In August of 1996, newly-retired Jack L. Robinson was prepared to start the next chapter of his life. On an uneventful summer day, Jack went down to the Rosewood Boat Landing in his old neighborhood of Olympia. He started talking to a younger man, and the two walked into a nearby clearing. Soon, their argument took a violent turn, and Jack was murdered at the hands of this unknown assailant.
January 21st, 2018 Micheal Whelan
On a late summer day, in the town of Columbia, South Carolina, a strange occurrence was unfolding down near the river.
Columbia, a relatively large city of a hundred-thousand people, is split in half by the Congaree River. The Congaree is the result of two different rivers - the Saluda and Broad rivers - which meet at the junction where Columbia was founded.
A man was going down to the Congaree River, to a secluded little stretch of land hidden away from the main roads. He parked in a gravel parking lot, which you really had to know existed before going there. Just a short distance away, shrouded by a small patch of woods that thrived alongside the river, was a boat ramp that plunged into the Congaree.
Jack was sixty-five years old, a military vet who had spent time in Vietnam. He was, by all accounts, a regular guy. He was unmarried, with only a single child from his lone marriage and now two young grandchildren, and other than some volunteer work he did, he primarily kept to himself.
On a Saturday, August 17th, 1996, the temperature in Columbia was in the low-90s, which isn't unusual for this time of year. It'd be the type of weekend you'd imagine spending down by the river. The sun would not set until roughly 8:00 PM, and it wouldn't be truly dark until 8:30 or 9:00. At the time Jack Robinson arrived at this parking lot, approximately 6:00 PM, it would still be daylight.
Yet, despite the sun still shining - despite the handful of witnesses that saw Jack arrive at the parking lot - police have yet to figure out what the man was doing at this boat landing. Jack didn't sail, nor did he own a boat. None of his records indicated that he was meeting someone at this lot, but that's what witnesses recall: Jack meeting a man, speaking for a few minutes, before the conversation turned fatal.
This is the story of Jack L. Robinson.
Jack Robinson was born on July 24th, 1931, in Columbia, South Carolina.
At the time, Columbia was in the middle of an economic surge, becoming a major business hub in the Carolina/Georgia area.
Little is known about Jack's parents, Joel Littleton and Ethel Mae Bradley Robinson. Jack took his family name from his mother, implying that his father didn't play a huge part in his childhood.
However, we do know that Jack was not alone in his development. He had at least one brother - named Odell - and three sisters - named Connie, Mae, and Myrtle.
All of his siblings are now-deceased, saved one - a sister who is now closing in on ninety years old.
Jack and his family lived in the Olympia neighborhood of Columbia - an area that cropped up in the early 1900s, around the Olympia textile mill. He attended Olympia High School in the time period following World War Two, and growing up in that time period seems to have inspired him to follow a career path... that of a United States airman.
Shortly after graduating from high school, Jack enlisted in the US Air Force. He was sent off to basic training, and his first post took him to the furthest corner of the United States: Fairbanks, Alaska.
Jack would go on to spend twenty-five years in the Air Force, rising to the rank of Technical Sergeant... no easy feat, as an enlisted airman. Throughout his two-and-a-half decades of military service, Jack saw time in Vietnam, an experience that he never really talked about with his family.
Throughout his time in the military, he had a child: a daughter, named Tammy. She would be his only child, but the two would remain close throughout the rest of Jack's life.
After retiring from the military, Jack returned to the area that he had been born in... Columbia, South Carolina. This is where Tammy grew up: a town steeped in history, divided by the Congaree River... a river that would go on to play a vital role in this story.
After retiring from the military, Jack Robinson entered civil service, getting a job at the nearby Moncrief Army Health Clinic in Columbia's Fort Jackson.
I can't really tell you what he did in this job, but various news articles have referred to him as a "laboratory employee." This could point to any number of positions within an army hospital, but he had close relationships - personal and business - with the many doctors, nurses, and technicians he worked with.
Jack worked at the Moncrief Hospital for twenty years, and retired from there, as well.
At this point, you'd imagine that Jack - in his early-to-mid sixties - would be living the easy life. He had two pensions, a small family consisting of his siblings, his daughter, and two grandsons, and all of the time in the world.
However, according to reports, Jack didn't use this time to simply rest on his laurels.
