Darkness Falls

A gruesome attack on the unsuspecting patrons of a New Bedford gay bar led to a nationwide manhunt and, ultimately, three deaths. But in retracing the killer’s steps it becomes clear how senseless the violence was—and how terrifying it remains for the survivors.

When the door to Puzzles Lounge swings open about a half hour before midnight, Phillip Daggett and Bob Perry stop talking. The shadowy figure in the entranceway commands their full attention. He is clad in baggy black jeans and a baggy black sweatshirt, and his hood is pulled up, shrouding much of his slightly bowed head. No one has ever seen him before. The stranger, little more than a silhouette, walks around to the right side of the bar. Daggett, the bartender, goes to greet him while Perry sips a cold Bud.

“Is this the gay bar?” the man asks. He’s about the same height as Daggett (5-foot-6), but thicker than the 26-year-old bartender. The stranger is about 200 pounds with a pudgy oval face. His eyes are hazel and not wholly unpleasant, though his gaze is vacant.

The question, even more than the man’s cloaked appearance, strikes Daggett as odd—asking if this is the gay bar. Daggett wonders if the guy is straight, if he wandered in here by accident. Or maybe he’s new to the scene and unsure of himself.

From across the room, Perry ponders the same thing. For a long while, even though he lives near New Bedford, Perry went out only in Boston or Providence, places where people wouldn’t recognize or remember his face. He’d known for some time he was gay, even if he couldn’t fully come out to the world. Or his family. Around Christmas, that had changed. The 53-year-old paramedic is a large man—205 pounds, about 6-foot-2, with a Fu Manchu mustache and brown, messy hair rimming his balding head—and he decided to stop hiding. He began hitting Puzzles, since it was close to home.

Despite the sign proclaiming it “the hottest nightclub in town,” Puzzles is more of a quiet, half-lit corner pub, a place where Perry and his pals can down beers and feel comfortable. The bar melts easily into New Bedford’s postindustrial landscape—iron bars guard the front door and windows. Above it are two levels of apartments wrapped in banana-yellow siding. Inside, the floor is a checkerboard of white and black tiles and the walls are painted lilac.

There is a rectangular bar, a pool table, and pinball and popcorn machines. It all feels cramped. But what Puzzles lacks in aesthetics, it makes up for in atmosphere. Earlier, when Perry walked in, Daggett greeted him by name. “Hey, Bob,” he cried out. It was the first time that ever happened to Perry at a bar. It made him smile.

That’s Puzzles. Almost everybody knows each other. Tonight, a random Wednesday in early February, there are maybe 20 people here. Only one—the man in the hoodie—is new to the joint.

“It’s one of the gay bars,” Daggett says, answering the stranger’s unusual question. “There’s another one called Le Place. The other bar is mixed. This one is mostly males.”

“Nah, this is where I want to be,” the man says. He orders a Captain on the rocks and, when asked for ID, pulls a loose Massachusetts driver’s license from his right front pocket. The birth date reads “10-19-1982.” Daggett hands it back and mixes the drink: $3.40 worth of rum on ice. The stranger pays with a crumpled $10 bill, sliding it across the bar’s worn top. Daggett goes back to his conversation while the man drinks alone. The regulars and the bartender whisper about him, about what he’s doing here, about his clothes and his sexuality. Then they stop eyeing him; after all, they think, who are they to judge? A few minutes later, Daggett pours the man another; he’s part of the scenery now, albeit an incongruous part.

No one really notices when the stranger puts his drink down and coolly walks to the other end of the bar, positioning himself near the popcorn machine adjacent to the pool table. No one notices except Perry, who’s watching his friends, Adam Marczak and Alex Taylor, play a game of eight ball. Actually, Perry doesn’t notice the stranger so much as feel him lingering. One moment the guy is at the other end of the bar, the next he’s less than a foot away, hovering like an apparition. Perry turns away, so no one is left to see the stranger—who, contrary to the fake ID, is an 18-year-old named Jacob Robida—pull a hatchet from his bulky clothing. No one knows he’s also concealing a hunting knife and a semiautomatic 9mm Smith & Wesson. No one stops him from using the hatchet to crack Taylor’s skull from behind. No one stops him from beginning an unprovoked, hate-fueled attack that, when the ordeal is over a few days later, will leave three people dead, including an Arkansas policeman, and several others badly wounded.

