Eric Robert’s life bears little resemblance to that of his peers on death row.
Most condemned killers have troubling personal stories and long criminal histories.
Donald Moeller was beaten, demeaned and made to watch his biological mother’s drug use and sexual behavior. Elijah Page, executed in 2007, moved from house to house with substance-abusing parents then bounced from foster home to foster home in several states.
Rodney Berget suffered with an alcoholic father and abuse, and was first sent to the adult prison system at age 15. His brother, Roger, was executed in 2003 in Oklahoma, eight years before Rodney Berget and Robert would commit a capital crime in the murder of Corrections Officer Ron Johnson.
Robert’s life looked nothing like Berget’s. He will be put to death at 10 p.m. Monday.
Robert was the child of a single mother who helped raise his younger sister in his home state of Wisconsin. He had a stellar academic record, put himself through college and had a successful career in wastewater treatment. He was an emergency medical technician and frequent community volunteer who once helped erect a monument to a murdered sheriff.
He grew close to his longest-term love interest through her son, whom Robert coached on a Little League team.
In 2005, before he was sentenced to 80 years in prison for a Meade County kidnapping, his sister told the judge that her brother “has done more good in his life than many people in this world.”
This week, the state of South Dakota intends to put Robert to death by lethal injection for the brutal, premeditated killing of Johnson on April 12, 2011.
The rage that fueled the killing was a measure of how far he’d fallen from the life he once had. Robert said so himself in court one year ago. He’d refused to let his lawyer mention his good deeds.
“To be honest with you, the good acts that I’ve done in my life were not mentioned here, because they are irrelevant to these proceedings,” Robert said. “That person who did good things no longer exists.”
Last week, through his lawyer Mark Kadi, Robert reiterated his reasoning for staying quiet about his prior kind acts during sentencing for the Johnson murder “My client feels that none of the good things he’s done justify the killing of Ron Johnson,” Kadi said.
Eric Robert was born May 31, 1962, in Massachusetts. His father was gone by the time he was 6 months old. Robert, his mother and younger sister moved to Hayward, Wis., when he still was young.
His sister, Jill Stalter, declined to comment for this story but testified on her brother’s behalf in 2005.
She said then that Robert was the father figure in their house as their mother worked three jobs and studied to earn a college degree.
“My brother took care of everything. He took out the trash, he made sure dinner was on the table, he even did grocery shopping. He got me my first dog. He did everything. He even shoveled snow, and in Hayward, it’s a lot of snow,” Stalter said. “He put himself through college by working weekends and during summer breaks. He didn’t take a penny from my mother because she was putting herself through college.”
He was a good student, as well, graduating 18th in his class at Hayward High School in 1980. He returned to Hayward after earning a biology degree with a chemistry minor at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.
In 2000, he applied for a job as the wastewater treatment supervisor for the city of Superior. On his job application, released as part of a records request by the Argus Leader, Robert wrote that he hadn’t missed a day of work in 10 years.
He got along well with co-workers. Frog Prell, the city attorney, started work for the city in 2000, just a few months after Robert, whom family and friends knew as “Ranger.”
Robert used to drop by the office to joke around, quiz Prell about small towns in Wyoming, which is Prell’s home state. The short interactions left an impression on Prell, who didn’t know Robert was on death row until the records request came across desk this month.
“If you’d have asked me what I thought about Eric Robert before this, I’d have said he seemed like a pretty cool guy,” Prell said.
Dan Romans, the wastewater administrator for Superior, called Robert a “natural-born leader” who accomplished more in 18 months on the job than others had for decades.
Robert eventually lost his job in Superior, though, because he failed to comply with a city residence requirement, but he continued to consult with the city afterward.
He was living in a home in the rural community of Drummond, more than an hour southeast of Superior.
Violent toward women
It was in Hayward, almost a decade before, where he met the woman with whom he’d later build the house in Drummond.
That woman, who testified at Robert’s presentence hearing last year in Sioux Falls but declined to comment for this story, said there was an undercurrent of anger in him even then — one most people didn’t see.
“He was an aggressive, mean person who didn’t like other people and had to be in control,” she said the woman, whom the Argus Leader is not identifying because she is a victim.
She’d gone to high school with Robert but didn’t know him well at the time. They got reacquainted in 1992, when he was coaching her son’s baseball team. Robert soon was living with the woman and her two children.
“We got along fine at first,” she said, but then “he showed me his true colors.”
She recounted three specific incidents in court from their decade-long romance.
They rented an apartment in Cable, Wis., as they built their house, she said. One day, as they sat on the couch together, Robert backhanded her over an offhand remark.
She hit him back, she said, then recoiled when she realized that he was sure to retaliate.
“He punched me in the mouth so hard it pushed my bottom teeth through my lip,” she said.
Robert, who knew most of the employees in the local ER through his work as an EMT, told the doctors and nurses she’d slipped on icy steps while carrying in groceries.
He had similar explanation for her appearance at the ER with a broken foot years later. She called police on him after a separation, when he showed up at her house drunk and started a fight that ended with him pulling her around the yard by her hair.
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