By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
A Nightmare On Lemon Street
A defendant on trial for attempted murders in an OC theater blamed the devil. The jury told him to go to hell
Unlike private defense attorneys, public defenders can’t pick their clients. If they could, Orange County public defender Erica Gambale might not have represented attempted-murder suspect Steven Walter Robinson. On Feb. 24, 2008, Robinson—a 25-year-old Anaheim man obsessed with sexually deviant serial killers—used a knife and a hammer to ambush two unarmed strangers in a public place you would assume was safe from horrific violence: the inside of an upscale, suburban movie theater.
“When I got the case, I kind of really freaked-out,” Gambale told Robinson’s jury of six men and six women in her Sept. 28 closing argument. “I’m not going to lie about it.”
According to Gambale, her husband, prosecutor Keith Bogardus, is “a huge movie buff.” The couple enjoyed attending the opening nights of films—until Robinson’s unprovoked assault inside the AMC Theater on Lemon Street in Fullerton. The crime gave Gambale anxiety. Instead of focusing on the films, she analyzed other moviegoers. She didn’t like anyone to sit behind her and repeatedly demanded to change seats.
“I was nuts in there,” said Gambale. “But that was before I ever spoke to my client and the doctors and discovered the truth.”
The truth, according to the public defender, is that Robinson shouldn’t be feared. His actions were understandable in light of his consumption of whiskey and 10 to 12 grams of illegal psychedelic mushrooms for seven hours leading up to the crime, argued Gambale. But she also took the intoxication defense a step further. She claimed that her inebriated client believed that the low-budget horror flick he was watching had sent him telepathic messages, urging him to attack.
One online critic aptly described The Signal as a “bloody banquet of excessive, tasteless gore.” In the early minutes of the movie, a crazed man chops up restrained, screaming women in a back yard. Before Robinson’s real-life attack, an odd, distorted image appeared on the screen accompanied by an annoying, warped, bass-heavy sound—the signal for the actors to go crazy and kill.
“Mr. Robinson fully believed his hallucinations were real,” Gambale explained. “His actions were in response to voices he heard. He was experiencing an altered reality. . . . He couldn’t have known the consequences of his actions.”
Besides, she argued, Robinson was a sympathetic character: a lonely guy who struggled throughout his life with a weight problem, craved attention, fell into the dark world of substance abuse as an escape and genuinely felt sorry for “any pain” he’d inflicted on his fellow moviegoers. Given that Gambale didn’t dispute Robinson committed the acts (she couldn’t—DNA at the scene made him a trillion-to-one suspect), she asked jurors to vote for a lesser crime, attempted voluntary manslaughter, because he never intended to harm anyone.
Deputy District Attorney Andrew Katz wasn’t having it. “Do not be fooled,” he told jurors. “The defense is giving you a red herring. . . . It’s not the drugs kicking in and telling him to go kill. That’s his nature.”
Katz revealed that Robinson collected books on serial killers, including BTK: Bind, Torture, Kill; chose an online screen identity of “psychokiller666”; belonged to online groups such as “World Famous Serial Killers”; and committed burglaries. (The jury wasn’t told about the rest of his extensive rap sheet.)
“There is substantial evidence that provides a very revealing window into the dark, distorted and dangerous mind of this defendant,” Katz said.
Indeed, Robinson’s MySpace account was a treasure trove of evidence. A homepage image resembling the defendant morphed into the Devil. His online status was set as, “Steven puts a knife right in you.” He listed his interests as “money, drugs, murder, sex, torture and death.” He hailed movies such as Natural Born Killers and American Psycho. He prominently displayed a pentagram.
But it was his pre-stabbing online writings that really put frowns on the faces of jurors. Those statements included:
• “The time for killing is once again at hand! No one is safe. Only your tortured screams will resurrect my dying soul.”
• “I’m gonna stab your ass tonight; that’s what’s up, [expletive] gay boi!”
• “Murder, kill in the name of satanic revolution. Let it begin with you. Kill! Kill and die; leave the signs.”
• And, his most succinct message, six weeks before his stabbing rampage: “Kill, kill, kill.”
Gambale blasted Katz for “maligning” Robinson based on the books he read, the music he played, the movies he liked, “role-playing” messages he sent and the clothes (all black) he hung in his closet. She asked jurors to “protect the scary, protect the weird” and don’t render a verdict “based on fears.”
To humanize her client, Gambale put him on the witness stand. In soft, nervous, almost-shy tones, the 6-foot-1, 260-pound defendant explained why he wore only black clothes (he felt slimmer), what attracted him to Gothic music (Marilyn Manson), why he loved true-crime books (a “fascination with the criminal mind”), why he chose the screen name psychokiller666 (“I thought it was cool”), what made a good movie (one that kept him “on the edge of his seat”) and why he wrote shocking online messages (“I was drunk”).
“I was pretty depressed at the way my life was,” Robinson testified.
On the day of his crimes, he said, his use of psilocybin-loaded mushrooms allowed him to hear people’s (negative) thoughts as he wandered the Brea Mall in the afternoon. Later, he watched the Academy Awards’ red-carpet festivities on a television inside his family’s garage and believed he had direct communications with the stars. “They were laughing at my thoughts,” he recalled. “I was tripping quite a bit.”
Afterward, Robinson decided to see a zombie movie. He brought with him a bottle of whiskey, a clear plastic bag holding cookies and mushrooms, a knife and hammer, and, go figure, a single Lifestyles condom. The theater manager, Wiley Drake—son of the famous Buena Park minister—refunded Robinson’s ticket after finding the alcohol and refusing him admittance, but he sneaked back into Auditorium 17, the one playing The Signal.
Robinson told jurors he had a “vague” memory of the movie starting because of the intensity of his mushroom trip: He could “see sounds” and “hear colors.” He recalled seeing “so much violence” onscreen. He said he heard voices and laughter “mocking” him.
“I felt like something was coming through the screen—something evil,” said Robinson. “I felt scared, paranoid. I recall screams—a lot of screams. The next thing I remember is I’m driving. I was trying to figure out where I was and what happened. I noticed my condition. I had a bit of blood on my hand and knife. I got, like, a sickening feeling, like dread.”
The following day, he testified, he saw news reports of the theater attack that left two men seriously wounded—one stabbed in the head, arm, knee and chest. He said he felt “terrible” and fled to Las Vegas. Two weeks later, police captured him. Inside his Cadillac, they found a combination knife-and-hammer tool.
Katz called Robinson’s story “ridiculous” and based on “a convenient memory loss.” To illustrate his point, he orchestrated a devastating series of questions to three witnesses who conversed with Robinson minutes before the attacks: Was his speech slurred? Were his answers incoherent? Did he sway, stumble or fall? Did you have any idea he was hallucinating? All three witnesses said “no” to each question.
“Except for his own statement, there is no evidence that he had a hallucination,” the prosecutor said. “He wanted to kill people. It’s that simple.”
On Sept. 29, it took less than six hours for a jury to agree. They found Robinson guilty of two counts of attempted murder and two counts of mayhem. At his Dec. 11 sentencing, he could get life in prison.