Jack had been slightly involved in politics throughout his life, but he spent some of this time off to volunteer and work more closely with his local Democratic Party.
And other than that, he was noted for constantly volunteering at homeless shelters and soup kitchens. Many point to this being where he would meet his eventual killer, but Jack was constantly keeping busy and trying to accomplish some good in the world with his spare time.
Going into 1996, Jack had accomplished a life's worth of achievements before the typical age of retirement. He had spent over forty-five years as a civil servant, including a stint in Vietnam, and was now looking forward to the next chapter of his life. He lived in the Wellesly Place Apartments, in the northeastern reaches of Columbia, Sandwood. It wasn't the best apartment that money could buy, but it was comfortable enough for Jack.
He had a number of friends, but by all accounts, was an incredibly quiet guy who kept to himself, in his apartment at 3630 Ranch Road.
Jack had had a good relationship with his daughter, Tammy, and her two sons, Doug and Matthew. Tammy was now a woman grown, and had introduced her own children to the world in the mid-1980s. Both of Jack's grandsons have fond memories of the man, even though they didn't get to see him much in the weeks before his death.
On July 24th, 1996, Jack celebrated his sixty-fifth birthday. At the time, neither he - nor his family - were aware that it would be his last.
On August 17th, 1996, Jack drove from his apartment in Wellesly Place to the middle of Columbia - roughly a ten mile trip. There's no indication that he was meeting up with anyone, or knew who he was going to be speaking to.
Jack parked nearby the Rosewood Boat Landing, which has since been renamed the Jordan Memorial Boat Ramp.
If you look up the area online, you'll notice that even now - over twenty years later - the boat ramp is a little out of the way. It's connected to the city center, but you have to take some back roads to get to the landing. The boat landing itself is just a ramp that descends into the waiting Congaree River, and the area, which is little more than some pavement and gravel, is surrounded by a ringed batch of woods.
It's likely that Jack was heading to this spot for a reason... but the reason has never been clarified, because of the events that would follow his arrival.
It was around 6:00 PM that Jack arrived, but perhaps just before. It was still bright out, as the sun doesn't set in Carolina until at least eight o'clock throughout the summer months.
There were three witnesses that saw Jack arrive, and meet up with another man. The other man was younger, with darker skin and sunglasses. The two men seemed to know one another... or, at least, that's how it appeared to anyone watching.
These three witnesses were parked in the same parking lot, and waiting for a concert nearby to get started. Sitting there and waiting, they saw Jack and the other man meet up in the parking lot and head to a grass clearing in the surrounding woods.
The two men got out of sight, but before long, an argument broke out between them. The three witnesses only heard bits and pieces of their argument, primarily Jack.
He was making claims about money, saying that he could get money for the other man. One of the witnesses heard Jack loudly exclaim "what is it that you want?", before the argument seems to have gotten physical.
The man who had been arguing with Jack ran off on-foot, and Jack came walking out of the wooded area, clutching his stomach. He was bleeding from multiple wounds, and pleading for help.
The witnesses called an ambulance for Jack, and he was rushed to the nearby Palmetto Health Richland Hospital. But, by that point, his wounds had grown too severe.
Within three hours, Jack L. Robinson had passed away.
The autopsy showed that Jack had suffered at least three wounds to his stomach, and had been cut once on the side of his face. Some records have indicated that this might have been to his ear, but it's unclear.
Jack also had defensive cuts to his hands, implying that he did not go quietly. He was trying to fight off his attacker, who - by all indications - was much younger than him.
The ultimate cause-of-death was a perforated liver, due to the stab wounds to his gut, but Jack had also lost an extreme amount of blood on the way to the hospital.
The three witnesses, who had been there to help get Jack emergency treatment, gave their statements to police. They all described what they had seen: both Jack and the mysterious suspect showing up at the Rosewood Boat Landing, and walk off into the woods. Based on their statements, it's unclear whether the two met up at the landing or just-so-happened to be walking together, but by all indications, the conversation between the two was as acquaintances.
The witnesses - and now police - believe that Jack and this mysterious person-of-interest knew each other.
The witnesses gave a solid description of this man to police, and they made a sketch of this suspect, which you can still find online.
