“Lee Robin. Not a nice guy.”
The voice booming through the phone line belongs to Tom Smith, a commander at the Palatine Police Department. Thirteen summers ago, he answered a call reporting a “problem” at Robin’s ranch house and stepped into the most gruesome scene he’s ever witnessed.
Robin, dressed only in shorts and a T-shirt, was sitting on the steps leading to his living room. His legs and feet were splattered with blood. Staring ahead in bewilderment, Robin, an internal medicine specialist at two suburban hospitals, responded to the officers’ questions with short, whispered answers. Smith’s police report quotes his replies: “Dead . . . Two . . . Bathroom and bedroom.”
In the bedroom, Smith found Robin’s wife, Annette, lying on the floor in her bra and panties. Her back, arms, and scalp had deep cuts from the four-foot ax at her side. Blood, hair, and brains pooled into a gory soup that soaked the carpet.
“It was pretty grisly,” Smith says. “There was brain matter on the floor and on the walls.”
Moving into the bathroom, Smith found a baby girl face up in the tub. It was Robin’s two-and-a-half-month-old daughter, Denise. She had drowned. While officers photographed the crime scene, Robin sat on the bedroom floor in handcuffs, shaking his head. Smith recalls Robin moaning, “I don’t understand it.”
Denise and Annette were buried together, in a single coffin, at Resurrection Cemetery in Justice. After an eight-month delay because he was too depressed to participate in his defense, Robin was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to the Elgin Mental Health Center.
Today he’s living in an Uptown nursing home, where he’s allowed to go out unsupervised for 15 hours a day.
Robin is the most controversial mental patient in the history of Illinois. The killing of his wife and daughter inspired state legislators to pass a law making it tougher for mental hospitals to release those found not guilty of criminal acts by reason of insanity. After Robin was discharged into Uptown May 30, 48th Ward alderman Mary Ann Smith held a meeting to calm angry, frightened neighbors. Uptown had taken in thousands of mental patients, but none of them rated a public forum.
Robin’s supporters say years of treatment have transformed him into a harmless man who would lead an anonymous life if the media and his victims’ family would leave him alone. But Gary Wronkiewicz, Annette Robin’s brother-in-law, says the medication that controls Robin is a pharmaceutical cage containing a monster.
Thirteen years ago, in the morgue, Wronkiewicz laid a napkin over Annette’s head so her parents wouldn’t see their daughter’s shattered skull. The mess was frightening. Axes are forged to split wood, a substance tougher than bone. Wronkiewicz worries it could happen again if Robin neglects his meds.
“It’s like Frankenstein’s castle is in the middle of Uptown,” Wronkiewicz says, “and they’re experimenting on him.”
The madness that drove Lee Robin to kill began when he was a student at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. During his senior year, according to a psychiatric report prepared while he was in Elgin, he became “overwhelmed” by his demanding class load, dropped out of school for a semester, and “returned home, staying in his room and not eating.” In the spring of 1981, during medical school at the University of Illinois’ Chicago campus, he spent a week and a half in the hospital’s psych unit for depression.
“He did well in medical school,” the Elgin psychiatric report says, “but often had to persevere through periods of anxiety, self-doubt and depression.”
Nonetheless Robin controlled his demons well enough to lead an enviable life. He graduated in 1984 and married Annette Lewandowski, a pharmacy student he’d met in school, and they moved out to Palatine. Robin was on the staff at Sherman Hospital in Elgin and Humana Hospital in Hoffman Estates.
But in 1988, as he was expecting his first child, Robin’s mental anguish became more severe. According to the psychiatric report, he suffered “paranoid delusions” and feelings of “worthlessness.” He thought he deserved to die. He sought psychiatric help, but doctors wrote off his problems as anxiety. Robin’s lawyer, Marc Kadish, says his client was told, “You’re a physician. You don’t want anyone to know this. This will hurt your career.”
A week before the killings, Robin checked into a motel and tried to kill himself with a combination of sleeping pills and ulcer medication. After that failed, he had “thoughts of killing his wife and child,” the Elgin report says. “He told his psychiatrist and wife of these thoughts and pleaded with his wife to take the child and leave.” His suicidal mind persuaded him that killing his family would be an act of mercy—if he were to die, they’d lead a life of poverty without him.
