Spree killer faces trial over escape attempt

ELYRIA Nine years ago, Sandusky resident John Michael Robinson went on a robbery spree that left two
Sandusky Register Staff
May 24, 2010

 

ELYRIA

Nine years ago, Sandusky resident John Michael Robinson went on a robbery spree that left two drive-thru clerks dead in Ottawa and Sandusky counties.

In October, he'll be in a Lorain County courtroom -- on trial for allegedly attempting to escape from Lorain Correctional Institution last year by hiding in a trash container.

Among the witnesses Robinson plans to call during his trial are three other convicted killers, including Jason Robb, one of the leaders of the deadly 1993 prison uprising at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio.

Bill Willis, Robinson's defense attorney, said he questions the wisdom of putting Robinson on trial on the attempted escape charge, which carries a maximum prison term of five years.

That's because Robinson, 32, was sentenced to two consecutive life prison terms plus another 19 years after pleading guilty to aggravated murder and attempted murder charges to avoid the death penalty. He is not eligible for parole, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

"What possible harm can the state do to him?" Willis said.

But county prosecutor Dennis Will countered Robinson committed a crime and should be punished for it.

Robinson’s crimes

Armed with a .25-caliber Beretta semiautomatic pistol, Robinson made his first kill April 21, 2000, gunning down Crystal Pierson, 20, at Two Z’s Drive-thru in Carroll Township in Ottawa County.

Pierson was found in a pool of blood in the store’s back office by her sister. She died a day later.

Three days later, Robinson struck at The Gables bar near the Fremont city limits. Bartender Robert Hovis testified during Robinson’s plea hearing Robinson waited until they were alone in the bar before pulling a gun and ordering him to fill a bag with money.

Hovis testified he could tell Robinson intended to kill him and tried to knock the gun from the robber’s hand. The gun went off and a bullet hit Hovis in his hand.

Hovis said he then emptied the cash register and the office safe before making another attempt to escape from Robinson by slamming the door to the office. Robinson, Hovis said during the hearing, then forced the door open, put the gun to his head and fired.

But Hovis said he jerked his head as the gun went off and the bullet went through his right cheek and into his jaw. He fell to the ground, he testified, and played dead until Robinson left the bar.

Less than 30 minutes after Hovis reported The Gables robbery to police, the body of 42-year-old Denise Clink was found at Gene’s Drive-Thru, just outside the city limits of Clyde. Robinson, police concluded, had shot Clink during a robbery of the drive-thru she and her husband owned.

Robinson drove to the Monroe, Mich., hotel where he was staying with his then-18-year-old girlfriend, Dawn Dennis.

As the manhunt for the killer intensified in his hometown of Sandusky and in Ottawa and Sandusky counties, the pair headed off on a cross-country trip, eventually stopping in Houston.

They were arrested May 1 when FBI agents tracked them to a Motel 6 after Dennis tried to buy Robinson a pair of basketball shoes with a personal check at a nearby Houston mall.

Dennis, who later took a plea deal to obstructing justice, immediately surrendered. But Robinson remained in the hotel room for half an hour before coming outside with a gun in his hand. He ultimately dropped the gun and was captured.

Robinson took his own plea deal a year later, avoiding the death penalty in exchange for a prison sentence that offered him no chance of parole.

Out with the trash

Robinson arrived at Lorain Correctional Institution in May 2008. He had been at the prison before, but had also served time at several other prisons throughout the state during his years behind bars.

In a statement to investigators from the Ohio State Patrol looking into his escape attempt, Robinson said he felt he had to try to escape.

“I’ve had enough,” he wrote. “I had to shoot my shot. I didn’t want to be one of those old guys walking around here and never have tried.”

Robinson told investigators he became friendly with a prison worker named Jeff Phillips while working as a mechanic and welder at the prison. He said he talked with Phillips about escaping by hiding in trash containers that were picked up from the Grafton prison.

Phillips, who later was fired for helping Robinson plan the escape, showed the inmate how a pole blocked one of the trash containers from the view of a security camera, Robinson told investigators.

On Sept. 8, 2008, Robinson’s cellmate was supposed to make up a dummy of Robinson in bed — something the cellmate didn’t do — to make guards think Robinson was still in his cell. Meanwhile, Robinson climbed into the trash container and was waiting for the garbage to be picked up when he was found, according to court documents.

Prosecutors contend Robinson struggled with officers as they removed him from the trash container.

Prisons spokeswoman JoEllen Culp said Robinson was transferred after the escape attempt to the maximum security Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown, where he is now classified at the highest risk level.

Andrea Carson, another prisons spokeswoman, said even before Robinson allegedly tried to escape, he had racked up several violations of prison rules including tattooing, possession of contraband and assault on another inmate.

The witness list

Willis, Robinson’s attorney, said he has tried to get prosecutors to drop the escape charges against his client, but they have refused. So he has begun preparing for the October trial before county Common Pleas Judge Raymond Ewers.

Robinson, he said, told him he wanted to call Robb as a witness.

Robb, who was serving a prison sentence for a voluntary manslaughter conviction out of Montgomery County at the time, was a leader of the Lucasville uprising in which 10 people died. According to court documents in Robb’s case, he was a leader of the Aryan Brotherhood and was involved in the deaths of a prison guard and a fellow prisoner — crimes for which he received the death penalty.

Robinson also told Willis he wanted to call Martin Scott, 35, who is serving a life prison term for gunning down his father-in-law in 1994, according to The Columbus Dispatch. Scott is eligible for parole in 2041.

Also on Robinson’s witness list is Chris Rowe, 37, who was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison after killing an acquaintance during a 2001 argument, according to the Circleville Police Department. Rowe is eligible for parole in 2016.

Prison officials said none of the three killers on Robinson’s witness list were at Lorain Correctional Institute when Robinson made his alleged escape attempt. Willis said he doesn’t know why Robinson wants the men in court, but if that’s what his client wants, he plans to put them on the stand.

“He never told me,” Wills said. “He said he wanted them called as witnesses.”

Willis said it’s rare for his clients not to want to share reasons for wanting a particular witness to testify, but it’s not unheard of.

“Some clients are naturally suspicious, even of their own defense counsel,” he said.

Security risks

The criminal histories of Robinson and his witnesses have prosecutors and county sheriff’s deputies who guard the Lorain County Justice Center where Robinson’s trial will take place concerned about security.

Sheriff’s Capt. John Reiber said he couldn’t discuss specific security plans, but the Robinson trial has been discussed. It’s not the first time high-risk prisoners have been at the county jail or the Justice Center, he said.

“Maybe our alert will be up a little bit, but the building is secure. Our jail is secure,” he said.

Willis said security is a concern because Robinson and fellow prisoners have nothing to lose.

 “When you do this in this case, you are actually playing into his hands,” Willis said.

Not only does the trip to Lorain County get all of the men out of the maximum security prison in Youngstown where they are all incarcerated, but it also puts them in a courtroom setting, he said.

Will, the county prosecutor, said security is a concern, but it can’t be the deciding factor on whether to take a case to trial.

He also rejected Willis’ concerns about the cost of the trial and transporting four prisoners to Lorain County.

“He’s a high-risk individual and he tried to escape and he needs to be held accountable,” Will said.