawyers, Rick Terrana, motioned him close.

"Here's the thing," said Terrana, speaking softly. "Do not laugh one time in the entire trial. Okay?"

The grin faded from Adam's face. "All right," he said.

Terrana and the other members of Adam's defense team made sure their client did not make a fool of himself, at least in front of the jury. They made their objections and cross-examined the state's star witness, Jon Whispel. None of it mattered. Especially when the prosecutors played the tape of Adam's statement, so the jurors could hear Adam's own voice describing how he had stabbed Vicki Robinson to death.

"Then she started waking up again, and I was sitting on top of her, with my hand on her throat. And Valessa was holding her legs down. And I started raging, 'cause I was tripping so hard. And Jon brought out the knife. . . . He said, "Here, use this.' And, I don't know how I did it. I don't even know what was going through my mind when I did it. But I just sliced."

Near the end of the trial, when one of the prosecutors was giving her closing argument, Adam broke down. He put his face in his hands and sobbed.

At the prosecutors' table, Assistant State Attorney Pam Bondi had no doubt why Adam was crying. It wasn't for Vicki. It wasn't even for Valessa.

The reason Adam was so upset, Bondi told herself, was because it finally occurred to him that he was about to be convicted.

+ + +

The next day, Valessa had a visitor.

His name was Carlton Huff, and he had been a good friend of Vicki's. He'd met her through Single Purpose, the Christian singles group, and had been to her house. He knew Valessa; to him, she had always been a little girl who needed male attention.

Huff knew that some of Vicki's friends were too angry to reach out to Valessa. They had heard the allegation that she had pinned her mother down as Adam stabbed her; both Adam and Jon were saying it now. This haunted Huff as well. Still, as a Christian, he thought it was important to put aside his anger. Valessa needed to know that God loved her, Huff told himself. If God's people would not show her that love, who would?

So that Friday he drove to the county jail. He showed his ID and was buzzed in.

"Valessa Robinson, please."

As he waited outside the visitors area, Huff tried to remember the last time he'd seen Valessa. Was it at Vicki's house, when Michelle was getting ready for the prom? Michelle had modeled her gown; Vicki was going to style Michelle's hair. But was Valessa around? Huff couldn't remember.

A deputy appeared, then Valessa came forward in her orange jumpsuit. She was thinner than Huff remembered, and paler.

Huff sat down in one of the plastic chairs for visitors. Valessa took a seat on a round metal stool. Between them was a thick plate of plexiglass.

They exchanged an awkward greeting. In a soft voice, Valessa asked, "Did you hear?"

She meant about Adam. The jurors had convicted him of first-degree murder. A few hours ago, they had recommended that Adam be sentenced to death.

"I heard," Huff said.

"The media says he's my boyfriend," Valessa said. "He's not. He was at the time, but he's not now."

The visit lasted 60 minutes. Valessa cried and said she missed her mom. Then she said something that puzzled Huff.

"You're on the outside. I'm on the inside," she told him. "How do I know my mom's not going to walk in here and visit me?"

Huff was not sure what Valessa meant. He was not a psychologist, but afterward he wondered whether she told herself that Vicki was alive and well as some sort of defense mechanism.

"She knows her mom is dead," Huff would later say. "But to protect herself from the brutality of her own doing, she may have woven her own web of reality."

In the weeks that followed, Huff returned to the jail many times. He did not ask Valessa about her mother's death or what role she might have played in it. For her part, Valessa never once showed any remorse or guilt, any hint that she had done anything wrong. This bothered Huff. Still, he did not judge her. He did not think it was his place.

During their visits, Valessa acted like any other teenage girl. She would sing pop songs to him through the plexiglass. She would describe her aspirations of being an actor and singer. She told him that she had earned her GED in jail and was planning to take college courses.

"They let you take college in here?" Huff asked.

"No," she said, "when I get out."

+ + +

Valessa was the only one whose future was still undecided.

Jon had begun serving his 25 years behind bars. Adam had been sent to death row to begin the long wait for his execution. Yet somehow Valessa seemed sure that she was going to get out.

