An American Tragedy: Mother Kills 2 Children as System Fails

Times Staff Writer

Debra Sue Robles got away with murder. Twice.

In 1980, she killed her 4-month-old son, disabled with water on the brain. In 1985, she killed her 6-year-old son, crippled by cerebral palsy.

A year went by and nothing happened. Then in January, she walked into El Cajon police headquarters and confessed.

Her confession should not have come as a surprise. The police had suspected her for months. County officials had taken her older child away for three years--then returned him. Robles had even told her husband and parents that she had killed a child.

But no one intervened. They say they didn’t believe her, or they couldn’t prove it, or they didn’t realize the danger. So two children are dead, and Debra Sue Robles has been sentenced to a prison term of 30 years to life for two counts of second-degree murder.

“In my opinion, I think both homicides could have been prevented,” Robles’ lawyer, Michael Popkins, said at her sentencing Wednesday in San Diego. “A lot of things that went on here were not only Debra’s fault but other people’s fault as well.”


Debra Sue Robles’ story is a story of failure--the failure of public agencies and individuals to prevent a tragedy. It is a story of how systems set up to prevent a disaster inadvertently allowed it to happen.

In retrospect, the signs were there: A violent history, mysterious emergency-room visits, a pattern of deaths. But warnings went unheeded and attempts to intervene failed. There were bad decisions, but the consequences became clear too late.

No agency had investigated the first child’s death--even though the county already had removed the older son from the home for neglect. Later, the county returned him to the home where his brother had been killed. Autopsies blamed both deaths on natural causes.

Officials insist there was no way they could have known. They say extraordinary circumstances conspired to conceal the truth. Only in retrospect does it fit together, they say. As one county official said, “Obviously, we made the wrong decision.”

In the end, that was not the issue. Superior Court Judge Richard Huffman rejected Popkins’ plea for leniency. He said the fact that government agencies failed to prevent Debra Robles’ crimes is not “in my judgment a factor in mitigation, because the defendant aided in society’s failure by lying.”

The People vs. Debra Sue Robles: Deputy Dist. Atty. Stephen Anear calls it “the most tragic and bizarre case I’ve ever seen.” Two child murders, five years apart, go undetected. Then the mother traces her actions to their disabilities--which she may have caused.

Robles’ life, too, has been “bizarre.” As both lawyers pointed out, it has been filled with horror and misfortune: Mental illness, shock therapy, the discovery of a husband’s homosexuality, and finally, murder.

Debra Sue Vanderwerf grew up in Chula Vista, the third of four children of a machinist.

Dr. Haig Koshkarian, a psychiatrist who reviewed Robles’ records and evaluated her for Popkins, reported that she developed seizures and grew up feeling different and disliked. She took to throwing tantrums to get people to listen, Koshkarian said.

She first was hospitalized at 13 or 14 and spent much of her adolescence in Patton, Camarillo, and Metropolitan state hospitals. Her diagnosis varied from schizophrenia to impulsive control disorder to unsocialized aggressive reaction of adolescence, Koshkarian said.

“More accurately, she is a very unstable, immature, impulsive, inadequate, needy and borderline woman with limited intelligence, a very low frustration tolerance, and a tenuous hold on reality, especially in times of stress,” Koshkarian’s report said.

He found her “barely able to take care of herself, let alone take care of a child.” But he said he found her neither vicious, unfeeling nor callous. He blamed her actions on her “instability, impulsivity, and her wish to do away with an unpleasant reality.”

Debra met Vincent Robles on a rainy day in January, 1978, over a cigarette outside a nursing home where they were learning to be nurse’s aides. She was living in a board-and-care home, newly released from Patton. He was working in a mortuary on El Cajon Boulevard.

“He was handsome,” Robles recalled in a long interview late last month in San Diego County’s women’s jail in Santee. “And he was good to me,” she added simply, in a quiet, flat voice, devoid of emotion.

When they married three months later, Debra Robles was three months pregnant. As Vince Robles remembers it, they both wanted children and the security of a family. But Debra Robles recalls her pregnancy as an accident. In retrospect, she says, she regrets it bitterly.

“If I woulda known then all I know now, I woulda never had them to begin with,” she said in the interview. “If I woulda known back then (how) not to get pregnant, I wouldn’t have gotten pregnant.”

John Peter Robles was born Sept. 17, 1978. Trouble started shortly after, prosecutor Anear believes.

