Just a Random Female

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

Getting Urdiales to stand trial in California wouldn't turn out to be so easy. First, he'd go to court for the three murders in Illinois. The first case finally went to trial in April 2002, five years after Urdiales confessed. The prosecution's case understandably focused on the three Illinois murders and featured dozens of witnesses: everyone from Patricia Kelly, the prostitute who alerted Hammond police to Urdiales' sexual proclivities, to Don McGrath, who arrested Urdiales. But the star witness was Jennifer Asbenson, who recounted for the jury in gripping detail her ordeal in the desert at the hands of the accused killer.

Urdiales pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. He didn't testify during the trial. Instead, jurors heard his voice primarily in tape recordings made on April 24, 1997, the day after his arrest, when Orange County Sheriff's detectives Bob Blackburn and Helen Moreno flew to Chicago and met with him. In his interview, Urdiales described his upbringing in Chicago, how he joined the Marine Corps in 1984, and served at Camp Pendleton before deployments in Okinawa, the Philippines, and California, where he was stationed at Twentynine Palms.

In 1988, Urdiales said, he'd re-enlisted, and the next year, he went back to Okinawa before returning once again to California, and then shipping out to Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Shield. Urdiales served as a radio operator in the Persian Gulf War and received an honorable discharge. After leaving the Marines, he returned to Chicago, visiting California on occasion to visit family members—and, according to his previous confession, murder five women.

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.

He told Blackburn and Moreno that his stint at Camp Pendleton in 1985 was the "best year" of his life, but that things turned sour when all of his buddies were transferred elsewhere in early 1986. Urdiales explained that he had a "rotten temper" and "just couldn't deal with the new group of people coming in" to the base.

On the night Brandley died, Urdiales claimed, he "got mad with one of the other guys" in his barracks. He just needed to "get off that fucking base." He drove north along Interstate 5, armed with what he described as a "big ol' hunting knife" with a serrated edge and hollow grip for survival gear with a compass on the end.

"I just drove around," he continued. "I notice this sign said Saddleback College, so I stopped, and I just, I parked my car, and we just, uh, uh, just walking [sic]. I had my knife with me. I don't know why. . . . So I wandered up, probably, wandered up toward the, uh, college. . . . It was dark. . . . No lights, no nothing, just darkness . . . Maybe I just wanted to just kind of have an idea of what would happen if I just, you know, maybe robbed someone or a mugging or something. Maybe just try, you know, just kinda go on the edge. See what happens. 'Cause I was always trained, always trained to kill in boot camp."

At this point, Urdiales said, he noticed a woman walking to her car. "No one else was around, just the two of us," he said. "So I just started walking to her, kinda. And she turned around and looked but didn't say anything." Urdiales kept following her. "I think that it became apparent that something was wrong, and she looked around, and then she saw the knife, and then she screamed briefly."

Urdiales covered her mouth with his hands. He told the detectives that he doesn't clearly remember what happened next. "It's just kinda like, just dark, fuzzy," he said. "It's kind of like things going on back and forth in my mind just like, yes, no. Do it now." Urdiales said he told the woman to hand over her purse. She complied, and he placed it on top of the nearest car.

The detectives then asked Urdiales to describe the purse. "I don't think the purse had nothing to do with that," he answered. "I think it was her that we wanted, and we just sat there for awhile—I don't know what happened. The next thing I know is the knife went into her back, once, twice, several times. And I don't remember, I just don't remember, just uh, you know, uh, walked away. Wiped the blood off somewhere. I don't remember where we did."

After murdering Brandley, Urdiales claimed, he cut his hand jumping a fence, then drove back to Camp Pendleton. The Marines guarding the base entrance noticed blood on his clothes, but Urdiales convinced them he'd injured himself fixing his car. "Those guys are so stupid," he told the detectives. Urdiales kept his knife for a few weeks and even brought it with him when he took a bus to Hollywood and had sex with a prostitute. "I just had sex, and then I left," he explained. "Lucky for her."

When he returned to the base that night, a security guard searched his backpack, found the knife and confiscated it. Thus, the Brandley murder weapon disappeared. Detective Blackburn testified that Orange County Sheriff's detectives contacted Camp Pendleton and verified he was treated for a hand injury and, a few weeks later, was found in possession of a large knife, which was confiscated.

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