Part Dad . . . Part Cop . . .All Business

TIMES STAFF WRITER

She is 16, pregnant and fears for her life.

She tells her story haltingly: Gang members are threatening her because they believe she ratted on one of their own who's now jailed for rape. She's no longer in school, too scared to leave home.

Only instead of telling the police, she's telling her former probation officer, Robbie Robinson.

And he is pacing her steamy living room, furious that a band of street hoodlums could force a family to hide in this tiny San Fernando Valley apartment.

"I will help you, sweetheart," he says. "I will help you."

It's a brief encounter, but it sets off a week of activity for Robinson. At breakneck speed, the full-time Los Angeles County deputy probation officer (and part-time Hollywood stuntman) works this case, meeting gang members in jail and at home, talking with attorneys, police, parents and counselors.

He moves, talks, even drives fast, spending more time on the streets, his bosses say, than any other probation officer in the Valley's gang unit, memorizing faces and cases without taking a note.

Most of all, Robinson cuts through that angry, straight-ahead stare of youth. Time and again tough-edged gang members buckle. He comes on strong but seems to know instinctively when to back off.

With one teenager at Juvenile Hall: "You owe me, boy, you hear? You'd better straighten up or you're going to [juvenile probation] camp."

With a second: "I know the influence you have on the street. I know you intimidate people, and I just can't let this go on."

And with a third: "I'm going to give you another chance, son. I'm going to let you go home, but I'm going to check on you and I'm going to keep making sure you don't mess up again."

Perhaps his success comes from understanding these troubled teens in a way his peers cannot.

He too was raised in poverty, lacking role models and a solid support system. His mother, too young for the responsibilities of parenthood, left him in the hospital the day he was born. He was raised in a foster family, separated from his seven brothers and sisters.

Robinson says he easily could have been lured by the street--all around him were the influences of drugs and crime. Instead, he sought refuge in a recreation hall in northwest Washington, D.C., where for years he took martial arts classes.

Today he thrives on the rush of adrenaline--and the attention. He is a judge one minute, parent and soul mate the next.

He plays soft and nice with a teenager, then threatens him with jail. He charms a gang member's mother into believing that yes, jail is the best place for her son. A young boy thanks him after being arrested.

After Robinson says he will help the frightened girl huddled on her living room couch, her eyes fill with tears: "I'm thankful God sent him to me. He's out there to protect me."

His bosses, too, gush.

Sure, he doesn't always submit perfect reports but, hey, it's Robbie and they don't have many like him. No other probation officer from the San Fernando Valley's specialized gang unit volunteers to handle as many cases. No other puts in as much time on the weekends and at night, visiting gang members at home and cruising the streets of Van Nuys, North Hills and Panorama City.

Robinson, 43, is also versed in a variety of languages--gang slang, cop talk, bureaucratese and some Spanish.

"God's gifted him with tremendous talents," says his boss, Bill Hanks. "The kids are captivated by him and they know he really cares. He'll give them breaks . . . but he'll also lock them up. I think they really respect him--we do."

*

And that's just half the story.

He's also a stuntman, using precious vacation time to appear in more than two dozen films. Since he began working in films 11 years ago, he's worked with some of the top stars in Hollywood. His latest--"Courage Under Fire" starring Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan--opened Friday.

After years of martial arts training, his forte remains karate and fighting. He's chosen for films that require fighting, boxing, stair falls and jumping. ("Hard, physical stuff," he says.) He puts in about four to six weeks a year on his Hollywood ambition.

He even stops during his work week to call agents, pick up copies of his demo tape--showing some of his best fighting and karate moves--and order new equipment from a Van Nuys stunt store.

But through it all, Robinson insists he would like nothing more than to work another two decades for the county and retire from the probation department. Then, in other conversations, he muses about becoming a famous actor or maybe retiring to Santa Barbara or the south of France to write books.

"I wouldn't trade this job for anything in the world," he says one day. Then, a couple hours later: "Maybe I'll go write my memoirs somewhere and become an author."

Can Robinson be hard to take? Sure. But do most people overlook his idiosyncrasies? Ditto.