Annette stuck by him. On the night of Friday, August 12, 1988, she baked him a pizza. Robin ate it, then woke up early the next morning and killed her.
The 13th had always been significant to Lee Robin. He was born on Friday, June 13, 1958, and he believed the date had cursed him. For a man experiencing delusions—he believed he was the devil and had sired a child with three heads, according to Dr. Robert Reifman of the Cook County Psychiatric Institute—it must have seemed like an ominous day.
Robin told the police he was “not sure” whether he had killed his wife and daughter, but Barbara Wronkiewicz has always doubted his claims of insanity. Wronkiewicz, who has known Robin since he began dating her sister Annette in medical school, claims he was a pampered mama’s boy who lashed out because he envied the attention his newborn baby was getting.
“My sister was very motherly, had very strong motherly instincts”—which, Wronkiewicz says, helps explain why she was attracted to a troubled man. “When she had the baby, that was when the stresses in her life got very bad. He lost two mothers, because his mother was extreme about the baby. . . . His mother almost idolized him, to where it was sickening, because he was the doctor. And he idolized himself. It came up in court—one of the doctors said he was narcissistic.”
Before Robin finally went to trial, Reifman and another doctor from the Cook County Psychiatric Institute prepared reports finding him insane.
The state’s attorney, on the other hand, couldn’t find a psychiatrist to assert that Robin was sane and thus responsible for the deaths. Barbara Wronkiewicz believes that was because no doctor would testify against a fellow MD. Cook County judge James Bailey later said it was the only insanity case he’d ever heard of in which the state didn’t call its own psychiatrist. Had it done so, Bailey told the Daily Herald, he would have rejected the insanity plea.
“The state’s hands were tied,” Bailey said in the 1994 interview, when Robin was first considered for release. “They had nothing else to do but roll over and play dead in the face of his guiltiness.”
Darren O’Brien wasn’t the assistant state’s attorney who prosecuted the case, but he took it over several years ago. He attempted to keep Robin confined to Elgin. O’Brien calls the killings “very calculated,” pointing to Robin’s suicide attempt as an indication that he was faking insanity. As a doctor, O’Brien argues, Robin should have known how many pills he needed to kill himself. “He was setting this up from the beginning,” O’Brien says.
Whatever his mental state, Robin was committed to Elgin, where he was treated with Sinequan, an antidepressant, and lithium, which was used to control his bipolar disorder. He was an unusually high-functioning patient, playing chess, studying Hebrew, lifting weights. At his job in the workshop, building wire brooms for street sweepers, he was considered one of the best employees. He was never violent and never tried to escape when the staff accompanied him off the grounds. In fact, his psychiatrists believe his illness was under control as early as December 1989.
Throughout his confinement, Robin made regular trips for counseling to the Isaac Ray Center at Rush-Presbyterian-Saint Luke’s. Doctors initially found him resistant, says Marc Kadish, but he eventually realized he had committed horrible acts and needed to change.
Twice Robin was taken to his family’s grave to reinforce the reality of what he’d done. But the notes from his counseling sessions at the Isaac Ray Center contain few references to his wife and daughter. When he spoke of them during a 1994 session, he was “extremely distraught.” He said he had “tried to give notice of his dysfunction but others saw only his outer demeanor.” In most of the records from his counseling sessions, Robin seemed rueful but self-absorbed. He talked about the possibility of working in a bookstore after his release. He noted times he had become angry or agitated about some event in his unit and emphasized his commitment to relaxation exercises and to taking his medication for the rest of his life. Often he discussed women. In 1998, he mentioned “a female staff on his unit for whom he has special feelings. He reviews the effects of not having been sexual for years. . . . He is aware of his past behavior and how he must spend the rest of his life.”
Gary Wronkiewicz says that’s the Robin he knows: after killing his wife and daughter, “he was concerned about himself. What’s going to happen to him. Are they going to hurt him in there? What’s going to happen to him?”
By 1999 the staff at Elgin decided Robin was ready for “conditional release,” a return to the community under the supervision of the court and the Illinois Department of Human Services.
No killer treated by the state’s mental health system has ever been known to kill again. Most return anonymously to their communities after an average stay of eight years in a mental hospital. There are 18 killers under community supervision in Illinois now. One is going to law school; another is a banker. But Robin wasn’t going to get a quiet homecoming.
