Eric Robert: From model citizen to death rowMan headed to death chamber tonight had seemingly normal, productive life before turning to crime.
By: JOHN HULT, Argus Leader
SIOUX FALLS — Eric Robert’s life bears little resemblance to that of his peers on death row.
Most condemned killers have troubling personal stories and long criminal histories.
Donald Moeller was beaten, demeaned and made to watch his biological mother’s drug use and sexual behavior. Elijah Page, executed in 2007, moved from house to house with substance-abusing parents then bounced from foster home to foster home in several states.
Rodney Berget suffered with an alcoholic father and abuse, and was first sent to the adult prison system at age 15. His brother, Roger, was executed in 2003 in Oklahoma, eight years before Rodney Berget and Robert would commit a capital crime in the murder of Corrections Officer Ron Johnson.
Robert’s life looked nothing like Berget’s. He will be put to death at 10 p.m. today.
Robert was the child of a single mother who helped raise his younger sister in his home state of Wisconsin. He had a stellar academic record, put himself through college and had a successful career in wastewater treatment. He was an emergency medical technician and frequent community volunteer who once helped erect a monument to a murdered sheriff.
He grew close to his longest-term love interest through her son, whom Robert coached on a Little League team.
In 2005, before he was sentenced to 80 years in prison for a Meade County kidnapping, his sister told the judge that her brother “has done more good in his life than many people in this world.”
This week, the state of South Dakota intends to put Robert to death by lethal injection for the brutal, premeditated killing of Johnson on April 12, 2011.
The rage that fueled the killing was a measure of how far he’d fallen from the life he once had. Robert said so himself in court one year ago. He’d refused to let his lawyer mention his good deeds.
“To be honest with you, the good acts that I’ve done in my life were not mentioned here, because they are irrelevant to these proceedings,” Robert said. “That person who did good things no longer exists.”
Last week, through his lawyer Mark Kadi, Robert reiterated his reasoning for staying quiet about his prior kind acts during sentencing for the Johnson murder. “My client feels that none of the good things he’s done justify the killing of Ron Johnson,” Kadi said.
Eric Robert was born May 31, 1962, in Massachusetts. His father was gone by the time he was 6 months old. Robert, his mother and younger sister moved to Hayward, Wis., when he still was young.
His sister, Jill Stalter, declined to comment for this story but testified on her brother’s behalf in 2005.
She said then that Robert was the father figure in their house as their mother worked three jobs and studied to earn a college degree.
“My brother took care of everything. He took out the trash, he made sure dinner was on the table, he even did grocery shopping. He got me my first dog. He did everything. He even shoveled snow, and in Hayward, it’s a lot of snow,” Stalter said. “He put himself through college by working weekends and during summer breaks. He didn’t take a penny from my mother because she was putting herself through college.”
He was a good student, as well, graduating 18th in his class at Hayward High School in 1980. He returned to Hayward after earning a biology degree with a chemistry minor at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.
In 2000, he applied for a job as the wastewater treatment supervisor for the city of Superior. On his job application, released as part of a records request by the Argus Leader, Robert wrote that he hadn’t missed a day of work in 10 years.
He got along well with co-workers. Frog Prell, the city attorney, started work for the city in 2000, just a few months after Robert, whom family and friends knew as “Ranger.”
Robert used to drop by the office to joke around, quiz Prell about small towns in Wyoming, which is Prell’s home state. The short interactions left an impression on Prell, who didn’t know Robert was on death row until the records request came across his desk this month.
“If you’d have asked me what I thought about Eric Robert before this, I’d have said he seemed like a pretty cool guy,” Prell said.
Dan Romans, the wastewater administrator for Superior, called Robert a “natural-born leader” who accomplished more in 18 months on the job than others had for decades.
Robert eventually lost his job in Superior, though, because he failed to comply with a city residence requirement, but he continued to consult with the city afterward.
He was living in a home in the rural community of Drummond, more than an hour southeast of Superior.
It was in Hayward, almost a decade before, where he met the woman with whom he’d later build the house in Drummond.
That woman, who testified at Robert’s pre-sentence hearing last year in Sioux Falls but declined to comment for this story, said there was an undercurrent of anger in him even then — one most people didn’t see.
“He was an aggressive, mean person who didn’t like other people and had to be in control,” she said the woman, whom the Argus Leader is not identifying because she is a victim.
She’d gone to high school with Robert but didn’t know him well at the time. They got reacquainted in 1992, when he was coaching her son’s baseball team. Robert soon was living with the woman and her two children.
“We got along fine at first,” she said, but then “he showed me his true colors.”
She recounted three specific incidents in court from their decade-long romance.
They rented an apartment in Cable, Wis., as they built their house, she said. One day, as they sat on the couch together, Robert backhanded her over an offhand remark.
She hit him back, she said, then recoiled when she realized that he was sure to retaliate.
“He punched me in the mouth so hard it pushed my bottom teeth through my lip,” she said.
Robert, who knew most of the employees in the local ER through his work as an EMT, told the doctors and nurses she’d slipped on icy steps while carrying in groceries.
He had similar explanation for her appearance at the ER with a broken foot years later. She called police on him after a separation, when he showed up at her house drunk and started a fight that ended with him pulling her around the yard by her hair.
She dropped the charges for fear he’d hurt her again. She lived with a lot, she told Judge Zell. He’d force her to come to bed without clothing and beat her until she relented and submitted to sex.