This man was olive-skinned, likely Hispanic, and he was between the ages of 25 and 35. He wasn't that big, standing approximately five-feet-five-inches, and weighing somewhere between 150 and 180 pounds. He had black hair and a light mustache, and was wearing aviator sunglasses, so the witnesses couldn't get a good look at those obscured features.
As police began to work with that description, the family prepared for their mourning.
Jack L. Robinson was memorialized at the Southern Baptist Church on Thursday, August 22nd, less than a week after his death. The ceremony was presided over by Pastor Charlie Arnold, and Jack's grandsons - Doug and Matthew - stood as pallbearers for their grandfather.
Jack was then buried at Greenlawn Memorial Park, where he rests today. He was given full military rites before being laid to rest. His daughter, Tammy - despite now living in Florida - returns regularly to his grave to pay her respects.
The police began to investigate the cause and the meaning of Jack Robinson's death, which ultimately boiled down to a single question.
What was he doing at the boat landing on that particular Saturday?
Jack did not own a boat, nor was he known to sail.
So, then you ask yourself: why else would Jack show up on a boat landing at 6:00 PM on a Saturday evening. Drugs? Alcohol? According to all records, Jack didn't indulge in either. He had no history of drinking or using any known drugs, so that was another trail that led nowhere.
Police scoured through Jack's phone records and bank statements, hoping to come across something that could lead them in the right direction. But according to both, Jack was a relatively mundane individual. Nothing in his records stood out to them; as I said earlier, he mostly kept to himself, other than visiting family and volunteering.
From his phone records, police were able to definitively state that he did NOT make plans to go out that evening. At least, not via telephone.
So this led them to the very real possibility that the man who had killed Jack - whom he had talked to as an acquaintance at the Rosewood Boat Landing - had run into him on a chance encounter.
However, when Jack's daughter, Tammy, spoke to police shortly after his murder, she was told something incredibly surprising.
One of the theories police were circulating was that the man who had killed Jack - whom he had met at the boat landing and walked into a small clearing at the edge of the woods with - was Jack's gay lover.
If you listen to Tammy talk about this, you can hear the skepticism in her voice.
To me, this doesn't sound like the most outlandish theory. Jack, having been born in the 1930s and spending over 25 years in the military, would like have some outdated thoughts on being gay. It's possible, if he was engaging in that kind of activity, that he would keep it quiet. He wouldn't tell his family or friend circle, at least... it's possible, that throughout his life, this was an issue he internally struggled with.
However, there has been little-to-no evidence of this being fact. Police created this theory after tracking down some of Jack's movements in his final weeks and months, and noted some of the places he went as being noteworthy for this theory. I don't have all the details on that, so I will continue to throw this out as nothing more than a theory.
Police eventually brought out bloodhounds to the location of Jack's murder, the Rosewood Boat Landing, which is right in the heart of the Olympia neighborhood of Columbia. As I said earlier, this boat landing is hidden away on the east side of the Congaree River, but police were hoping that the dogs would be able to pick up a scent or something.
Surprisingly, they did. The bloodhounds led police from the spot of Jack's murder to a nearby business. This business, which has remained unidentified in official reports, would pop up in the news a little over a year later.
That's when another murder took place in Columbia, South Carolina.
Kimberly Brown, a thirty-year old woman living in the northern outskirts of Columbia, worked at the same Moncrief Army Health Clinic as Jack Robinson. In fact, she had worked alongside Jack for over five years, as a blood technician at the military hospital.
Kimberly didn't have any children of her own, but she was the guardian for her niece, three-year old Layah Brazil. In some news reports, Layah is reported as being Kim's daughter, but Kim was taking care of the girl for the foreseeable future, due to issues with Layah's estranged parents.
On Tuesday, November 18th, 1997, Kimberly failed to show up to work. This immediately surprised her coworkers, who noted her absence because she had never failed to show up before.
Kimberly's mother, Cora, had tried calling Kimberly a few times. When her daughter failed to answer the phone, Cora became incredibly concerned. On Tuesday, she went over to Kim's apartment, and was surprised to find the front door to the apartment unlocked. Letting herself in, she was shocked to find both Kimberly and Layah missing, but what looked like blood on the carpet.
Cora contacted the Moncrief Army Hospital, who informed her that Kim had not shown up to work, and then immediately called the Richland County Sheriff's Department.