His actions had made headlines—he wasn’t a Speck or a Gacy, but he was widely known as the suburban doctor who’d hacked his wife to death. And the Wronkiewicz family was dogging him through the court system, trying to keep him in Elgin—they’d been to every hearing. When Robin was found not guilty by reason of insanity, Barbara stood up as he was led from the courtroom and shouted, “You’re going to have to face your God, Lee!”
Annette Robin is still a significant presence in her big sister’s life. Her bridal portrait rests atop a chest in the Wronkiewiczes’ living room. Every Christmas Annette’s handcrafted ornaments dangle from the tree and the stockings she needlepointed for her nephews are hung by the fireplace. Year-round, Barbara fills a file folder with newspaper clippings about Robin, letters to politicians, media contact numbers, minutes of court proceedings—anything she can use to make the case that the man who killed her sister and niece is a threat to kill again.
“He has never shown any remorse,” Barbara says. “He has never written a letter to my parents. His doctors say he’s not responsible for what he’s done, but he still has to acknowledge what he did.”
Though the Wronkiewiczes failed to keep Robin locked up, their crusade led the way for a new state law that will make it more difficult for mentally ill killers to go free. While following Robin’s case, they met an assistant state’s attorney named James Durkin, who is now a Republican state representative from Westchester. Once elected, Durkin wrote the law that switches the burden of proof in conditional-release hearings from the state’s attorney’s office to the Illinois Department of Human Services. Instead of the state’s attorney proving a patient is dangerous, IDHS now has to prove he’s not dangerous. (IDHS tracked patients found not guilty by reason of insanity and released from mental hospitals between 1989 and ’94. Fewer than 4 percent—11 people—ended up back in the hospital or in jail on a new offense.)
Durkin had encountered Robin a few times at the Criminal Courts Building. Infanticide isn’t popular among thugs, so Robin had to be separated from the other prisoners. He sat in a conference room where lawyers prepared their cases. Durkin concluded that Robin is “an egomaniac, and psychotic as well.”
“If the law was in effect when the department made this recommendation, I don’t think Lee Robin would be able to establish he is no longer a threat to society,” Durkin says.
(Lou Lang, the Democratic state rep from Skokie, was so outraged by Robin’s case he wrote a bill requiring the state to inform local police when those found not guilty by reason of insanity are released into a community. Lang’s bill has not been passed.)
Fortunately for Robin, Durkin’s law wasn’t in effect when he came up for conditional release in September 1999. The Illinois Department of Human Services designed a plan that would have allowed Robin to live alone in an apartment, under the supervision of the Alexian Brothers Northwest Mental Health Center, in Palatine. Assistant state’s attorney Darren O’Brien, who says he had developed “very strong feelings” about the case, argued vociferously that Robin wasn’t ready for the outside world. O’Brien believed Robin had been treated like a child for the last decade and therefore should be brought back into society slowly, starting with unsupervised visits to his counselor at the Isaac Ray Center and life-skills training, such as learning how to manage a bank account.
“The things that caused him to decompensate are things that we deal with every day—school, money, work, moving,” O’Brien says. “Things that we deal with, but we don’t kill two people.”
O’Brien also worried that Robin wouldn’t be able to handle the stigma of being an ax-wielding killer.
“What’s going to happen when he gets a job and they don’t want him?” O’Brien asks. “What’s going to happen when women reject him? I think he’ll run into so much resistance here that he’ll decompensate or do something drastic and skip.”
Robin’s lawyers argued that he was being faced with a catch-22: we don’t know he’ll behave on the outside, so let’s not risk finding out. The “team” who had treated Robin testified that medication was controlling his bipolar disorder and that he hadn’t been involved in a single “physical or inappropriate verbal confrontation” in the five years he had lived in the William White Cottage, a minimum-security facility on the grounds of Elgin. Dr. Jack Green, his counselor at the Isaac Ray Center, noted that Robin’s “sense of empathy has greatly improved as to how he deals with others,” according to the court decision. Green “testified that defendant is committed to his treatment and pointed out that at one time defendant asked for an increase in his medication because he felt his current dosage was inadequate. Dr. Green does not believe that defendant is a danger to himself or to others.”
