The wrong man: Behind the wrongful conviction in the Rhonda Boggs case

Eric Lyttle

This story appeared in the February 2005 issue of Columbus Monthly.

It was barely 6:30 in the morning when Diane Menashe arrived at her law office, hoping to catch up on a growing backlog of work. Soon, however, the morning's peace was interrupted by a phone call. As a criminal defense attorney and former public defender, she knew dawn phone calls usually meant someone was in trouble. This was no exception.

The caller, who identified herself as Debbie Robinson, was crying and "panicked," says Menashe, and understandably so. Robinson's husband, Nick, had just been charged with murder.

Debbie tried to explain what she knew, but it wasn't much. A night earlier, Nick's mother had called and said that Rhonda Boggs, the 38-year-old wife of Nick's close friend and second cousin, David Boggs, had been stabbed to death, apparently in front of the Boggs' 2-year-old daughter, Amanda.

Nick was stunned. He'd just seen Rhonda a week earlier, when he'd stopped over to help fix her washing machine. He tried to call David's brother, Scott, but got no answer. He dialed other friends and family, but those he reached knew little more than what had been in a television news report. Feeling helpless, he started driving toward Summit Station, near Pataskala-about 45 minutes away from his Lancaster home-where most of the Boggs family members lived. That's when the nightmare began.

Not 15 minutes after Nick left, a handful of Pataskala police cars arrived at the Robinson house. "They filled the front yard," says Debbie. "I opened the door and one of them says, 'Can we talk to you?' I said, 'Sure.' " She says things started out innocuously. "They were asking about Rhonda, 'When was the last time you saw her?' and, 'What was your relationship to her?' And then they started to ask, 'What would you say if we told you we have proof that Nick and Rhonda were having a relationship?' "

The cops told her Nick had been stopped after he left home and was now at the Lancaster police station being questioned. "At one point I asked [a detective], 'Should I call an attorney for my husband?' " says Debbie. "He answered, 'No, your husband's a big boy. He can take care of himself.' I said, 'Will he be back tonight?' and they told me, 'He'll be home later.' I sat up all night waiting for him." He never returned.

At about 6 am, Nick called Debbie and told her he'd been arrested. "He says, 'I don't remember doing this, but they say I did it.' I said, 'Did what?' and he says, 'Killed Rhonda.' He says, 'You know I'd never hurt Rhonda. It must have been the alcohol.' "

An inmate in the Licking County jail had referred Nick to an attorney. "Call Diane Menashe," Nick told his wife. "Ask her if she'll accept my call."

Nick called Menashe later that morning. He told her how the police had pulled him over on St. Rt. 37, just minutes from home. "They put me on the ground, put a knee in my neck and a gun in the back of my head," says Nick. "I kept asking, 'What's going on here?' They put me in the back of the car. I remember one of them saying, 'Does that look like blood on his hat?' "

He told her how he'd been interrogated for more than 10 hours; how the police had refused to believe him, how they'd tried to fill his head with various scenarios. He told her how he'd agreed to take a polygraph test, but was so tired he couldn't hold his head up while it was being administered and failed it. He told Menashe how exhausted and scared and desperate and bewildered he'd felt as the police kept calling him a liar, and threatening him with the death penalty if he didn't come clean. Finally, he said, he just gave up.

"In my head, I'm getting very confused. I'd been answering questions for six, eight, ten hours," says Nick. "And I start thinking, 'What do they want to hear?' So I start telling them this story."

Pataskala police didn't call it a story. They called it a confession. He said he'd stopped to see Rhonda after leaving a bar. He was drunk. He was feeling frisky. He tried to kiss Rhonda and she pulled away. He was having trouble standing up and stumbled toward her. She thought he was getting aggressive and pulled out a knife. Nick said he tried to grab it, but she wouldn't let go. He fell drunkenly toward her, knocking her down. He got up. She didn't. Her head was bleeding. He didn't know what to do. He ran.

The marathon interrogation ended at 4:52 am. It was April 30, 2002, and Robinson was charged with the murder of Rhonda Boggs. "When I first heard the steel doors shut behind me is when I really realized, 'I just fucked up,' " says Robinson. "I'd just confessed to something I didn't do."

