Friends of Ellen Robb remember - and air frustration over parole

In the Upper Merion gazebo built to honor Ellen Robb are (from left) Ali Weir, Jovanna Acchione-Bevilacqua, LuAnn Brunell-Dubin, and Mary Beth Pedlow.
In the Upper Merion gazebo built to honor Ellen Robb are (from left) Ali Weir, Jovanna Acchione-Bevilacqua, LuAnn Brunell-Dubin, and Mary Beth Pedlow. (TOM INFIELD / Staff)
Posted: January 23, 2013

Six years after Ellen Gregory Robb was beaten to death by her husband, a dozen of her Upper Merion friends gathered to remember her Monday at a gazebo they had built in her honor.

What brought them together on a gray, 30-degree morning was that Robb's husband, Rafael, is scheduled to be paroled Monday, four years short of his maximum 10-year sentence for manslaughter.

The friends joined Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman, members of Ellen Robb's family, and several state legislators in calling on the Board of Probation and Parole to reverse its decision to free Robb, a renowned University of Pennsylvania economist, then 56, who repeatedly attacked his wife with a metal rod Dec. 22, 2006, as she wrapped Christmas presents in their kitchen.

"I just want to pray for the Lord to give us peace - peace we have not had for many years," Mary Beth Pedlow said as the 11 women and one man formed a circle in the gazebo on the winter-encrusted lawn of Roberts Elementary School, where most of them had met Ellen Robb as the fellow parent of a student.

There was an undercurrent of anger within the group - at Rafael Robb, the parole board, and Bruce L. Castor, the former Montgomery County district attorney, who acceded Nov. 26, 2007, to Robb's manslaughter guilty plea.

Some said that if Castor had pushed for a murder conviction, Robb might remain in jail for years more.

"I have no problem saying it was badly tried," said LuAnn Brunell-Dubin. "I don't think [Castor] wanted to take a chance that this would go as a loss in his win-win column. He kept saying to us, 'Oh, no, we shouldn't go to trial, a lot of the evidence is circumstantial.' "

The friends said they were denied a chance to speak when Robb was sentenced.

Said Pedlow: "I don't feel Bruce Castor represented Ellen at sentencing. . . . He was not addressing the issue of domestic violence, which Ellen was absolutely a victim of."

Castor, reached Monday, said he believed the crime was an act of rage, not premeditation, and fit the legal standard for manslaughter.

Castor, now a county commissioner, said it was his office that got Robb, known as "Rafi," to admit he committed the crime. Robb at first portrayed the killing as the work of an intruder.

Common Pleas Court Judge Paul Tressler, now retired, sentenced Robb to five to 10 years in prison. Robb had spent two years behind bars at the time of the sentencing. He became eligible for parole when his minimum sentence was reached.

"There is a difference between a heat-of-passion killing and a non-heat-of-passion killing," Castor said. "I asked for 10 to 20 years, and the judge halved that."

Some of Ellen Robb's friends said they feared that Robb, when released from a prison in Mercer, would return to their neighborhood in the Bob White Farms section of Upper Merion.

"The thing that is upsetting - if you want to view this as an act of passion and that he got so angry - is, what else will he get angry about?" said Sharon Sellman. "If the kids are playing outside the house and making too much noise - people are afraid."

Gary Gregory, Ellen Robb's brother, is scheduled to meet Tuesday with parole board Chairman Michael Potteiger at the board's office in Harrisburg. The meeting was set up after a call on the family's behalf from Gov. Corbett's office.

Janet Kelley, spokeswoman for Corbett, said the governor's office contacted Potteiger last week to report the family's belief that it had new evidence to justify keeping Robb in prison.

"Potteiger, following the procedures of the parole board, agreed to listen to the victim's brother," Kelley said Monday.

She said Corbett had no direct authority to intervene in the case.

Said Gregory: “From a family perspective, we cannot get over that this guy is going free after five years for what he did.… The family is devastated. People haven’t slept in a month.”

Ferman said Robb's fate lay entirely with the parole board.

"They have the sole authority to determine whether or not to revoke the parole opportunity they granted to the defendant in November," she said Monday. "If they refuse to take action, there is no legal recourse."


Contact Tom Infield at 610-313-8205 or tinfield@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @tinfield.

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