Judge James Flannery granted the conditional release, but it would be nearly two years before Robin moved out of Elgin. A lot of people didn’t want to see him walking the streets. First, Governor George Ryan ordered Elgin to hold Robin while the state’s attorney appealed Flannery’s decision. In the meantime, Robin was allowed to ride the train by himself to his sessions at the Isaac Ray Center.
When Robin won the appeal, the Wronkiewiczes objected to the plan, saying they didn’t want him in Palatine. Annette’s mother hates Robin—she’s cut him out of family pictures.
“I don’t ever want to see him around here,” Barbara says. “If he’s living around here, I could see him in the grocery store.”
Normally mental patients are sent home when they’re pronounced fit for society. But Alexian Brothers heeded the family’s fears and decided Robin would have to live somewhere else.
Take a walk through Uptown, from the urine-scented Wilson el stop to the homeless jungles of Margate Park. Sometimes it feels like a reservation for damaged people—beggars, addicts, drunks, the senile, the mad. Nobody wants to witness the walking wreckage of human lives, but compassion says these people must live somewhere. Uptown shelters more than any other community in Illinois.
It’s been that way since the 1960s, when psychotropic drugs made it possible to control the mentally ill outside the walls of an asylum and the state began to empty out its hospitals—partly because it was considered humane, partly to save money.
At that time Uptown was full of old hotels and once grand apartment buildings that had been chopped up into flophouses for the poor rural whites and Native Americans migrating to the city. An el line ran through it, and for elderly patients emerging from years of confinement, the neighborhood was cheap and convenient. By the end of the decade, it was known as a “psychiatric ghetto,” its towers filled with frail old people who spent monotonous days in tiny rooms, or in hotel lobbies, zonked out on tranquilizers. Former 48th Ward alderman Marion Kennedy Volini wrote about her sad new neighbors in a 1976 paper she delivered to the International Association of Psycho-Social Rehabilitation Services:
“Neighborhood residents watched in dismay as strangely disoriented individuals in ragged, ill-fitting clothes began to appear on street corners and wander down the center aisles of their churches during services. Bizarre activities were seen everywhere. One former patient, nicknamed Zorba by the local teens, would kneel and pray with arms outstretched outside neighborhood liquor stores. A woman with sores and cuts on her legs and feet would frantically search for mounds of clean, fresh snow to rub into her bruises, weeping and crying to herself as she did so. . . . And the halfway houses and hotels where these former patients were boarded on Kenmore, Winthrop, Sheridan Road and Wilson Avenue, were marked by clusters of shriveled men and women who huddled together in the cold shadows of tall city buildings, for these ‘care’ homes had no yards or benches or even a patch of grass.”
The 70s were a low point for urban America, for Chicago, and especially for Uptown. Since then, the state has taken some responsibility for its wards. The hotels and nursing homes are now licensed and inspected. But Uptown is still the sanctuary for the broken people of Illinois. There are 2,002 “assisted living” beds in the 48th Ward alone. Somerset House, a tall, elegant apartment building near the corner of Sheridan and Argyle, has 450. Lee Robin sleeps in one of them.
After Alexian Brothers rejected him, “Elgin and Isaac Ray looked about for an even better placement,” says lawyer Marc Kadish. “The city, it’s easier for him to get swallowed up. He can remain anonymous.”
Yet Robin can never be anonymous. Somerset House isn’t allowed to release information about patients, but just before Robin’s scheduled arrival this spring the media found out.
“We would not notify anyone in the community that someone has been placed at Somerset, because of the state law,” says Illinois Department of Human Services spokesman Reginald Marsh. “But the word did get out that Mr. Robin was there.”
In the last week of May, TV crews roved Sheridan and Argyle, asking locals how they felt about living near someone who’d killed his wife with an ax. A lot of them didn’t like it. Alderman Mary Ann Smith called the public meeting to mollify her constituents. Kadish was there, along with Joseph Agnello, director of Somerset House, and representatives from the Isaac Ray Center and Thresholds, the psychiatric rehabilitation agency where Robin is receiving vocational training. Angry residents grumbled and shook their heads throughout the 90-minute forum. Someone shouted, “Why are killers sent to our neighborhood?” Another confessed to being “terrified” at living three doors down from Robin.