Police began scouring Kim's apartment, looking for any clues. They quickly found Kim's address book, and began reaching out to individuals that stood out: either family, friends, or mere acquaintances.
One person-of-interest quickly emerged. His name was Max Knoten, a young family friend.
Max Knoten was twenty years old at this point in 1997, and he had grown up close to Kimberly's family.
You see, their fathers had joined the Army together, using the "Buddy System." That led to both families going to the same duty stations and growing up alongside one another.
Max was best friends with Kim's younger brother, and that's how the two continued to know one another.
When police reached out to the contacts in Kim's address book, Max admitted to seeing Kimberly in the time period of 9:00 and 10:00 PM on Monday evening. When all was said and done, this became the last known sighting of the woman, making Max the main person-of-interest in the crime.
Police asked Max if he would mind coming into the station to answer some questions, and he agreed. He gave the police a pretty detailed statement regarding his visit to Kimberly's apartment on Monday evening, but then stated that he left at around 10:00 PM and spent the night at a co-worker's home.
When police reached out to this co-worker, he validated the alibi. Later on, however, he would rectify this statement by telling police that he had been asked to do so by Max Knoten; that the younger man had not spent the night at his house, and he had been asked to lie to the police.
Any suspicion police had had of Max would be amplified a hundred-fold after this admission, so they continued to follow through with him as the primary suspect.
Police questioned Max again, on Wednesday evening, and this is when his stories began to fall apart. When questioned, he made a statement to the effect of visiting Kimberly's apartment, leaving, blacking out for a period of hours, and then waking up at the same Rosewood Boat Landing that Jack Robinson had been murdered.
Over the next 24 hours, Max gave increasingly sketchy statements to interrogators. After admitting to having consensual sex with Kimberly in his third confession, police were certain that something terrible had happened to the young woman, as well as the niece she was the guardian of.
The body of Kimberly Brown was found by fishermen in the Congaree River that evening, Wednesday. It would take a few hours to identify her and locate her cause-of-death, but by the time police had both squared away, Max Knoten had already confessed to the crime and told the full story.
Apparently, he had gone over to Kim's apartment on Monday evening, where he had attacked Kimberly Brown, hitting her in the head with a sharp object, before raping and strangling her. He wrapped up Kimberly in a blanket, putting her in his trunk, then leaving at the break of dawn.
He took Kim's three-year old niece, Layah, with him, telling her that they were going to go find her aunt. The girl was still wearing her pajamas that morning, when Max Knoten pulled into the Rosewood Boat Landing parking lot, just off of Highway 601.
The body of Kimberly Brown was found on Wednesday, nude but still wrapped up in that blanket. She had been sexually assaulted before her death, giving police a clear motive for the crime.
The body of three-year old Layah Brazil, however, wasn't found until Thursday morning. She was still wearing the pajamas from Monday evening, and police would identify her cause-of-death as drowning.
Poilce searched the trunk of Max Knoten, and discovered blood smears that were consistent with Kimberly Brown.
He would face trial in 2001, eventually being convicted on two counts of murder and kidnapping, with a additional charge of sexual assault. He was given two consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole, as well as an additional thirty years for the sexual assault.
So, you may be wondering why, in an episode dedicated to Jack Robinson, I told you about the murders of Kimberly Brown and Layah Brazil.
Well, while it does seem like an odd choice of a sidebar, that case would go on to directly affect the investigation into Jack Robinson. As always, my goal is to understand why a case or story remains unresolved, and this is a major factor.
After the murders of Kimberly Brown and Layah Brazil, police began to piece together the case. And several aspects of the case matched up with Jack Robinson's death.
After all, Kim and Jack knew one another, having worked together for half-a-decade. Then, you have the fact that Jack was murdered and Kim's body was dumped at, what all records indicate, the same boat ramp.
And, not for nothing, you remember the bloodhounds I told you about? The dogs brought in after Jack's murder to pick up a scent? Those dogs led police straight from the spot Jack was murdered to a nearby business. Max Knoten happened to work at that business.
So, police were pretty certain that the case against Max Knoten for Jack Robinson's murder would come together quite easily. They essentially told this to Tammy, Jack's daughter, assuring her that throughout the trial of Max in the early 2000s, they would learn more and put together a case against him.