At birth, the boy appeared normal and healthy, according to papers submitted to the court. Two months later, he began turning up in the Grossmont Hospital emergency room.

First, there was a large scratch on one arm, which the parents blamed on a screen door. A week later, they brought him in twice, saying he was coughing and turning purple. The second time, doctors detected possible hypoxemia, caused by lack of oxygen.

Then on Dec. 19, Debra Robles called her son’s visiting nurse, saying she had put John in a plastic bag and could not “take it any more,” according to court records. (Robles now insists the call was simply a cry for help. She says the plastic bag story was a lie.)

County officials took custody of John, but returned him four months later. During that period, there were no apparent physical problems. In July, he was back in the emergency room with a cut on his head, blamed on a fall on the television set. Two weeks later, Debra Robles brought him in, saying he had stopped breathing.

Now the doctors were suspicious. A bone survey and X-rays turned up what appeared to be an old fracture in his right femur, court records say. The doctors counted five emergency-room visits in 10 months, twice with “evidence of contusions.”

Further tests turned up signs of neurological dysfunction. Over weeks, the doctors realized John had developed cerebral palsy. Court records submitted by Anear show the child had become “profoundly handicapped and retarded, a quadriplegic spastic caused by cerebral palsy.”

Robles now says she had given him Haldol, a psychotropic drug prescribed for her. She says she did it to calm a bout of colic. The drug could have caused oxygen deprivation and the brain damage associated with cerebral palsy, papers filed with the court say.

Once again, the county placed John in a foster home, and eventually he was sent to Vince Robles’ parents in Southeast San Diego. Over time, relations between the two families deteriorated. Vince and Debra began a three-year struggle to reclaim their first child.

In the meantime, they had had a second child.

Matthew Josiah Robles was born May 4, 1980--11 weeks premature and with hydrocephalus, a condition in which fluid accumulates within the cranium, swelling a child’s head and damaging the brain. Debra Robles now says she believes she caused his condition. She said she had grown “tired of being pregnant” and had punctured her amniotic membrane to speed the birth.

Matthew spent most of his brief life in the hospital under treatment. Shortly after he came home, his mother snapped.

Court records provide a description of the infant’s death:

He had awakened and would not stop crying; Vince Robles was out. She picked up a diaper and slapped the baby across the face. She suffocated him with a plastic bag, dressed the body in pajamas and called the Santee paramedics. She told them Matthew had failed to wake up for his 2 o’clock feeding. When she went in to check, he simply had stopped breathing.

The autopsy report attributed the death to “cardiorespiratory failure due to hydrocephalus.” The body showed no signs of foul play, law-enforcement officials said. The death was investigated no further.

There were other troubles in the Robles home. Vince Robles said he realized shortly after his marriage that he was gay. He continued to work to support the family, but he sometimes would go out at night after his children had gone to bed.

His sexuality had become a source of strain--a strain that lawyer Popkins suggests contributed to the children’s deaths. He points out that Vince Robles was out when both boys were killed. Debra Robles says she has wondered how much she was motivated by an urge to get back at her husband.

Nevertheless, the couple worked together to regain custody of John. There were “infant-parent communications courses” and evening parenting classes required by the county. There was a string of caseworkers, supervised visits with the child and long days in court.

Eventually, John’s grandmother died. His grandfather was getting old, and county officials said they had few choices. In mid-1983, John came home. More than a year passed, apparently uneventfully. Then Debra Robles says she snapped again.

It was Jan. 19, 1985, and her husband was out. She was trying to feed John, and he was throwing up violently. She struck him with her fist, then took him upstairs for a bath. While she was bathing him, she says, she decided to kill him, as she later explained in her confession to police.

Once again, she used suffocation, this time tying John’s hands behind his back, over his pajamas to avoid leaving marks. She went and got the apartment manager, who tried to resuscitate the boy.

At the hospital, the child was pronounced dead on arrival.

Once again, the San Diego County coroner’s office did an autopsy. Once again, Anear said, there were no obvious signs of foul play. With cerebral palsy, it seemed possible that the boy simply had stopped breathing.

The cause of death was given as “possible seizure disorder.”

Lana Willingham, deputy director of the county Social Services Bureau and supervisor of child protective services, declined to discuss the Robles case in detail because of the strict confidentiality required in child custody cases.

But she suggested that the bureau appeared to have had little choice but to send John home.

