Jailed for killing wife, ex-prof says he 'deserves' parole

Rafael and Ellen Gregory Robb in a wedding photo from 1990. Their daughter, Olivia, is now 19 and has not visited her father in prison.
Rafael and Ellen Gregory Robb in a wedding photo from 1990. Their daughter, Olivia, is now 19 and has not visited her father in prison.
Posted: September 16, 2013

MERCER, Pa. - When he finally stopped swinging a metal bar at her, Rafael Robb said, he glanced down at his wife crumpled on the kitchen floor.

Her battered face was unrecognizable.

"Like one of those horror movies," he said. "Like Frankenstein - except it was in my house."

Robb was a University of Pennsylvania economics professor when he bludgeoned his 49-year-old wife, Ellen Gregory Robb, in their Upper Merion home seven years ago.

The killing shocked the region.

After staging the scene to look like a burglary gone bad, Robb confessed, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, and was sentenced to five to 10 years in prison.

His planned parole was thwarted in January when his wife's relatives and Montgomery County officials campaigned to keep him in jail.

During a nearly five-hour interview last month - his first since his 2008 sentencing - Robb was a study in contrasts:

A man who said he was remorseful for his "moment of madness" but who freely described what he saw as his wife's flaws and accused her of being a neglectful mother.

An inmate who spoke with startling self-confidence, but who eats and showers only when guards say he can.

A father who seemed most genuine when he talked about his love for his 19-year-old daughter, but who conceded she had never visited him in jail.

And though Robb claimed to practice meditation to calm himself, he seethed when talking about his wife's brothers - "brazen liars," he called them - who with county officials lobbied the parole board to keep him jailed.

"I did deserve parole. I felt what the parole board did was wrong," he said.

Once he was out, Robb said, he had planned to move, at least temporarily, back into the Upper Merion house where he killed his wife. He had been so confident he would be freed that he began shipping home personal items, including photographs of Ellen and daughter Olivia.

Now 62 and still speaking with the thick accent of his Israeli homeland, Robb expects to remain in prison at least one more year - possibly three, if his future parole bids stoke as much controversy. But he doesn't understand why they should.

"What on Earth suggests that I am a violent person?" he said. "There is nothing."

As he walked slowly into the visiting room at the State Correctional Institution Mercer on Aug. 19, Robb didn't look like an old Ivy League academic.

Instead of a sport coat and tie, he wore a baggy prison uniform - an orange jumpsuit with the letters "D.O.C." (Department of Corrections) on the back. His thin face, stubbled cheeks, and chin gave him a haggard look.

Robb said he had changed. He realizes he was obsessed with work when he should have put more time into his relationships and his marriage.

"Of course I have remorse. Nobody has a right to take anybody's life," he said. "Even less here - she wasn't threatening or a danger."

The criminal investigation portrayed Robb as a bullying spouse who controlled his wife by withholding money. Her friends said she became a shell of the vibrant person she once was.

Robb agreed up to a point. It was "a horrible marriage," he said, but he never physically or emotionally abused her. He called such speculation "a retarded argument."

Ellen Robb gave their daughter love and warmth, but did not do other types of caretaking, Robb said, like making her lunch. He likened her mothering to the way a wildflower grows.

"A wildflower in a field does not require attention," he said. "It gets what it needs on its own. It was neglect. I would say it was abuse."

Robb said his wife was a compulsive Internet shopper who let boxes pile up in their house. He also was "a hoarder," mainly of books and articles, he said. The difference between his and his wife's clutter, he said, was that his was better organized.

Money became the tool he used to retaliate against her for not being the mother he thought she should have been. "She wouldn't take care of Olivia," Robb said. "I wouldn't buy her what she wanted."

His ire boiled over on Dec. 22, 2006, the day his wife was to go with their daughter to the Boston area for the holidays.

Ellen Robb had finally decided to end their marriage and take their then-12-year-old daughter with her, friends and family would later say. Rafael Robb claimed he didn't know.

He asked his wife if she planned on bringing Olivia back for the January start of classes, remembering a previous trip when the daughter missed school.

Ellen answered yes, he said, and told him to "chill out."

At that point, "I guess I raised my voice. I guess she pushed me," he said. "I got so enraged. I wasn't thinking. . . . Instead of appreciating the fact that I was trying to take care of Olivia, she yells at me."

So he grabbed the metal chin-up bar and swung, hitting her so hard and so many times that her skull shattered and her face collapsed inward.