She wasn't just saying it to Carlton Huff. One day, in court, she spied a teenage friend in the audience. The hearing had not yet begun, so Valessa turned to her friend and smiled and joked for a moment. Then she said something about what she was going to do "when I get out," the exact words she had used with Huff.

Not "if" she got out.


It was possible Valessa said these things to effect a certain bravado. If not, her confidence was remarkable. Given the evidence, especially her own taped confession, many assumed she was guilty of something. Not necessarily first-degree murder; maybe second-degree, possibly even manslaughter.

Even Judge Holloway seemed to think so. At a hearing a few months before she was to preside over Valessa's trial, Holloway compared Valessa's case to Adam's. Yes, Valessa was younger. But, Holloway added, "the court would note that as between these two defendants, there is no significant difference in the level of culpability."

Valessa apparently did not see it that way. Nor did her lawyer.

Dee Ann Athan, the assistant public defender who would lead Valessa's case, had no illusions about how her client was perceived. In court, Athan complained that the community was ready to convict Valessa before a single word was uttered at her trial.

"Without exception," she said, "anyone who has talked to me personally about this case believes Valessa Robinson is guilty based on what they have heard."

In one hearing after the other, Athan made it clear that the battle was just beginning. She was not about to surrender to the public's perceptions about her client. She would not argue the case in shades of gray; she did not accept Jon's testimony or even her own client's taped statement. Valessa's alleged confession, she said, was nothing more than a teenage girl's story to cover up for her boyfriend. Valessa was innocent; the real killer was already on death row.

Athan, 45, is a mother of three daughters, ages 8, 12 and 14. One day, one of her girls came home and said she had been confronted about the case at school.

"Valessa is guilty," someone said to her.

Athan told her daughters that Valessa was not a murderer, but a young woman wrongly accused of a crime. She said that if any of them were ever in trouble, they would want someone fighting for them as hard as she was fighting for Valessa.

Athan liked Valessa. She admired her strength and empathized with how she had never had a chance to grieve for her mother. Sometimes, when she talked about Valessa, tears would choke her voice.

"She reminds me of my kids," she would say.

In court, Athan treated Valessa like another daughter. She would smooth her hair, ask if her cuffs were too tight, make sure she was getting enough to eat in jail. Sometimes she kept a hand on Valessa's shoulder.

The prosecutors referred to Valessa as "the defendant." Athan called her "this child."

+ + +

The trial date kept changing.

At first it was scheduled to begin in December 1999. Then March 2000. Then, at last, it was set for April 10.

Athan maneuvered for advantage. First, she got rid of Judge Holloway. More accurately, she moved to have Holloway get rid of herself. Quoting from Holloway's comments about Valessa's "culpability," Athan said the judge had already decided Valessa was guilty. By law, Holloway had no choice but to remove herself from the case.

Arguing before the circuit judge who replaced Holloway, Athan tried to have Valessa's tape-recorded confession thrown out. She said that the detectives had improperly questioned Valessa outside the presence of her father, that Valessa had given the statement under the influence of LSD, that the statement itself was unreliable. She got Jim Iverson, the lead investigator on the case, to admit that he didn't believe Valessa's claims on the tape.

"Is it your opinion, Detective Iverson, that Valessa Robinson stabbed her mom?" Athan asked him during a hearing.

"No ma'am, it's not," Iverson replied.

Athan's motion was denied. The new judge, Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett, ruled that the prosecution would be allowed to use the taped statement at trial.

There was more.

Athan hired an LSD expert to examine the role the drug had played in the case. Knowing that the state would be relying on Jon Whispel, she questioned his account of the murder and made it clear that she planned to paint him as a liar before the jury. When the state announced that Adam Davis had changed his story and was ready to testify that Valessa had killed her mother alone, Athan prepared to attack his credibility as well. Eventually, the prosecutors decided not to use Adam at the trial, saying that they did not wish to complicate the case further and risk another delay.

In the meantime, the defense was contemplating another strategy.