For the Pataskala police, it seemed like a nice piece of work-a murder on Sunday evening, a confession on Tuesday morning. But the story of who killed Rhonda Boggs wasn't done spinning. Far from it, in fact: Investigative work done by Robinson's defense team would produce a remarkable turnaround. Charges in the death-penalty case against Nick Robinson ultimately were dropped by the Licking County prosecutor's office, and after nine months in jail, he walked out a free man. Not only did the lawyers and their highly regarded private investigator collect enough evidence to free Robinson, they also handed the prosecutor a new suspect, turning up clues that included a key piece of evidence-a diamond earring that belonged to the victim.

Four months after Robinson's case was dismissed, a Licking County grand jury indicted Chris Williams for aggravated murder. Williams was a friend of David Boggs, with a history of erratic-and criminal-behavior. Williams's trial is set to begin Feb. 21.

It wasn't like Rhonda Boggs to be late for work. Likable and pretty, with a ready smile, Boggs was so dependable, in fact, that virtually all the employees at the small Hamilton Home Products office in Canal Winchester were asking, "Where's Rhonda?" on that last Monday in April. Even Amanda's day-care provider called her work wondering, "Have you heard from Rhonda?"

"Everyone knew that if she was sick, or if Amanda was sick, she would have called," says Rhonda's sister, Kim Davis.

After an hour or so, the office consensus was that Boggs must have broken down somewhere along the 20 miles she drove each day from her home near Pataskala. Co-worker Gary Pawlowski set out on her route to look for her. Soon, after a fruitless search, he was pulling into the Boggses' driveway. He knocked, and then pounded, on both the front and back doors, to no avail. As he was about to leave, however, a movement caught his eye. It was tiny Amanda, peeking out the window.

Pawlowski convinced the child to open the door. What he saw when he entered was horrifying: Rhonda's body was lying on the blood-covered floor of her small kitchen. He called 911, and police rushed to the house.

Rhonda Boggs had been stabbed 19 times around the head, neck and shoulders, apparently with a black-handled steak knife that was found under her body. Police began piecing together the events of the night before. Rhonda's husband, David, was in the Licking County jail at the time of the murder, serving a two-week sentence for failing to pay child support for a son from a prior relationship. Rhonda had driven to her mother-in-law's house the night before to await a 6:30 call from her husband, and returned home a short time later. Police found the remnants of a casserole on the stove, and both Rhonda and Amanda were fully dressed, indicating the murder had taken place sometime before the girl's usual bedtime-probably between 8 and 10 pm.

The biggest clue, however, was provided by the murder's one eyewitness. When police asked Amanda what happened, she made a motion toward her neck and said her mother fell down. When police asked who had been there, she answered, "Uncle Nick." Police relayed that information to David Boggs, who told them "Uncle Nick" was his second cousin, Richard Nicholas Robinson.

Matt Sauer has been a private investigator for 21 years, one of only a handful in Central Ohio who work the big cases. His plate is usually full, as 25 to 30 attorneys in town utilize his services regularly. In December, he was working on eight death penalty cases simultaneously. His services are highly sought after because he's good. He's not intimidating, not slick. He has a calm, kind demeanor-very Columboesque. "He knows how to talk to people," says Menashe. "People trust him."

But even Sauer was amazed at how quickly he was able to punch holes in the prosecution's case-and in Robinson's confession. After getting a copy of the case file from Menashe, Sauer immediately began trying to account for Robinson's whereabouts on the night of the murder. Robinson said he spent much of that day-from about 10 am to 7 pm-at a golf outing at Willow Run sponsored by Merry Melody's, a bar on Columbus's southeast side that Robinson frequented. After the golf outing, many of the participants-including Robinson-returned to the bar for a steak dinner and raffle. He told Menashe that he didn't leave Merry Melody's until after 10 pm, and Sauer found witnesses who confirmed that.

As Robinson was making the 30-minute drive from the bar back home to Lancaster, he'd called Debbie on the cellphone. She knew he was drunk and got mad. "We were talking, and fighting, practically the whole time I was driving back," says Nick. Debbie later showed Menashe phone records that backed up Nick's story. "I knew if I went home, we'd just get into another argument," says Robinson. "I'd had enough. I stopped at another bar-the Fairview Inn in Lancaster-and played some pool. I got home about 1:30, heated up my steak in the microwave and went out to the garage to eat it. I was trying to avoid Debbie."