No one stops Jacob Robida because, even though everyone notices him, no one sees him coming.

HE CALLED HIMSELF Jake Jekyll, an odd choice considering that Robida’s plans seemed more in league with Hyde’s criminal impulses. Or it could be that Robida thought of himself as Jekyll, an otherwise decent person unable to stifle or control the evil urges lurking deep within—as much a victim as the people he would hurt. Or it could be that Robida simply screwed up the analogy. He didn’t have much of an education: He’d been expelled from New Bedford High School after getting caught in class with neo-Nazi literature. Otherwise, his background was largely opaque. Robida lived with his disabled mother; his biological father wasn’t in his life, and his stepfather had divorced his mother and left. His friends were an itinerant crew—like him, cast out by society (whether in their minds, or in truth)—people who found comfort by hiding on the Internet.

Robida’s Web page on myspace.com was where he engaged in most of his stunted interpersonal communication. Accordingly, his site was the lone portal into the 18-year-old’s mind. Though he wasn’t formally affiliated with any hate organizations, his profile was full of vile material, from pictures of him holding a gun with a Nazi flag behind him, to disquieting screeds about “death, destruction, chaos, filth, and greed,” about being “pure evil” and “absolutely terrifying,” about seeing himself as a demon, “the evilest and deadliest there is! (besides satan [sic] of course).” There were rants about wanting to meet “serial killers,” and how his preferred method of suicide was self-mutilation.

“Personality disorders tend to follow people around,” says Dr. Barry Mills, a forensic psychiatrist. “Certain types are characterized by rage episodes. Some of them are chronically suicidal or constantly irritable or sad, and that means that he could have had some long untreated depression.”

From the outside, the pale County Road home Robida shared with his mother looked no better or worse than the others on the working-class block. Inside, though, was more of the same disturbing detritus. In Robida’s room were flags and dog tags adorned with Nazi insignias, required Aryan readings like The Turner Diaries and The Hitler File, notebooks with white power symbols, and two bumper stickers, one that read, “I dress this way to scare your kids,” and another saying, “My day is not complete until I’ve terrified a complete stranger.”

“Some people have malignant psychological issues and all the king’s men aren’t going to fix them,” says Dr. Derek Polonsky, a clinical instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “Sometimes, they aren’t easily fixed. Structurally, that’s who this kid could’ve been. When there’s no remorse, they’re going to do this no matter the consequence or who might try to help them.”
On his site, Robida proclaimed he had “anti-social personality disorder.” But the largest type, in blood red, was reserved for these words: “Pass the axe.”

AT FIRST, Phillip Daggett mistakes the hatchet for a broken bottle—the kind of weapon used in the campy barroom brawls on TV. Robida, standing behind Taylor, has his left hand on his victim’s shoulder. Daggett watches Robida use the opposite hand to repeatedly smash the hatchet’s sharp edge into Taylor’s skull. Each swing is accompanied by a sickening crack. He has something much worse than a bottle, Daggett realizes. Taylor crumples to the floor. Dark blood pools around his body.
Standing at the bar, Perry turns to see what’s happening. Without warning, he takes a powerful blow to the right side of his face, between his eye socket and jaw. Perry never sees the hatchet; it’s just a blur of motion out of the corner of his eye. A tremendous pain sears his senses. It feels like his face has been shattered.

Adam Marczak, pool stick in hand, musters all the force and courage he can and charges forward. The 32-year-old tattoo artist isn’t a large man, but he swings his cue hard, breaking it in half across Robida’s forehead. There is a dull thwack; pieces of wood splinter and fly across the bar. The blow wobbles the assailant, but Marczak doesn’t stop. He charges forward, crashing his body into Robida’s, and they fall to the floor, wrestling for control. Daggett piles on, and, for a second, it looks like Marczak has saved the day. It looks as if, together, they can pin the attacker down until the cops arrive. It looks like everyone will be okay.

That’s when Robida wiggles his arm free, pulls out his gun, and fires.