(His sentencing judge, Paul W. Tressler, later said the attack was the most horrific bludgeoning he had ever seen.)

Robb said he was afraid of getting caught, so he devised a ruse: He faked a break-in, and insisted for nearly a year that a burglar had been the killer.

Did he really think he could get away with murder?

"The stupidest part of this whole affair," he said, "was to stage a break-in."

Still, he thinks a jury would have acquitted him.

"If I did not step up to the plate and confess to what I did, they had absolutely no evidence against me," Robb said.

Bruce L. Castor Jr., then the district attorney, disagreed, even though he was the one who offered to reduce the charge from first-degree murder to voluntary manslaughter in exchange for a guilty plea.

A jury would have convicted Robb of first-degree murder, said Castor, now a Montgomery County commissioner.

"The conclusion he wants you to draw - that he somehow did us a favor by pleading guilty because he would have gotten off otherwise - is nonsense," he said.

Once, Robb was regularly invited to lecture overseas. Now he sleeps on the bottom bunk of a two-inmate cell with concrete walls. Respect these days comes from prisoners who know his crime - and that he taught at a university.

While Robb said he calms himself through meditation, he still roils with anger toward his brothers-in-law, Gary and Art Gregory, for the influence they wield over his life and a lawsuit they filed against him in Montgomery County.

In the complaint, they assert that he will end up taking money away from his daughter.

Robb claimed they control her through deception. "They are brazen liars," he said.

The lawsuit also hurts Olivia, Robb said, because it targets the trust fund he established for her. All of the money in the fund - he won't say how much - is earmarked for Olivia. A trustee runs it, but Robb said he has a say in payments to her.

If the brothers prevail, he claimed, the money will be split among her, them, and their lawyers.

That is self-serving and untrue, Gary Gregory said. The suit "is a straightforward matter to ensure Olivia's long-term financial well-being and put her in a position not to be reliant on her father for financial means," Gregory said. "All of our interests are central to and driven for Olivia's welfare."

Gregory doesn't think Robb has changed for the better in prison or genuinely feels remorse. How can he, he said, when he still blames so many of his problems on others?

"This situation is created entirely through his years of abuse of my sister culminating in the most heinous killing in the history of Montgomery County in over half a century," he said. "How would anyone in his situation not fully accept the consequences and pay the 10 years graciously?"

After the parole board revoked its plans to release him, Robb said, he sent the board a letter.

In the 16-page document, titled "RE: Appealing a Parole Recission," the former professor argued that the reversal was rash and based on no evidence that he would have been a risk if freed. His record had been spotless, and psychologists and psychiatrists deemed him unlikely to kill again. That's why, Robb said, he was assigned to a minimum-security facility.

He also denied he had tried to manipulate Olivia financially, as Tressler, his sentencing judge, wrote in a letter to the board.

Robb said he and Olivia still talk on the phone and he gives her money for whatever she needs.

But she has not visited him, Robb said. As he spoke about his daughter, his voice softened and he looked downward, one of the few times during hours of talking that he showed emotion.

"I'm not denying what I did was horrific. They [Ellen's brothers] have a right to be bitter," Robb said. "I inflicted a bigger loss yet on my daughter. She had a mother and now she doesn't have a mother."

Olivia Robb could not be reached for comment.

When Robb does get out, he doesn't know what he will do or where he will go. No one from Penn has kept in touch with him, he said, and his relationship with his sister in Israel has been strained - she and he are opposites, he said.

So he shapes his expectations to fit his reality:

"The brothers are never going to forgive me, and I don't expect them to forgive me. My daughter might also not forgive me. Who could blame her? If that's the case, so be it."

With that, Rafael Robb is in control again.


Dec. 22, 2006: During an argument over their divorce, Rafael Robb grabs a metal bar and bludgeons his wife, Ellen, 49, to death.

Nov. 26, 2007: Robb pleads guilty to voluntary manslaughter to avoid a first-degree murder charge.

Nov. 19, 2008: Robb is sentenced to five to 10 years.

Nov. 7, 2012: A parole board approves Robb's parole, citing his positive behavior and acceptance of responsibility for murder.

Jan. 2013: The parole board rescinds its initial decision, citing "new information" that deemed him a risk to the community. He also received a negative recommendation from the trial judge, Paul Tressler.

Contact Carolyn Davis at 610-313-8109, cdavis@phillynews.com, or carolyntweets on Twitter.

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