Sauer also located witnesses who placed Robinson at the Fairview Inn that night. What's more, Sauer says people at both bars remembered what Nick was wearing. It was a T-shirt with a crude slogan on it-"something about tits and tires," says Sauer. If Robinson had stabbed Boggs 19 times, in the midst of an apparent struggle in her kitchen, Sauer wondered, "Wouldn't there have been blood on him?" Yet Nick didn't have blood on his clothes, according to witnesses, nor had he changed clothes between bars. And when did he have time to commit this crime?

Sauer decided to find out. He met Menashe one morning, and the two started driving between Merry Melody's and the Fairview Inn, trying different routes, timing each trip. They also drove from Merry Melody's to the Boggs house and then to the Fairview Inn, timing those as well. "There was just no way he could have done it," says Sauer. "Nick's time was accounted for that whole night. Things just weren't adding up."

But Menashe wasn't convinced yet. "Matt's an optimist. I'm a pessimist," she says. "How many clients do I have who say, 'I didn't do it.' They all do. And with Nick, I'm sitting there holding a copy of his confession. Yeah, I was skeptical. I was skeptical that false confessions really existed. I'd never seen one."

Sauer's work wasn't done. "I started looking for other avenues," he says. "I saw in the file that someone had mentioned Chris Williams. I thought, 'There's a name. Let's check this out.' "

Bob Sisco told Pataskala police about the odd visit he'd received the night Rhonda Boggs was murdered. He'd settled in with his fiancée at their home near Buckeye Lake to watch "The Wonderful World of Disney," like they did every Sunday, when Sisco was startled by someone standing at his screen door. It was Chris Williams, whom Sisco had known since high school. But a nasty crack cocaine habit-and everything that went with it, like the sudden appearance of unsavory new friends and a penchant for stealing to support the habit-had turned Williams undependable and untrustworthy, Sisco says.

The final straw had come in September 1997 when Williams robbed two of his closest friends, his roommate, Bob Taylor, and his former roommate, Dave Boggs. Williams and Boggs had known each other since elementary school, and had played together in the rock band Aces High, along with Bob Sisco, for nearly a decade. But there was no such thing as loyalty with a crack addiction. After stealing hundreds of dollars worth of tools from Taylor, Williams drove over to Boggs's and stole most of the band's equipment, including two Fender electric guitars, an amp, a soundboard and three microphones. Much of the stuff was later recovered at Lev's Pawn Shop in the Town and Country shopping center, along with the pawn slips signed by Williams.

Before police could catch Williams, however, he'd robbed a gas station in Columbus, grabbing a woman and holding a knife to her throat. Someone at the station jotted down Williams's license plate, and a deputy sheriff spotted Williams's truck near Cleveland Avenue and Morse Road. Instead of obeying the deputy's order to stop, Williams sped off. A 17-mile high-speed chase ended with Williams racing up Rt. 315-the wrong direction, at rush hour-before officers ran him off the road near the Bethel Road entrance ramp.

Williams pleaded guilty to robbery and assault of a police officer in Franklin County, and two counts of receiving stolen property in Licking County for the items he took from Taylor and Boggs. He served nearly three years in prison before he was paroled, and ultimately a parole violation landed him in Alvis House on Alum Creek Drive in March 2002.

Williams's sudden appearance at Sisco's a month after entering Alvis House was distressing. "Something was definitely wrong with him. He was very peculiar," Sisco says. "He had a pair of glasses on that I'd never seen. He smoked probably a half a pack of cigarettes while he sat here, which was odd because he never smoked much. And he kept getting up and going to the bathroom, and going to the kitchen, and I could hear water running."

Sisco says that during the course of the conversation, he may have told Williams that Dave Boggs was in jail. The next morning, when Sisco heard Rhonda Boggs had been murdered, he got a sick feeling. "I thought, 'Chris,' immediately," says Sisco.

Then he heard that some items had been stolen from the Boggs home the night of the murder, including Dave's guitars again. "I told Dave at Rhonda's funeral, 'I don't think Nick did it. Chris was at my house that night, and there was something going on in his mind other than being high.' "

Sisco says he also called the Pataskala police on a number of occasions after that. "It just kept gnawing at me," he says. "I'd call and say, 'I think you need to investigate Chris Williams.' But they wouldn't listen. They were sticking to their guns. They didn't want to look like a bunch of idiots."