DISPATCHER: 9-1-1, this call is being recorded, what’s y’all’s emergency?
Caller: I need an ambulance!
D: You need an ambulance? What’s the problem?
C: Someone’s been shot! You have to get here now!

The first shot misses Marczak and Daggett, but it still has a profound effect. A guy has a hatchet, maybe you try to take him out. But a guy has a gun, that’s when it’s time to back up, to get the hell away, to run. Marczak and Daggett peel off Robida and head for cover. Robida levels the handgun.

He fires and fires and fires, unloading so many bullets from the semiautomatic that it sounds like one continuous, terrifying shot—PopPopPopPopPop. An acrid smoke surrounds Robida, and the smell of gunpowder hangs heavily in the air.
Luis Rosado, a 22-year-old, catches one of the bullets in his chest as he walks out of the restroom. He tries to crawl toward the door, toward safety, but he doesn’t have the strength and collapses.

Perry is no luckier. He’s reeling from the hatchet blow to his face—a strike that’s left a large flap of skin hanging limply, like a wind sock with no wind. Before he can escape, one of the bullets punctures his lower right back. It is a hot, stinging sensation, and there’s no mistaking it. As Perry falls to the floor, he knows he’s been shot. He decides to lie still—to play dead—hoping Robida won’t walk over and finish him. But he’s suffered hatchet and gunshot wounds, and he knows that’s not good. Before too long, he might not be playing dead, he might be dead.

He lays on the floor, blood rushing from his face and back, paralyzed by fear and pain. He lays there and thinks about the irony: Just a few hours earlier, he was content, he was happy, he felt safe here.

Robert Perry lays there with his eyes closed, and he waits to die.

PHILLIP DAGGETT doesn’t want to go back inside. Along with a few others, he’s managed to sneak out. But some weren’t so fortunate, and Daggett doesn’t want to leave his friends at the mercy of a maniac. Reluctantly, he opens the door to the bar.
Immediately, Robida is staring at him, cold and still. He’s only a few feet away and extends his arm, practically putting the gun’s tip to Daggett’s head. Then Robida pulls the trigger, and Daggett, like Perry, expects to die.

But there is only an empty click. No bullet. No deafening bang. No flash of white. Just the click of the hammer striking the empty chamber.

Robida leaves Daggett to process the unlikely turn and shoots past him up North Front Street, disappearing into the darkness from which he had emerged a half hour before. Daggett stands in disbelief, surrounded by blood and hysteria.

Within seconds of Robida fleeing, an officer arrives. Daggett tells him the assailant just left, that if the officer hurries he can apprehend Robida. The officer chooses, instead, to tend to the victims. The New Bedford Police Department later refers all questions about this to the Bristol County District Attorney, who says the officer acted properly. After all, the D.A. contends, no one died following the attack, and maybe that’s thanks to the officer coming to their aid. And, in fact, miraculously, all three victims—Perry, Rosado, and Taylor—though seriously injured, will live.

Weeks later, at home on his couch, Daggett is quiet for a moment, and the menthol cigarette in his hand burns slowly. Then he takes a long pull and exhales his thought with a stream of gray smoke. “Maybe if [the cop] had listened to me,” he says with more remorse than anger, “they could have saved three lives down in Arkansas.”

“IT WAS SO out of the blue, so full of rage,” says Paul F. Walsh Jr., Bristol County’s D.A. Walsh says there was hate literature in Robida’s house, but nothing anti-gay. “We still haven’t figured out why he did it. You could probably look at MySpace and there are any number of teenage boys who have something that could be described as hateful, but 99 percent don’t act on it.

“He left a goodbye note to his mother. It said, ‘I love you. Sorry for whatever I caused you. If I had to go out, I had to do it by my own means.’ He was talking about himself in the past tense, which was significant, because at the time he was still alive and on the run. At that point, he’s got to be considered increasingly dangerous for a number of reasons. One was the unprovoked nature. That’s scary when someone does this to someone they don’t know. Second, how unplanned this was. He walked into this bar. How do you know no one else at that bar has a weapon? Which leads you to point three. He didn’t care. He didn’t care if he got killed. And number four, he didn’t care if he got caught. Bars have cameras. Bars have big bouncers. And the cops could have been called. Then, number five was, right after the attack, he went home. That’s usually a fatal mistake for a criminal. Then he took off in a car we knew he was driving, with not much money. That’s a guy who doesn’t care if he’s caught or killed. That’s a guy who doesn’t care at all. That’s a scary guy.”