Under state law, there are fixed criteria that parents must meet before a child may be returned to their home, Willingham said. There are parenting courses, visits with the child at school, counseling and phased visitation in the presence of a caseworker.

After that, “You’ve got to make the tough decision of putting the kid back in the home,” she said.

The law places a premium on efforts to reunite families. Then the law allows 60 days of counseling. To do more is to jeopardize funding.

In the Robles case, the parents apparently had completed everything that was required. Meanwhile, options were running out. The grandfather’s age was a concern, the bureau believed. Finding an adoptive home for a severely disabled child can be difficult.

“There will be cases in which the best option does become the parent,” Willingham said.

Finally, Willingham said there was none of the classic signs of abuse, such as twisting fractures and puncture wounds. She said the manifestations of Debra Robles’ mental illness were elusive and not visible to caseworkers.

“We had touched all bases, and it appeared to be a ‘Go’ on the safety of returning the child to the home,” she said. “There was very consistent opinion among all the parties we touched base with . . . that these parents were capable of taking care of the child.

“Obviously, in retrospect, we made the wrong decision.”

Others, too, had had cause for concern but had failed to intervene.

Debra Robles says she had told people what she had done--a neighbor, her parents, her husband. Vince Robles, who was not charged with responsibility in the deaths and last month filed for divorce, remembers a session with him and his wife’s parents in which she said she had killed Matthew.

But he said: “We didn’t know what to believe.”

He also remembers her calling him from work saying she had done something to Matthew.

“I says, ‘Please don’t talk about it now, you’re at work,’ ” he said. “I said, ‘We can talk about it here at home when you feel comfortable.’ ”

It never really came up again, he said, adding, “I would try to block it out of my mind.”

“I tried to encourage her to go on with her life,” he said in an interview last week. “Was that bad? I don’t know.”

He said he thought maybe it was natural parental guilt over the death of a child.

“Maybe at that time, I didn’t want to believe it.”

Only the El Cajon police officials had tried to pin it down, after John’s death raised their suspicions. They even went back and looked at the circumstances of Matthew’s death, though it had taken place outside their jurisdiction and never had been investigated.

But their investigation was frustrating and fruitless, despite what Lt. Randy Narramore said were extensive interviews with family members, neighbors and doctors.

According to Anear, the deputy district attorney, it was impossible to prove murder without hard proof on autopsy reports.

He said the coroner’s office found no traces of trauma because both boys were small, disabled, and died without a struggle. Because of their disabilities, it was conceivable that they had died as she had said--just by stopping breathing, Anear said.

“As far as the law was concerned, she got away with it,” said Popkins, her court-appointed lawyer. “She had gone a year, and to my knowledge, there was very little chance of her being charged.”

Finally, Debra Robles says, her guilt won out.

She had stayed up late Jan. 27, drinking wine with her husband and watching “Gremlins” on pay-per-view TV. He went up to bed, and “The Champ” came on. Suddenly, Robles says, Ricky Shroeder, the child actor, reminded her of John.

She says the wine gave her courage. A little drunk, she went upstairs and got dressed. Then she walked out of the garden apartments near downtown El Cajon and headed for the police station at 100 Fletcher Parkway.

“I don’t know why I did it,” she said during her rambling question-and-answer confession, police records show. “All I know is I did it, and I’ve been trying to come over here for such a long time, and the only way . . . I have enough guts to come over here is when I’m drunk.”

Her confession was extraordinarily detailed.

“It was not only a confession, it was a very strong one,” Anear said. Yet even then, she apparently continued to lie. She said John’s cerebral palsy came from “a mosquito in a dirty swimming pool.”

On Wednesday, Judge Richard Huffman sentenced Robles to two consecutive prison terms of 15 years to life.

“No doubt she is pitiful,” Huffman said. “But in that (pitifulness) is a remarkable ability to try to solve problems by a conscious decision to kill.”

Outside the courtroom, members of her family talked of what went wrong.

A sister suggested that the fault lay with the board-and-care home where Robles was living when she first became pregnant: Why wasn’t there more supervision?

A sister-in-law blamed the Juvenile Court: Why did the court and Social Services Bureau send John home?

Asked whether he will raise that question with the county, Anear answered carefully: “I don’t want to say it’s not my job. But it would be totally inappropriate for me to become involved.”

‘As far as the law was concerned, she got away with it. She had gone a year, and to my knowledge, there was very little chance of her being charged.’

Michael Popkins

Debra Robles’ court-appointed lawyer