Matt Sauer couldn't believe how quickly the dots began connecting once he began following the Chris Williams trail. Williams had ripped off Boggs before, and he was AWOL from Alvis House the night of Rhonda Boggs's murder, and he was in the area, at Sisco's house, that same night? "I remember calling Diane from the parking lot of the Alvis House and saying, 'You're not going to believe this.' " Menashe was, in fact, starting to believe.

With Williams now firmly in the defense team's cross hairs, Sauer began trying to track Williams's whereabouts around the time of the murder. It turned out Williams had been busy. Allegedly he'd stolen a car from a gas station near the Franklin/Licking county border at 5 am on May 1-two days after the murder. A Coshocton County deputy spotted it four days later in the driveway of Eloise Williams, Chris's mother. The deputy knocked on the door, but as he was being greeted by Eloise, Chris apparently bolted undetected out the back.

According to police records, Williams then broke into a nearby home and stole a number of items from the vacationing residents, including a Subaru Outback, and headed back toward Columbus. There, he dumped the Outback and stole another car at a Shell Station on East Broad Street. Columbus police, however, saw the crime and chased him a short distance before apprehending him. Williams had been arrested on May 5, 2002-six days after the Boggs murder-and was now sitting in the Orient Correctional Institution on a receiving stolen property charge from Coshocton County.

Menashe was starting to get frustrated. As more evidence was piling up, she couldn't even draw a nod from the prosecutor's office. "I'm going to the prosecution with all of this and they're excusing it all away like, 'We've got our guy.' I'm saying, 'If Nick's the guy who did it, let's prove Nick's the guy.' "

What's more, she says, they hadn't tested the murder weapon for DNA. "I'm like, 'Test the knife, test the knife,' and I'm on them constantly," she says. "And they're saying, 'Nah. We've got our guy. We've got a confession.' "

When Menashe couldn't get any cooperation from the prosecution, she turned to Licking County Common Pleas Court Judge Greg Frost (now a federal judge). "We finally went to him to ask him to authorize the funds for us to test the knife ourselves," says Menashe. "We had a lab ready and everything. And Judge Frost says, 'Hold on. Wait a minute. Why is the defense asking to test evidence? That's the prosecution's job.' "

Because Nick Robinson's case file has been sealed, Licking County prosecutor Robert Becker says state law prevents him from discussing the case, though he denies refusing to test the murder weapon. Pa-taskala police chief Chris Forshey didn't return phone calls.

It was January 2003 before the murder weapon was finally tested. Nick Robinson by then had spent nearly nine months in jail. "I'd just resigned myself to the fact that I'd caused myself to pay for something I didn't do, and caused my wife to pay by putting her through all of this," says Robinson. "I'd started to resign myself to the fact that this wouldn't end until I walked into that room and they strapped me in. I even knew what it costs for the chemicals to put someone to death-42 dollars and 15 cents."

The DNA results from the murder weapon, however, provided a large dose of hope. Tests indeed revealed DNA other than the victim's. But it wasn't Robinson's. (There is a possibility that it is Williams's, according to court documents.) Menashe immediately asked Frost for bond reduction, from $1 million to $3,500. Despite prosecution protests, Frost granted it, and within hours, Debbie Robinson was waiting in the Licking County jail lobby for her husband. "He just kept saying, over and over, 'I never thought I was coming out. I never thought I was coming out,' " says Debbie.

It wasn't over: Aggravated murder charges were still pending. A trial date was approaching. And plenty of people believed Nick Robinson was a killer. "I was more scared at home than in jail," says Nick. "I couldn't sleep. I kept thinking people would come and hurt Debbie or come after me."