FROM “CJ” on MySpace the day after the attack: Why jake? I fucking care about you so much. And now I don’t even no were you are. Or if your okay. Im not trying tobe an asshole but you need to think about other ppl before you do stooped shit. I FUCKING LOVE YOU. Your mom is fucking worried sick about you. No one knows were you are or if your even alive. Please Jake if you get this try and get in touch with me. I need to see you before its to late.

AFTER FLEEING Massachusetts in his green Pontiac Grand-Am, Robida contacts an ex-girlfriend in West Virginia. Her name is Jennifer Bailey. She has dark black hair, an easy smile, and big, soft eyes. She is 15 years older than Robida and has three kids. Despite that, after meeting on the Internet, the two had lived together in her apartment for about a year from February 2004 to February 2005. He was 17 when they broke up, and they remained in touch.

“Apparently he had some kind of control over her,” says West Virginia State Police Sergeant C.J. Ellyson. “I don’t know if it was fear, but she was definitely drawn to him, and it obviously wasn’t in a healthy manner. The last correspondence they had via e-mail they talked about getting back together. But it was almost like they were having two different conversations. She was talking about getting back together for one reason, but his motives were obviously very different.”

In an e-mail to the Charleston Gazette, one friend will write that there was “NOTHING bad” about Bailey, that she was sweet and doting. But no one will deny that the two lovers shared a dark side. Like Robida, Bailey had a page on myspace. Like Robida, she had an alter ego—she played Jenny Manson (after Marilyn, not Charles) to his Jake Jekyll. Her site didn’t exalt Nazis or murder, but it was still chilling. In the background of her page were vials of spilling blood. Rather than writing about demons and hatchets, Bailey posted about depression and death. The two were different, but in several ways they were also the same.

That’s the first thing Jake Jekyll does after the Puzzles attack—he goes looking for Jenny Manson. He heads south and west until he hits West Virginia, a wannabe Clyde hoping to enlist his Bonnie. The Charleston and New Bedford police departments and the West Virginia State Police all say it’s unclear whether Bailey went willingly. They say the facts could be interpreted in so many ways. But they all agree that, before driving off with Robida, Bailey leaves her kids at her mother’s house and withdraws $500 from the bank.

“When I’m talking about personality issues, they develop a marginal personality into seeing things in all black and all white,” says Dr. Mills. “Those folks do gravitate toward each other. They don’t tend to do well together, though, because there’s no compromise. There’s a paradox there because they go to each other but end up in a destructive spiral.”

IT’S AROUND 2:30 in the afternoon. There’s a bit of a chill in the air, and the sun coats the Arkansas countryside in a tranquil auburn patina. Gassville Police Officer Jim Sell sits in his patrol car near the Brass Door Restaurant, waiting for speeders to whip past. None do, at first. That’s how it’s always been here—quiet and slow, just the way the locals like it.

Nestled in the Ozarks, equidistant from Little Rock to the south and Memphis to the east, Gassville was established in 1878 when a man named P.A. Cox became the postmaster. He was such an incessant talker people called him a “gasser.” Hence, the name. Today, Gassville is home to about 2,000 people, and almost everyone knows each other. If you call City Hall, a nice message recorded by a sweet, southern female voice informs you of the hours and reminds you to have a nice day.

“It’s a pretty laid-back little mountain town,” says Mayor Louis Mershon. “We don’t have a lot of violent crime here. You get complacent, I guess.”

When a green Pontiac Grand-Am pushes quickly past Officer Sell’s outpost on U.S. Highway 62, he certainly doesn’t expect it to be piloted by someone as incredibly dangerous as Jacob Robida, a man wanted by the authorities in Massachusetts and West Virginia. (Some media outlets speculate that Robida is in Arkansas to link up with hate groups, but the smart bet is that he’s running fast and scared, with no destination in mind.) All Sell knows is that the Grand-Am is moving, and he pulls the Pontiac over.

