Just a Random Female

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

In the hours leading up to her trip to the unlit student parking lot in Mission Viejo, Brandley spent several hours with her father at their home in Laguna Beach watching television. Jack Reilley was a big fan of Charles Dickens; he was delighted when she told him that the 1946 Hollywood adaptation of Great Expectations was on television. After watching the movie, they sat through several reruns of the popular 1960s black-and-white TV comedy The Munsters.

"It had been 15 years since we'd watched that show, and it was as funny as ever," Jack recalls.

At around 2 the following morning, Jack awoke to loud knocking at the door: Detective Stephany and another officer were standing on his porch. "He had a big grocery bag," he recalls. Stephany asked Jack if he could identify anything in the bag. Inside, Jack found Brandley's purse, and inside that, her wallet and driver's license. "The first thing that went through my mind was the drunks in [Laguna] Canyon, a car wreck or something like that," he says. "And then he said she'd been murdered, and I just couldn't believe it. It was like being hit with a hammer."

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.

Jack woke up Genelle and told her the news. Four hours later, at sunrise, he called their son Jayeson, and several other family members and friends. They received another visit from the sheriff's department and answered interminable questions about their daughter. "They came down to figure out the sequence of events," Jack said. "Who her friends were, what type of girl she was, any [love] triangles or anything else. They were curious because her last name is different than ours and thought maybe there was an ex-husband or something."

*     *     *

Less than a week later, 300 mourners attended a memorial service for Brandley at a San Juan Capistrano church, an event covered by the Los Angeles Times. "She was a vibrant, energetic, caring person whose concern for and love of other students was the foundation of her existence," Vern Hodge, then-dean of student development at Saddleback College, told the crowd. The article noted the sheriff's department had "no significant leads" in solving the murder.

On March 7, Saddleback College hosted a series of bands, including Fishbone, the Rave-Ups and Secret Service, for a memorial concert in tribute to Brandley, an event prominent enough that Times music critic Randy Lewis covered the show. His story also noted that the sheriff's department had no leads. "It's very much an active case, but I'm not aware of any new information at this time," a department spokesperson told Lewis.

By this time, the Reilleys were conducting their own, unofficial murder investigation, based on statements they say were made to them by police and friends of Brandley who called them to share their suspicions. Those suspicions centered on Valerie Prehm, a student at Saddleback College who worked with Brandley at KSBR and who also had volunteered as an usher at the piano concert on the night of the murder.

According to witnesses who spoke to the Reilleys, Prehm had left the party with Brandley, making her the last person to see her alive. More disturbingly—to the Reilleys, at least—was the fact that other witnesses told them Prehm and Brandley had gotten into an argument just a few weeks before the murder when campus administrators had rejected Prehm's proposal to bring Manhattan Transfer to campus, saying they wanted Brandley to handle the project. Furthermore, the Reilleys say, Prehm disappeared for three days after the murder.

Yet police ruled out Prehm as a suspect, citing witnesses who saw Prehm leave the after-concert party alone. And Prehm hadn't disappeared for three days, they said: She was at home in San Clemente all weekend, unaware that Brandley had been murdered until she returned to campus on Monday. Police hadn't been able to interview her sooner because they didn't know her telephone number.

But to the Reilleys, particularly Genelle, Prehm clearly had a motive to harm their daughter. She became convinced Prehm had persuaded somebody to rob her daughter, to scare her into leaving campus in revenge for stealing her project. She even claims Brandley visited her in a psychic vision just three days after the murder. "She screamed, 'Mom, Valerie did it! Valerie did it!'" Genelle says. "I was stunned."

As the years passed with no progress in the case, the Reilleys say they grew increasingly frustrated with the sheriff's department, especially Stephany, who has since retired and could not be located for an interview for this story. "He said 'Don't call; don't bother me,'" Genelle claims. "He just couldn't solve the case."

The Reilleys filed a lawsuit against Saddleback College, arguing that the school was in part responsible for their daughter's murder because of the lack of streetlights at the parking lot where she died, but they dropped the suit after their lawyer quit. They also lobbied for a bill to require that all California universities and colleges provide lights at student parking lots, but the legislation, signed into law in 1990 by California's then-Governor George Deukmejian, only applied to future campus construction.

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