His fears weren't without cause. One night shortly after his release, Kim Davis-Rhonda Boggs's older sister-visited the Robinson home. "She stood in front of our house," says Nick, "screaming at the top of her lungs, 'You hacked her up!' "

One week after Robinson's release, however, Sauer found another piece of evidence, one that would earn Robinson his freedom. As he was searching area pawn shops looking for Dave Boggs's missing guitars, Sauer passed an Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles office. On a whim, he decided to stop and run a check on the car Chris Williams supposedly owned. Sauer learned that on April 30, 2002-the day after Rhonda Boggs was found dead-Williams had sold his 1988 blue Cadillac, the same car he'd driven to Sisco's house two nights before, to a woman who lived near Main Street and Alum Creek Drive. Sauer went to her house. "She was very upfront with me," he says. "She told me that Chris was out cruising the streets looking for drugs. He needed money. He offered to sell his car for, like, $500. It was a $4,000 car."

He asked the woman if there had been anything in the car. He was stunned when she said that the car had been full of stuff, including a purse with a photo ID, clothes, jewelry and smears inside and out that she said looked like blood. What's more, she said she'd seen the news story of Rhonda's murder and knew the ID in the back of the car belonged to the victim. "She said she didn't come forward because she didn't want to get involved," says Sauer.

The woman said the car later was stolen, though she didn't report it, and dumped, compiling a stack of parking tickets before it was towed. Someone from the police impound lot called the woman, she told Sauer, but she would have had to pay the tickets and the storage fee to get her car back. The woman told the caller, "Keep it." Sauer later learned the car was sold to a junkyard on the west side, flattened and sold to a scrap yard in Canton.

"I said, 'Do you have anything at all left from what you found in the car?' And she said, 'I have one diamond earring,' " says Sauer. She retrieved it and gave it to him.

Excitedly, Sauer took the earring to Menashe and co-counsel Kort Gatterdam. Menashe, however, wasn't ready to turn the earring over to the prosecution. "I didn't want to give them the chance to screw it up," she says. She called Licking County assistant prosecutor Ken Oswalt and asked for a meeting. "I told him there was not to be anyone from the Pataskala police there," says Menashe. "If they were there, I'd leave." She also insisted that Kim Davis be present. "My concern was they'd call Dave Boggs to identify the earring and he'd say, 'I have no idea what earrings she wore.' I wanted a woman there," says Menashe.

In April 2003, the meeting was set. "They just told me they had something they wanted me to try to identify," says Davis. "They wouldn't tell me what it was. I was just thinking, 'Please God, let it be something I can recognize.' "

It turned out the earring was distinctive and particularly meaningful-a gift from Davis to her sister, custom made from a diamond ring. "I pulled out this earring and asked Kim, 'Do you recognize this as being Rhonda's?' and she just starts bawling," says Menashe. "It was like a total TV moment. Even Oswalt said, 'That was unreal.' I told him, 'You guys need to wake up and start smelling the coffee.' "

Ten days later, the Licking County prosecutor's office dropped all charges against Nick Robinson. The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, which had been brought into the case by the prosecutor's office shortly after the DNA results had freed Robinson, conducted its own investigation. It revealed much of what Sauer already had uncovered-that Williams looked like the likely suspect.

On April 28, 2003-the one-year anniversary of the murder-Williams was about to be released from prison after a 13-month stint for a receiving stolen property conviction. Instead, he was met at the prison by BCI agent Gregg Costas, who charged him with another receiving stolen property count linked to the earring. Those charges eventually were upgraded-to aggravated murder, aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary and escape (from Alvis House). Williams's attorney, Don Schumacher, declined to comment for this story.

For Nick Robinson, it was a bittersweet conclusion. "It's not really like starting over where I left off," he says. "It's changed everything-my whole outlook on life."

"He's not the same, and neither am I," says Debbie. "It's a process of trying to relearn each other. We lost everything. By the time it was over, we'd lost three vehicles, our house, our 401K, his job. I auctioned all of our possessions off except a bed, a dresser, a TV and a sofa. When he came home, it was to an empty house. The only thing that he asked was that I keep his dog, and I did."

Menashe wouldn't discuss whether the Robinsons will seek a civil remedy. "You can't put a monetary value on nine months of your life," says Nick Robinson. "How long will it take to go away? Three years? Four years? Ten years? There will be part of this that will never go away. I can't get time back with Debbie or erase what she had to go through."

"It's supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but that's a bunch of bullshit," says Robinson, who says he's stopped drinking and is working again. "We had to prove our own innocence. My justice may come someday. But my main concern is for the victim's family to get justice. It kills me what Amanda has lost now. Rhonda was an amazing mother."