DA Bruce Castor didn’t hesitate.
The call came in from the local police asking if it was OK to allow Dr. Rafael Robb to hire a glazier and locksmith to fix the broken back door of his home—the same one that he said intruders must have broken through before killing his wife.
“Sure,” said Castor, “but they’re going to have an assistant.”
It was five days since Robb had called police saying he found his wife bludgeoned on the kitchen floor of their suburban Philadelphia home.
Robb, a University of Pennsylvania economics professor and world-renowned expert in game theory, had told police that he had last seen his wife in the morning when he left to take his grades to the West Philadelphia campus on Dec. 22, 2006.
As Robb told it, he was the last person to see his wife alive and the first person to find her dead. That scenario made him a primary suspect, but police had nothing that tied him to the murder. Robb insisted he was innocent over the course of a 12-hour police interrogation. There were no forensics to link him to the murder and no murder weapon.
But, as police had pieced together from friends and family, Ellen (below left) was planning to get a divorce and put an end to her decade-long loveless marriage to Robb. They had stayed together because neither wanted to lose their daughter who was now 12.
While the undercover encounter with Robb appeared unusual, it fit right in with Castor’s prosecutorial style. During his seven years in the top job, Castor often joined in planning out undercover assignments in narcotics investigations. That he found a job for the skilled detectives in the area’s highest profile murder case didn’t surprise anyone who knew him.
In this case, their assignment was no-risk. Getting Robb to confess would be frosting on the cake. Anything else could help shoot more holes into his alibi. “Just get him talking and let’s see where it goes,” Castor told them.
Each officer went into the Robb house separately pretending to be workmen—one to replace the glass, the other the back door lock. The ruse took the officers inside the house and in direct contact with Robb.
“Nothing,” Robb told him.
“Doc, something is missing. People don’t break into a freakin’ house and kill your wife and nothing is missing. Are you saying someone had something against her?"
“No,” Robb said.
“Doc, you are not understanding me. You’ve got a lot of stuff missing here. You need to re-evaluate and find stuff that are missing. You get my drift?”
When Tony left, he passed his partner Steve who was dressed in a dark blue company shirt with the name, “Joshua,” on the right side breast pocket.
“You won’t have any problem,” Tony whispered to Steve. “He’ll be easy.”
Steve’s routine was more laid back deliberately avoiding any talk with Robb about what had happened in the house.
Robb told him that he had been living in a hotel since the murder and had just moved back that day. His daughter, Olivia would be home that day or the next.
“You don’t want them to get this done tonight?” Steve asked referring to the lock work.
“No, that’s not necessary,” Robb answered.
While they stood in the kitchen, on the same spot where Ellen’s body had been found brutally beaten, her husband offered Steve a soda. “No thanks,” he said.
Castor let the ruse go for a little while, allowing Tony to go back for a second visit so his worker partner—the real glazier—could install the fixed glass.
Fearing that Robb would flee or get involved in some other crime, Castor called an end. By then, he figured that the undercover guys, who were used to working with hardened drug dealers, would easily have figured out the nerdy university professor.
Except for one fact that wasn’t lost on either detective. While they were playing him, was it possible that Robb, a master of the strategy decision making of game theory, was also playing them.
It didn’t change their conclusion.
“Was Robb their guy?” Castor wanted to know.
“No doubt,” they told him. “You have the right guy.”
Rose Ciotta, the author of the book on the Robb case, CRUEL GAMES (St. Martin's, Feb. 2009), is a veteran award-winning investigative reporter and editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer. Photo of Castor, top left, credit Joan Fairman Kanes; Photo of Ellen Robb, courtesy of Gary Gregory; photo of Rafael Robb at the time of his arrest; cover photo credited to Alejandro A. Alvarez, Philadelphia Daily News