King of Prussia killer Rafael Robb almost got away.
It happened recently and for the third time in the 13 years since the world-renowned former Ivy League economist bludgeoned his wife to death inside his and Ellen Gregory Robb’s Upper Merion Township home.
The only reason he didn’t get away was a very lucky break.
After serving 10 years in prison that he had nearly hustled down to parole after just five years, Robb has been out since 2017 living somewhere near Pittsburgh. He hasn’t yet made good on a $130 million civil damages award he must pay the daughter he left motherless. He told his probation officer he wanted to go to Israel this summer. The state processed the request without telling anyone in his family — or prosecutors, or even his daughter’s lawyers — until it was almost too late.
And all of that was perfectly by the book.
The appalling culprit, I discovered, is a loophole in Pennsylvania’s vast criminal justice bureaucracy. One of the same kinds of loopholes that Ellen Robb’s two younger brothers have worked hard to eliminate in their odyssey of mourning but also enduring frustration over how victims even of horrific crimes can get less respect than killers in this commonwealth.
“I appreciate you looking at this,” Montgomery District Attorney Kevin Steele said after I called to get his account of things Friday, “because I think it’s an area that something bad almost happened — or could have happened — and thankfully didn’t.”
Some background: This was one of the most horrific killings on record in our region. A 2006 attack while Ellen Robb was wrapping Christmas presents at home.
Her husband, a University of Pennsylvania game theorist, so severely beat her on that December day that investigators first thought Ellen’s head had been cracked open by a shotgun blast.
Prosecutors pegged this as premeditated and preemptive: It would keep Ellen from divorcing him after years of mental and physical abuse. Divorce would have meant her husband, a shrewd numbers and probabilities guy, would give up a good chunk of his assets, estimated to be in the millions.
Ellen, a Radnor Township native and mother to their 12-year-old daughter, Olivia, had already consulted a divorce lawyer and made plans to move out. One of her brothers, Gary Gregory, even was staying at a nearby hotel, ready to take her to Boston for a celebratory holiday trip.
Robb initially maintained his innocence. He was among the pallbearers to carry her casket.
When he did eventually confess, it was by offering to do so on the eve of trial. The Montgomery County district attorney at the time, Bruce L. Castor Jr., agreed to ditch murder charges and take a voluntary-manslaughter plea that carried a few years of jail time.
Ellen’s brother Gary, in an interview Thursday during which the business executive repeatedly cried, told me he has been privately fuming about that deal for years.
Robb was granted parole after five years, as part of the 5-to-10-year sentence he received. But the law did not allow any victim’s family members to plead directly to the parole board. Ellen’s family went ballistic, Robb’s parole was rescinded, and in concert with then-State Rep. Mike Vereb, Gary Gregory began working to pass a law that now gives family members that right.
Gary was shocked a few days ago to learn that Robb had requested the Israel travel permission and no one in the family had been contacted. Robb would have been overseas at the same time he was scheduled to appear in court for a contempt hearing relating to the still-unsettled payout of millions owed to his daughter.
Robb, who is under supervision of a state parole and probation officer because of the nature of his crime, did nothing illegal. Nor did the agent. The officer had no obligation to share Robb’s travel request to anyone but a Montgomery County judge for review, Christian Stephens, who oversees parole and probation departments for the state Department of Corrections, told me Friday.
The department, which had been freestanding until a merger a few months ago with the prisons agency, changed its policies this spring so that the Office of Victim Advocate is notified before anyone else is, he said. But Robb’s request was grandfathered under the old policy.
Thank God for Montgomery County Judge Gary Silow. On his own and under no obligation, he contacted Steele’s office a little over a week ago about the request. Prosecutors rushed to the courtroom to argue against it and got a postponement. Robb withdrew his request this past Monday.
“I agree with you 100 percent that it’s a miscarriage of justice,” state Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm said when I called Friday to tell her what I’d discovered. “Surviving family members should never have to be the ones holding the system accountable.” She called Gary Gregory and urged him to fight with her for legislation this fall. She said he agreed.
When we spoke on Thursday, Gary had not known all that I would later learn through my reporting. But he was spot-on with his disgust.
“How does the Department of Probation and Parole not have a gold star in this guy’s file as the only prisoner whose parole has been rescinded in the state? [A guy] who’s got a history of major objection from the community toward his being paroled and they’re endorsing his going outside of the country knowing that there’s all of this contention toward his assets and a civil suit that rewards the victim, his daughter, of appropriate compensation for the loss of her mother, her best friend?”
“It’s astounding,” he added.