Thursday, February 5, 2009

Going Undercover to Solve a Murder

by Rose Ciotta

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.

As Castor had told reporters, he had ample circumstantial evidence to make Robb his primary suspect but not enough to make an arrest. That’s when he decided to take a page from the undercover playbook. He knew just the two who could do the job--veteran narcotics undercover officers Tony Spagnoletti and Steve Forzato of the Montgomery County detectives. The pair had 39 years of undercover narcotics work between them and had teamed up on many cases. Most importantly for Castor, they were good at doing what Castor needed—they could interact with Robb and give Castor a reading on him.

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.

Spagnoletti, who had taken on the undercover persona of Tony Corelli, first won Robb’s confidence before challenging him on the most vulnerable part of his story. Robb claimed someone had broken into the house, but he had not reported to police that anything was missing.

“What was missing,” Tony asked him.

“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

“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


Kathryn Casey said...

Great post, Rose. Sounds like a super book!

I take it that this is your first true crime book. Besides more time consuming, how was the experience different for you than your day job?

Anonymous said...

What kind of games? Like video?

RoseCiotta said...

Hi all,
This is Rose Ciotta, author of "Cruel Games." Yes, this is my first book. Doing the book was actually a wonderful blend of my deep reporting background and narrative writing. Unlike newspaper writing, the book gave me space to describe scenes and develop the characters. I'm an editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer where crime stories abound.
As for game theory, it's a specialty of economics. It blends economics, psychology and math in order to make decisions by calculating what others might do.

FleaStiff said...

A professor of game theory may know alot about simulations and odds and rational choices versus irrational choices,,, but that is no indication of how he will manage the real world.

Anonymous said...

Hi all, Rose Ciotta, author of Cruel Games here. There is no suggestion that Robb's expertise in game theory had anything to do with the killing of his wife. Rather, his knowledge of game theory came up during the investigation. Police and prosecutors commented on how they believed Robb was playing games with them and trying to cover-up that he had killed his wife.

Vanessa Leggett said...

Thanks for contributing this piece, Rose. Happy to have you here!

Anonymous said...

Thanks. This is a terrific blog. I am happy to be a part of it.