COVER SIDEBAR- Pre-jail interview: 'hindsight is 20/20,' says Robinson
There's one party George Robinson will never forget: the one that sent him to jail for 27 months.
Nearly five years after Robinson and his now ex-wife, who has changed her name from Elisa Robinson to Elisa Kelly, were arrested for serving alcohol to teens at the 16th birthday party for one of Kelly's sons, the appeals are up, and on June 11 Robinson and Kelly began serving a 27-month sentence– the harshest sentence anyone around here can remember handed down for serving booze to minors.
And they were originally sentenced to 16 years with eight years suspended, a sentence that stunned the community in 2003, when the Robinsons were led shackled out of Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.
George Robinson, 52, remembers Kelly's son, Ryan Kenty, approaching them about a 16th birthday party. "I said no beer, no alcohol," says Robinson.
According to Robinson, Ryan became upset about not having alcohol at his party, and Robinson says he overheard Kelly tell her son, "Don't worry about George. I'll take care of him."
Elisa Kelly did not respond to requests for comment.
August 16, 2002, the day of the party, Robinson was in his attorney's office and then went to Lowe's to buy two folding tables for the party.
"Hindsight is 20-20," says Robinson, once again in attorney Jonathan Wren's office a fews days before his jail sentence begins. "Of course there are things I could have done differently. Even when I drove up with the folding tables, I could have dumped them and left."
The Robinsons' marriage was in trouble before the party night, and Robinson had left Lisa the week before. Certainly he thinks about how things might have been different had he not gone back.
"I was thrown into the center of a situation I felt I had no control over," he says.
When he went to juvenile court in February 2003, Robinson was expecting something less than the 90 days offered by Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Camblos.
Instead, Judge Dwight Johnson sentenced the pair to six months for each of 16 counts.
"He said on each count, to be served consecutively," says Robinson. "I've been around long enough to know consecutive isn't the same as concurrently."
"This was beyond our expectation," says Wren. "We were going to challenge the search, then accept responsibility. The worst-case sentence was one that met the Commonwealth's recommendation. Instead, the court gave 16 years with eight suspended. He gave the maximum sentence possible."
Robinson remembers the judge saying the party was held one month to the day after one of Ryan's Albemarle High classmates, Brittany Hope Bishop, had died in an alcohol-related accident.
"I don't know if he'd reached his boiling point with underage drinking," says Robinson. "We really thought the court would follow Mr. Camblos' recommendation– 90 days."
The couple got an automatic appeal to Albemarle Circuit Court, and there September 3, 2003, Judge Paul Peatross reduced their sentence– to 27 months, a sentence still unheard of in these parts.
Peatross was unmoved by their remorse, and their intentions to keep the kids safe by taking away the keys.
And Camblos accused the Robinsons of lying to other parents about whether alcohol would be served and then trying to cover up the drinking by swilling vinegar– allegations the couple have denied.
Thus began nearly four years of appeals, until the U.S. Supreme Court recently refused to hear their case.
One of the things that bother Robinson and Wren is that Marc Kenty, Kelly's ex- and Ryan's father, served just 30 days in jail on three counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor for icing down the beer– Lisa Kelly spent $340 in Kroger buying beer and designer drinks- and delivering it.
"If you look at preparation for the party, he had a lot more to do with it than I did," says Robinson.
"It doesn't make sense to me," says Wren about Kenty's sentence. "It sends a confusing message." He mulls the difference of Robinson initially getting 15 years and 11 months more than Kenty, who iced and delivered the alcohol for his own son's party.
And Wren contends there are other issues in the case besides underage drinking. "I think the way the search was conducted was legally impermissible," he says. He believes the Robinsons' backyard, where the teens were drinking, was curtilage, the legal name for the area around a house that the Supreme Court has said has the same protection against unreasonable searches as the inside of the house.
When Albemarle police's then-Corporal Scott Cox came to investigate, he headed toward the backyard rather than the front door. He spotted teens holding what appeared to be alcoholic beverages, and when they saw him, they shouted, "Cops," and fled, according to court testimony.
"He was expecting them to scatter and run like cockroaches," says Wren. That creates exigent circumstances– evidence may be lost so immediate action must be taken– and probable cause.
"You can't do that," says Wren. "The concern here is this gives license to officers to invade what were once Constitutionally protected areas."
Three justices on Virginia's Court of Appeals agreed with him and found the search unconstitutional– but that was not enough to sway to the majority, or the Virginia and U.S. Supreme courts.
"It would be easy to lash out," says Wren, "but it wouldn't do any good."
Since the night of the party, the Robinsons divorced, a contentious battle that went to the Virginia Supreme Court as well.
Wearing knight's armor, Robinson got married again October 16, 2004. Two days later, the Bleak House Road residence he and Kelly had owned in Earlysville, the site of the party, burned to the ground.
"I've basically begun a new life," says Robinson. "I've remarried, I have a 19-month-old daughter who's the apple of my eye, a beautiful new wife who's stood by me in all this."
He's skeptical about how his jail sentence will impact underage drinking. "Me going to jail for 27 months may very well affect the parents of teenagers," he says. "They will think long and hard about their involvement in a party like this one." But as for teens themselves, he compares the effects of his sentence to Prohibition– he doesn't think it will help reduce teen drinking.
Any advice to the parents of teens who want to drink? "If there were an easy answer to that today, there would have been one five years ago," he replies.
"I don't want to sound like I'm trying to garner sympathy, but I'm regretful," he admits.
George Robinson says getting ready for jail is the same as if traveling on a long trip– only without having to pack.
And on the eve of reporting to jail, he says, "I'm regretful for what it's done to my wife, my family and friends who've stood by me."