“I told myself because I rolled over and said ‘fine’ that it wasn’t rape,” she said.
Another former girlfriend accused Robert of rape in 2002 in Brule County but never filed charges. She was granted a protection order against Robert, however, after telling a judge there that Robert had held her against her will after a day of searching for apartments in Chamberlain.
The crime that would land Robert in the penitentiary in South Dakota took place in 2005, a few months after he moved to Piedmont to help a friend with her business.
On July 24, 2005, Robert followed an 18-year-old woman on a rural road near Black Hawk and turned on his pickup’s spotlights to pull her over about 2 a.m.
In court one year ago in Sioux Falls, the victim recounted her story. She said Robert told her he was an undercover police officer and asked her to perform field sobriety tests.
“He didn’t have any form of identification; he had maybe just a T-shirt on and jeans. Had some facial hair, an unshaven look,” she said.
She was suspicious, she said, but went along with it when Robert asked her to empty out the trunk of her car. That’s when Robert scooped her up and stuffed her in the trunk.
“I remember hearing the vehicle that was behind my car leaving, so I thought he had just left me there,” she said.
She had a cellphone and called a friend to tell them what had happened. Meanwhile, Robert drove his truck to a lot just down the road, then returned to the location of the stop and drove her car to the lot.
Robert disappeared shortly after parking her car, as the victim frantically described her situation to the Pennington County Sheriff’s department.
When detectives found Robert and his pickup days later, he no longer matched the description of the suspect. He’d shaved his head and face and initially denied any involvement.
In the back of his truck, detectives found a bed, an ax, rope and pornography.
He eventually admitted to pulling the victim over and was arrested. Prosecutors said the items were evidence that Robert planned to rape the victim, but Robert denied that.
The friend he was working for in Piedmont said “Ranger” would sleep in his truck to avoid hotel fees. She said he’d never shown any interest in young girls. At his sentence hearing in 2005, she said he’d been working for her all summer for no pay, and that she couldn’t believe the allegations against him at first.
“It’s unbelievable that he would do that, or that he did that. It’s nothing of the man I know. He was incapable of doing that,” Cheryl Williamson said.
Another friend of Robert, Bob Lang, an EMT from Cable, Wis., also testified on his behalf. Robert volunteered his time for the ambulance service, he said, but also volunteered around the region in other ways.
When a former Bayfield County Sheriff Richard Parquette was killed in a domestic dispute, Lang decided that the ambulance service ought to erect a memorial to him.
Robert, who met Lang shortly after the sheriff’s death and never knew Parquette personally, put in hours of time raising funds for the memorial.
“I didn’t understand it,” Lang said. “He didn’t know Officer Parquette. He didn’t really know me at the time. He just said he wanted to do what was right.”
Lang and others did say Robert could be very aggressive when drinking alcohol, but they also said he had given up drinking alcohol on his own as a way to keep a lid on the aggression.
Robert was given an 80-year prison sentence, based in part on his suspected intentions. In pronouncing sentence, Judge Warren Johnson said it was too difficult to square Robert’s life in northern Wisconsin with the man who committed the Meade County crime.
“It certainly sounds like the Wisconsin Eric Robert is a totally different person from the South Dakota Eric Robert,” Johnson said. “It’s the South Dakota Eric Robert I’m dealing with today.”
Prison further hardened Robert. He spent years battling the DOC and court system over a variety of issues.
He successfully fought an effort by the DOC to classify him as an unconvicted sex offender based on the allegations made by the women he’d known in Wisconsin, Chamberlain and his victim in Piedmont.
In 2007, he was accused of attempting to escape by tampering with a lock on the door of a shower room where he worked. He argued unsuccessfully that he’d been set up by other inmates.
Two other appeals consumed him during his incarceration, according to testimony from DOC employees at his sentencing last year. He first fought for a shot at a sentence reduction. When that failed in 2009, he asked for a transfer to a facility in Wisconsin, so he could be closer to his mother.
That failed, as well.
Soon thereafter, Robert’s rage metastasized until he came to view himself as a soldier in a “war” against his oppressors.
“On April 12, 2011, RJ (Johnson) became a victim in Robert’s war,” Judge Brad Zell wrote in his ruling on the death penalty. “As Robert stated in court, anyone who stood in his way as an oppressor would have died on that day.”
Johnson wasn’t even scheduled to work that day, which was his 63rd birthday. He’d agreed to come in to cover a shift for a co-worker, who’d called in sick.
The 20-year veteran in the prison showed up and took up his post in the Pheasantland Industries building that morning at 7:30.
Three hours later, Robert and his co-defendant, Rodney Berget, walked into the building with a load of laundry. Even though both men were classified as maximum security risks, their jobs afforded them freedom of movement.
Each man testified that they hid and waited for Johnson, then snuck up on him, bashed him in the head with a metal pipe then wrapped his head in plastic to stop him from screaming. Robert put on Johnson’s uniform. Berget climbed into a box atop a wheeled cart.
Robert pushed the cart through one of the double doors in the sally port at the prison’s west gate, where he was intercepted and questioned by Officer Matthew Freeburg.
When Freeburg asked the officer in the control booth to call for backup, Berget sprang from the box and both inmates began to beat the officer as a security alert went out through the penitentiary.
In September, when Robert pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, his lawyer, Mark Kadi, told Judge Zell that his client wanted to plead guilty the next day.