His critics say he's on a power trip--perhaps enjoying too much the authority he's given. But in the next breath, they commend him for being passionate about his work.

"He's a character all right," says one lawyer who works in Sylmar Juvenile Court, rolling her eyes. "Loves the publicity. Loves the limelight.

"But he does his job."

Others say he is truly dedicated to the teenagers he oversees.

* A guard in Juvenile Hall: "He's the only probation officer who comes to visit his kids."

* A Los Angeles police officer who works with gangs: "He's the only probation officer I know by name."

* Van Nuys Police Officer Dave Cueto: "Not all P.O.'s are like this. He walks the walk. I can call Robbie any time, he'll always take it upon himself to help us out . . . write reports, come over to the [police] station, whatever."

Adds Det. Craig Rhudy, who works with juveniles in the Van Nuys police station: "Do I know Robbie Robinson? Everyone knows Robbie. He's one of the best."

Robinson's caseload currently includes about 50 people--mostly teenagers--ranging in age from 13 to 25. Some are the sons and daughters of parents already on probation. Most are repeat offenders. He knows all about them, their parents and siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, their gang nicknames and their friends.

His cases include convicted murderers, rapists, arsonists and an increasing number of gang members charged with domestic violence.

Officially, Robinson's charged with enforcing conditions of probation imposed by the courts, either instead of or after jail sentences. He specializes in hard-core gang members from the Valley's worst neighborhoods, and he understands their culture.

"My function is to work the streets to become aware of what's going on, to defuse situations and detain the worst elements," he says. "My whole focus is to understand these kids and the problems they are having. I believe in giving them chances . . . but I will lock them up."

And he does. On a recent Friday evening, he checks on a 15-year-old on probation for robbery. The boy is sitting on a couch in the sparse apartment he shares with his sister, staring at a bag of marijuana on the coffee table.

Robinson talks tough: Get rid of the stuff. Go to school. Don't let me catch you doing this again. I'll send you to jail.

But less than a week later, a teacher calls to report that the teenager threw catsup on another student and that he wasn't attending class.

Robinson has had enough. Along with two Los Angeles police officers, he returns to the apartment. This time, the boy, whose mother is in state prison for a drug offense, is listening to the thumping rap songs of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.

Robinson puffs out his chest, carries a large black flashlight like a weapon and bursts into the apartment.

"I think you need time in camp, son," he says. "I've given you chances, but you're still causing problems. You just don't listen. You think I'm a joke. Well, I think you need some time."

Time after time, teenager after teenager, the answers are the same: Yes, Mr. Robinson, you gave me chances. I'm sorry, Mr. Robinson. And then the admission: Yes, I was smoking dope. Yes, I was back in my old neighborhood hanging out with my gang friends. No, I don't go to school.

Robinson is the same with them all. "A lot of these kids don't know how to make choices," he says. "I'm trying to help them make the right choices or, at least, understand the consequences. These are good kids. . . . They are misguided sometimes. They are lost. I am part father, part cop."

*

It's a role that seems to come easily, despite the fact that he never had a model. Robinson never knew his father; his main supporter was--and remains--a karate teacher who took him under his wing 30 years ago. He met his biological mother--and his sisters and brothers--when he was in 20s, but doesn't see her much. Still, he says he loves her and understands why she couldn't raise him herself.

"He was kind of a sad child, looking for that love and it wasn't being returned," says William Phillips, who taught Robinson mostly about life and, along the way, karate and boxing. "The odds probably were against him . . . but he was grasping for survival straws and he found them."

Today, Robinson says he's happily married, without children, to a woman he met 13 years ago at the former Broadway department store in Century City.

He spends hours riding one of two mountain bikes purchased after a hip replacement surgery left him unable to run. Years of karate and boxing wore down his hip joint, but it hasn't worn him down.

Robinson's days easily stretch into the next as he routinely volunteers to help police in the northeast Valley crack down on street crime. He offers to work overtime for the probation department in a juvenile camp, often working both days on the weekends. Another night, his pager awakes him at 1 a.m.; police have arrested one of "his" kids.