The video from Sell’s cruiser tells the rest: Officer Sell approaches the driver’s side window. The window rolls down and the driver hands Sell what appears to be a license. While Sell is looking it over, a gun peeks out and fires twice. Sell’s head snaps back, then he falls limply to the ground. The Grand-Am backs up, crashing into the patrol car, before driving out of the camera’s view. A few moments later, the Pontiac is back. Robida gets out and leans over the officer’s body. He picks something up off the ground, gets back in his car, and speeds away.

“It was his license,” the mayor says. “We think he went back to get his license.”

WHAT MORE can be said? We are all saddened by the loss of a good friend. Taken by another asshole in the world. —Posted by friends of Jennifer Bailey on her web site.

ABOUT 20 MILES away, in the town of Norfork, Rita Warner is unaware that a police officer has just been killed. She is unaware that Officer Sell’s body has already been found, or that the state police and the Baxter County Sheriff’s Department are chasing the killer at this very moment at speeds approaching 100 miles an hour. She has no idea that they are all headed her way, or that more blood is about to be shed.

Warner is winding down her day. She works at Riverview Emporium on Highway 5 selling candles, jewelry, and antiques. The building used to be a hotel where, upstairs, there was a brothel and a saloon. Years back, in the ’30s or ’40s, there was a shooting here during a poker game. Folks still tell that tale—it’s the most action the town has ever seen. Or it was until Robida came along.

Suddenly, Warner hears an ungodly crash. The shop has a good view of the street; out the window she can see that a green car has smashed into a number of vehicles parked in front. (She doesn’t know that the car lost control after it drove over spikes laid by the police.)

“Sonofabitch, somebody hit my truck,” Warner says. But when two deputy sheriffs and one state police officer get out of their cruisers with guns drawn, it’s clear something bigger is happening.

“Get out of the car now!” the officers scream, but no one does. Robida and Bailey have $600 on them, and there is food and clothing in the car. They’re prepared to go farther, but this is where the episode ends, and they know it. Robida embraces Bailey. Then he leans back and shoots her in the head. She dies instantly.

When the officers hear the shot, they’re not sure who Robida is firing at, and they riddle the Grand-Am with bullets. Amazingly, after the barrage, Robida is still alive—but barely. He is taken to Baxter Regional Medical Center before being airlifted to Springfield, Missouri. It’s there, three days and 1,500 miles removed from the Puzzles attack, that Jacob Robida is pronounced dead.

According to the Baxter County sheriff, though a number of shots were fired at his car, the autopsy concluded that Robida died of a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. The investigation is ongoing.

“I WENT to [Officer Sell’s] funeral,” says Bristol County D.A. Walsh. Some nine hundred people attended. “He seemed to be such a good old boy. They had video of him hunting and fishing, working on his motorcycle. How [this crime] could be visited on this little community—I’m not sure the feeling I’m trying to describe, but it’s one you hope doesn’t end up on your doorstep.”

From New Bedford to Norfork to Gassville, those left behind continue to struggle with what Jacob Robida did. And why. New Bedford’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community held a vigil and started a support fund for the Puzzles victims. (Conversely, despite having never met him, various hate groups proclaimed Robida a martyr and used him as an excuse to spew more propaganda.)

“If you listen to serial killers, and you wait for this great revelation, more often than not it’s not one thing that drives them,” says Dr. Ofra Sarid-Segal, a Boston University psychiatry professor. “It’s unfortunate, but we’ll never know.”

Phillip Daggett would have liked an explanation from Robida, muddled or otherwise. He constantly relives that night, even though he’d rather not. He has anxiety attacks and trouble sleeping, and he’s made more trips to the emergency room than he cares to recount.

Bob Perry, meanwhile, has a jagged five-inch scar along the right side of his face that doubles as a constant reminder. (The other two victims, Taylor and Rosado, are also out of the hospital and recovering.) Like Daggett, Perry feels cheated that Robida is gone. He’ll always have terrible memories from that night, but he’ll never have answers.

“I was disappointed when I heard he killed himself,” Perry says. “You have to understand, I’m the most passive person in the world. At that time, I wasn’t feeling anger. I was confused. I couldn’t understand why he did this to us. I would have talked to Jacob if given the opportunity. I would have liked to talk to him.”