Athan's boss, Public Defender Julianne Holt, hinted that questions might be raised about Valessa's upbringing. Until now, Holt told a reporter, Valessa had been portrayed as a kid from a good home who went bad.

"I don't think that's the way it's ultimately going to play out," Holt said. "I hope everybody's paying attention."

Ten days before the trial, on the morning of March 31, Valessa was brought to court for one more hearing. When it was over, the courtroom was cleared of all spectators. It was Valessa's 17th birthday. Athan had brought a small cake she'd purchased the night before at Kash n' Karry: yellow, with white frosting and blue flowers.

Valessa sat at the defense table, still in shackles, still guarded by bailiffs. The others in the room _ her lawyer beside her, her family and friends on the other side of the rail _ began singing "Happy Birthday."

"Make a wish," Athan told her client. "Make it a good one."

+ + +

In those last days before the trial, the defense attended to another detail.

Valessa's appearance _ how she presented herself in front of the jury _ mattered. So Athan made sure Valessa would have skirts, blouses and dresses to wear. The lawyer also arranged for a hairdresser from Athena, an upscale South Tampa salon, to come to the jail with his scissors and blow-dryer. Valessa was brought to a visitation room. There was no mirror, just a sink and a counter.

When the stylist was finished, Valessa's long hair was gone. In its place was a $50 bob, paid for by a family friend.

The stylist had brought a hand-held mirror. Valessa raised it to see herself.

She looked softer. She looked like what she was.

A girl, with her whole life in front of her.

Jury selection begins this morning. Coverage of the case will continue in Tuesday's Times.

The last roll of film

A roll of undeveloped film _ shot by Valessa and her friends and found in Vicki Robinson's minivan in Texas _ provided an unusual scrapbook of photos when later processed. It appeared some of the photos had been taken very recently.

HANGING OUT: Adam and Valessa at the Village Center shopping mall in Carrollwood, one of their meeting places.

MRS. ROBINSON: The most haunting image was one of Vicki in a nightgown, apparently surprised in her home. Police investigators say they do not know when the photo was taken.

A TATTOO FOR DAD: Adam poses for the camera. On his left shoulder is a tattoo of a cross in memory of his father, Kenneth Davis, who died in a motorcycle accident on the Crosstown Expressway in 1994.

A WALL OF EYES: Valessa in her bedroom, with her ferret. On the wall were some of the pairs of eyes Valessa had cut out from magazines. According to Jon Whispel, Valessa had wanted to take the ferret with them when they fled the house, but the boys said no.

+ + +

Adam Davis, left, Valessa Robinson, middle, and Jon Whispel stand in court for a hearing in March 1999. They were separated in the courtroom so they could not speak to one another. For months, the three maintained their solidarity.

When the three teens were arrested in Texas, a roll of undeveloped film was found in Vicki Robinson's minivan. Investigators later processed the film. One frame, left, showed Adam and Valessa mugging for the camera with Valessa's pet ferret, Slick Girlie Robinson.

Four days after being arrested in Texas, Valessa Robinson arrives for a court appearance in Tampa on July 6, 1998.

Jim Englert visits Vicki Robinson's ashes at the Sylvan Abbey Memorial Park in Clearwater on Feb. 17 of this year. It's a visit he still makes on the 17th day of every month, marking the anniversary of his first date with Vicki, on Oct. 17, 1996, at the Clearwater jazz festival.

Valessa Robinson and Adam Davis did their best to thwart efforts to stop their communications. At right, Valessa gives a hand sign to Adam during a court hearing in January 1999. Above, one of the coded letters Valessa wrote, which seemed to have a message for Adam. Decoded, this letter read in part: "Don't worry, be happy! I'm in love with Adam William Davis! True love always finds a way."

Valessa, her hair newly styled, appears in court with her attorney, Dee Ann Athan, for one of the last hearings before her trial today. Athan has signaled she will fight hard for her client, whom she often refers to as "this child."

Carlton Huff, a friend of Vicki Robinson's from the Christian singles group Single Purpose, visited Valessa many times in jail.