Sandy Campbell, who lives a few blocks from Somerset House, came away from the meeting satisfied that Robin had a right to live in Uptown.
“I would just as soon he be somewhere else,” Campbell says. “I would also just as soon some of the residential buildings be somewhere else, but I’m their neighbor. I’ve only been here ten years or so. They’ve been here longer than I have. . . . The manager of the building convinced me that this man was going to be monitored very closely.”
Robin put many residents in a difficult spot. Uptown is proud of its reputation as a “port of entry,” a haven for refugees from all countries and all conditions. Everyone who moves in knows they’ll be living near mental health facilities and the homeless, and they accept the appeals for spare change and the sight of grimy men and women. Some people were afraid of being branded intolerant if they spoke out against Robin.
Those who will speak out say they are frightened, and they’re angry that, once again, Uptown is forced to deal with some other community’s reject. Members of the Margate Park Block Club now want to tour Somerset House and start a regular dialogue with its director. After Robin was admitted, they discovered another killer is living in the facility. It makes some of them more leery of Somerset House’s residents.
“I don’t think there’s room in this neighborhood” for Robin, says Cathy Piwowar. “I can’t believe they would consider putting him in a place like this. I’ve always thought that it was people who can’t live on their own, maybe a little mental disability, there.”
Somerset House’s Agnello feels stung by news coverage of the Robin case. Robin, he says, has been “stalked” by the media. Somerset’s residents have been frightened by reporters looming outside the front door. Agnello refused to be interviewed in person, and he made only a few comments, all defending his new resident:
“This is a man who for 13 years has not had a relapse. He’s been taking his medication. He’s in a place where he’s being monitored, he’s being well cared for.”
Robin does not give interviews. He thinks he has nothing to gain, according to Kadish—he’ll never win over people who think he’s a monster, and he doesn’t want to show his face. If he did, people might recognize him. The only pictures the public has seen are 13-year-old family snapshots, which show a pudgy-cheeked, poodle-haired man in aviator glasses. Since then, he’s cut his hair and pumped up—a new look for the new life he’s forced to lead. His supporters claim he’s not the same man who killed his wife and child, so why should he be burdened with a killer’s face?
Kadish took Robin’s case, for a fee, when he was a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law. Since moving over to the firm Mayer, Brown & Platt, he’s handled all his old cases pro bono. Sometime this month, he and Robin had lunch together in the Loop.
Kadish describes his client as “the most overtherapized person I’ve ever seen in my life.” Robin is free to leave Somerset House between 7 AM and 10 PM, but he could be sent back to Elgin if he misses even one curfew. He’s still attending career-training classes at Thresholds. He knows he’ll never be a doctor again, but he hopes to use his education in some way, perhaps examining medical files for an insurance company. Once a week he attends group therapy at the Isaac Ray Center, and every other week he sees a behavioral psychologist there. He’s taking four types of medication, and regular blood tests ensure he doesn’t miss a dose.
Mark Heyrman of the Mental Health Association of Illinois calls Robin one of the highest-functioning patients he’s ever met. It’s “a waste” he’ll never practice medicine again, Heyrman says, and a waste the state is supervising him so closely—they should be spending their money on someone dangerous.
“Here’s a guy who’s been in for an extra ten years,” Heyrman says. “He was well after three years.”
The courts can supervise a patient for up to eight years after his conditional release. By September 2007, perhaps earlier, Robin will be as free as a bird: free to leave the state, free to get married and start a new family, free to decide whether he wants to take his medication or not. Bipolar disorder can be controlled, but it can’t be cured. Kadish says Robin’s motivated to stay on the drugs, and he’s already been among the public for nearly two years, during which “there’s been no difficulty. He’s never been late coming to Isaac Ray, coming back to Isaac Ray.”
Still, Gary Wronkiewicz remembers sights that belong only in horror movies. He thinks drugs are too thin a wall to shield the world from madness. He’s resigned to Robin’s release, but he wants to change the state’s mental health system. After learning about that system in the hardest way possible, he’s come to believe it’s not vigilant enough toward the violent people who pass through its hospitals.
“He could stop taking his medication, and then what would happen?” Wronkiewicz says of his brother-in-law. “As they put more and more of them on the street, one of them is going to go off. Should we be at risk for that?” v
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.