Just a Random Female

Robbin Brandley’s confessed killer sits on death row. So why don’t her parents consider the case closed?

At first, the motionless figure lying face-up on the pavement must have looked like a mannequin. There were no street lamps nearby, and perhaps the security guard thought it was a stray dummy left there by a drama student. He kept driving, but something about the shape made him curious; he turned around and drove back to Lot 12, a student parking lot on the west edge of Mission Viejo's Saddleback College. It was about 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 18, 1986. The lot was pitch-black and, other than a few parked cars, completely deserted.

As the guard got out of his car and approached the pale form stretched out on the asphalt next to a Chevrolet Citation, two students walking to their vehicles from the nearby fine-arts building joined him. They gasped in horror.

Lying in a crimson pool next to her car was someone they had seen minutes earlier at a party in the fine-arts building: 23-year-old communications major Robbin Brandley. She had just left the party, which followed a piano concert at which she had been a volunteer usher. Her long, flower-print dress was hiked up above her stomach, exposing bikini-style underwear and knee-high stockings. Her purse sat on the pavement a few feet away.

Jack and Genelle Reilley hold a portrait of their daughter, murder victim Robbin Brandley. Photo by John GIlhooley.
Jack and Genelle Reilley hold a portrait of their daughter, murder victim Robbin Brandley. Photo by John GIlhooley.

The blood stained the pavement on both sides of her torso. By the time Michael Stephany, a homicide investigator with the Orange County Sheriff's Department, arrived at the scene, automatic sprinklers in the parking lot had turned on and covered the body in an eerie mist. An autopsy would later reveal that Brandley had been stabbed 41 times. Most of the wounds were in her neck, chest and back, and there were several deep cuts—defensive marks, police figured—in her hands.

But besides the victim's gruesome injuries, there was nothing for police to investigate: no fingerprints; no suspect's blood, hair or DNA; no physical evidence of any kind. It was what prosecutors often call the "perfect crime."

The grisly murder would remain unsolved for 11 years. Witnesses offered inconsistent accounts of events in the hours preceding the crime; Brandley's parents became convinced that someone she knew was responsible for the killing. Then, in April 1997, a man confessed to the murder—and several others. The cop writing down his confession would note that the killer had simply wandered around Mission Viejo until he ended up at a dark parking lot, where he saw a woman walking to her car.

The victim, in the words of the confessed murderer, "could have been anybody." She "was just a random female."

*     *     *

On a recent afternoon, Jack and Genelle Reilley sit on either side of a table at the Weekly's offices in downtown Santa Ana. They're taking turns answering questions about the murder of Robbin Brandley, their daughter, 21 years ago. It's a story they've told so often that it's almost become routine for them, although there's nothing routine about what they have to say—or about the pain of their loss, still visibly etched in the deep wrinkles on Jack's tanned forehead and the strained, almost helpless smile on Genelle's face. Only a few minutes into the interview, her eyes well up with tears.

Part of the routine is explaining why their daughter had a different surname at the time of her death. Robbin, they explain, was born in Long Beach—the town where Jack and Genelle grew up and became high-school sweethearts—on Dec. 6, 1962, with the name Dana Reilley. She spent most of her youth in Huntington Beach and then St. Louis, where Jack had been transferred to work at the headquarters of Ralston Purina, the company that employed him until his retirement a few years ago.

It was in St. Louis, when Dana was 11 years old, that she changed her name to Robbin Brandley. Genelle, a New Age enthusiast who claims to have psychic visions, says the idea came from a numerological booklet that uses one's birth date to come up with a new name. "It was my idea," she adds.

Her daughter had been a hyperactive child and poor student in her younger years, but once she had a new name, Genelle insists, she blossomed into a focused, highly motivated child. "I believe in all that stuff," Genelle says. "If what you're doing isn't working, delve into it. She grew up to be a really fabulous, sensational person. I guess everyone thinks that about their child, but she just loved to make people laugh. She was very funny and very bright."

In 1983, the family returned to California, settling in Laguna Beach, where Brandley enrolled at Saddleback College to pursue a career in journalism.

She had lots of friends at Saddleback and dated a lot of young men, but, her parents say, she refused to get involved in any steady relationships because she wanted to focus on her career. Aside from her classes, she worked at KSBR, the campus radio station, and helped book performances at the college, including established musical acts such as the Thompson Twins. She loved to volunteer for campus events, like the piano concert that brought her to Saddleback College on the last day of her life.

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