Says his wife, Devorah, 10 years his junior: "Coming from that background is part of the catalyst that keeps him driven. His heart is in it. He wants to make a difference in these kids' lives." She says she doesn't mind the long hours he spends at work or the trips on location for his stunt work. "He's an active guy," she says, sighing.

Sometimes, she joins him on location when he's filming a movie, and they enjoy long weekends at a favorite bed-and-breakfast up the coast. They also spend weekends with their niece, Ariana--a pretty, wide-eyed 9-year-old who adores her uncle.

In fact, Robinson sometimes takes her to work, leaving her in an office reading or drawing while he writes one last report, talks to one more person, makes one last call . . . then another and another. She's patient with him, clearly idolizing the funny uncle who calls her "my love."

The job is not easy, yet Robinson rarely shows a weak moment.

He makes three or four home visits a day, stopping at Juvenile Hall to visit teenagers and even attending a police roll call, almost as a one-man publicist for the probation department.

He gets along with the judges in the San Fernando Valley Juvenile Court as easily as the secretaries and guards at Sylmar's Juvenile Hall.

"If every kid in front of me had a probation officer like him, they'd be better off," says Commissioner Gary Polinski. "You can rely on him. He's enthusiastic about his work and he knows his cases."

And he has a word for everyone.

"He's almost like a superhero action figure compared to most probation officers," says Jim Coady, who oversees the public defenders' office in Sylmar. "He's a real dynamo."

On the streets, in the packed juvenile courthouse in Sylmar, even in his car, Robinson is recognized, and he loves it. He is stopped on a recent day by a gang member, wearing baggy black pants and an oversized white T-shirt, who says he can't locate his probation officer and is having trouble paying a court-ordered restitution fee.

*

Robinson jots down his pager number and hands it to the youth, saying, "I know you're trying, son. I'll take your case."

But it is the case of that young girl sitting in her hot apartment that has tortured Robinson all week. He talks to prosecutors three times. He leads police to the girl's apartment twice to take crime reports to bolster the case. He twice visits the boy he believes made the threats. He talks to the boy's mother. Even a counselor who knew him.

He is dogged in his efforts. He won't let it go.

So when the boy goes to court at week's end, Robinson pushes with everything he's got. He holds a closed-door meeting with the judge and attorneys. He talks about the case with everyone--court clerks, bailiffs, other lawyers.

"I know if I let him out, he's going to get that girl," Robinson says, breathing deeply and staring straight ahead. "I know that."

Before court convenes, he meets with the 15-year-old boy: "I like you, I really like you," he says. "I just don't like what you do. I just don't want your homies messing with innocent people."

In court, he scores: The boy will remain in custody until his case is heard later in the month.

The delay buys Robinson time. He will write a more detailed report, maybe even persuade the district attorneys to file charges of making terrorist threats against the teenager.

But he doesn't claim victory. He doesn't have time.

Down the corridor, a gang member Robinson believes needs to remain in Juvenile Hall has just been released from custody.

Robinson is furious.

Next case.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Robbie Robinson

Age: 43.

Background: Born in Washington, D.C., received a bachelor of arts degree from Livingstone College in North Carolina and a master's degree in education from Southern Illinois University.

Occupations: Full-time L.A. County deputy probation officer in San Fernando Valley gang unit, part-time Hollywood stuntman.

Family: Married to Devorah Robinson, no children.

Found on his office walls: Dozens of black baseball caps, confiscated from gang members. Pictures drawn by his 9-year-old niece, Ariana. And a heartfelt thank-you letter from a girl whose class he spoke to about gangs, which includes this line: "My friend . . . thanked the Lord you are on the Earth."

Favorite expressions: "Hoot bang" and "hoot ride"--gang terms meaning "Raise hell."

Robbie, on gangs: "The whole purpose of being a gang member is to gain dominance and take over neighborhoods mostly through criminal activity. It's an underground culture that you can't fight until you understand it."

Robbie, on Hollywood: "Too full of egos. . . . The stunt business does not give me the same satisfaction as [working for the probation department]. I've worked with some of the best actors. . . . They're good at what they do, but I think I'm good at what I'm doing."

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