To Tammy and the rest of Jack's family, they were certain that Max Knoten was the man who had killed their father.
However, if you are a long-time listener of this podcast, you can probably guess what happens next. Nothing is as easy at it seems.
When one truly examines the case against Max Knoten for the murder of Jack Robinson, the faults are self-evident.
First of all, the physical characteristics. The suspect in Jack Robinson's case was described as a Hispanic man, roughly five-foot-five, and somewhere between 150 and 180 pounds. He also had dark hair and a mustache, and described as being in the age range of twenty-five to thirty-five.
Max Knoten, on the other hand, is a black man who stands an inch or so above six feet, and weighed approximately 200 pounds at the time of his arrest. He does have dark hair, but showed no signs of a mustache, and he was only twenty at the time of his arrest in late 1997. That would make him 18 or 19 at the time of Jack Robinson's murder.
Then, you have to take the motives into account.
Max Knoten attacked Kimberly Brown because he was going to sexually assault her. There's no proof that the crime against Jack Robinson was comparable; in fact, it seems like he was killed over a money dispute.
Lastly, you have the information was Jack was stabbed at the Rosewood Boat Landing, and then left. Meanwhile, Kimberly was killed beforehand and then dumped there, along with her niece.
When you look at the facts, they just don't match up. Other than a coincidence or two, the crimes are just not compatible with one another.
However, we do know that police investigated Max Knoten for the death of Jack Robinson for those early years in the investigation, where information was much easier to come by than it is now. We can see that they didn't do so deliberately, in an effort to curtail the investigation... they did it because Max was the only suspect that they could muster up, based on the evidence they had.
They would get some new evidence in the time period after Max Knoten became a person-of-interest, when investigators discovered a rusty knife nearby the scene of the crime.
The knife, which appeared to have been there for some time, was a large hunting knife that had become rusty after exposure to the elements. It was found just a short distance away from where Jack Robinson had been stabbed, leading police to believe that it might be the murder weapon.
They hoped to test the knife for DNA, but because it had been outdoors for a long period of time, any tests would be too inconclusive. Police were unable to verify that it was the murder weapon, but articles published as recently as the last six months indicate that they're still hopeful. Investigators hope that advances in DNA technology will allow them to test the knife more conclusively in the near-future.
Over the years, Jack's only child, Tammy, believed the case of her father's murder was solved.
Police had told her that Max was their one and only suspect, and that even though they didn't have enough evidence against him at the time, they believed him to be the killer.
However, in the mid-2000s, Tammy was browsing the internet when she came across something unusual. On the Richland County Cold Case website, the Sheriff's Department had her father's murder listed as an unsolved cold case.
She got in touch with the investigators, and discovered that they had dropped all assumptions about Max Knoten years beforehand. They had - regretfully - never contacted Tammy to inform her of this development.
Tammy looks back at this as one of the major mistakes of the investigation. All of those years, which she could have been using to act as her father's advocate, were now gone.
She has spent the past decade trying to make up for lost time. She has joined up with several victim advocacy groups, such as Project: Cold Case, based out of Florida. She penned a segment for a book the group published not too long ago, called "Grief Diaries," where she writes about her father's case and the issues that arose after his death.
Tammy is also hoping to raise awareness for her father's case, in the hopes that it may someday be solved. She has remained active online, posting facts from her father's case in almost every comment or message board available, and has spread the suspect's sketch as far as she can.
I was able to speak with Tammy while making this episode, and one thing is certain: she loves to talk. In our first phone conversation, which lasted about an hour, I believe I spoke for all of three minutes. She led me through the entire case of her father - the facts, theories, rumors, allegations, all of it - in a whirlwind of emotion. I truly feel for her, and the rest of her family, who believe that Jack's case was pushed off to the side and quickly forgotten.
For their credit, the Richland County Sheriff's Department have admitted their part in the sidetracked investigation. They openly admit that there was very little evidence to go off of, and because Jack Robinson was living such a private life at the time of his death, that there's not much they can do. Without any physical evidence to go on, there's no way to track down the suspect.
Tammy has many of thoughts about the suspect, and who he may be. I won't try to paraphrase, so I'll just let her do the talking.
I must unfortunately close out the episode by telling you that, as of this moment, the 1996 murder of sixty-five year-old Jack L. Robinson, remains unresolved.