A Sniper's Bullet Brings Death and Heartbreak, Smashing the Dreams of a Girl and Her Parents
01/28/1991 at 01:00 AM EST
It was easy to see what mattered most in the life of 14-year-old Robyn Dabrowski; she had circled all the important dates on her calendar. This month they were Jan. 17, her mother's birthday; Jan. 23, the day Robyn's braces would finally come off, and, of course, the dates of all her basketball games. Robyn was passionate about the sport. She was the clear standout of the freshman girls' team at New Bedford High School in Massachusetts. Tiny but scrappy, the pixieish 4'10", 85-lb. point guard hoped to win a college scholarship one day, and her room was festooned not with posters of rock stars but with pictures of the Portland Trail Blazers' guard Danny Ainge.
On Saturday, Jan. 5, another date she had circled, Robyn bounded aboard the yellow school bus that was to take her and her teammates to a game on Cape Cod. She plunked herself down next to her best friend, Susan Arruda, 14. Up front, acting as a team chaperone, sat her mother, Jo-Ann, 41. Over the players' laughter and the blare of rock music, Robyn kept calling out to her mother. "She was just so proud her mom was on the bus," says team coach Regina Jackson. "She kept teasing her, saying, 'Mom, Mom, I love you.' "
The words were not intended as a farewell, but tragically that is what they became. As the bus passed a wooded area along Route 25 in Bourne, Mass., a loud pop exploded above the girlish chatter. "I knew what that sound was," says bus driver Elmer "Red" Wassail, 65, a former Green Beret and 30-year Army veteran. "I looked in the mirror and saw Robyn stand up. She clutched her chest, looked toward her mother as if she were trying to get to her, and then slumped down in the seat." In the moment it took Wassall to pull to a stop, lighthearted laughter-some of Robyn's teammates thought she was joking—had turned to confused panic. "Something's wrong!" one of the players yelled. Robyn's mother had rushed to the back, where she stood over her daughter's motionless body, crying and calling her name. Robyn was bleeding slightly from the nose and mouth, and Susan Arruda desperately tried to help. "I know CPR, come on!" she shouted. She compressed Robyn's chest while Coach Jackson tried to breathe life into the girl's mouth. "Susie wouldn't stop trying," says Jackson, her eyes filling with tears at the memory. "She kept asking if there was a pulse. The kids were all encouraging her. They all pulled together. They were all hoping..."
But Robyn never responded. "I could hear her gurgling," says Jackson. "Everyone was crying. I thought to myself, 'God, someone did this to her.' It was like a nightmare."
Robert Dabrowski, a 40-year-old letter carrier in New Bedford, first heard the news from a woman on his delivery route. He was told that Robyn, his only child, had been hurt in a hunting accident. He assumed she'd been only slightly injured, but when he arrived at Wareham's Tobey hospital, he immediately sensed the worst. "When I got there, nobody seemed in a hurry to bring me to Robyn," he recalls. "Then I saw this priest. He started to say, 'We're sorry...' I could hear my ex-wife Jo-Ann crying hysterically, and then they told me Robyn was dead."
Dabrowski couldn't believe it—wouldn't believe it. "I wanted to see her," he says. "When I went in, well, there was blood all over. The doctors said she didn't suffer, that she died within 20 seconds. But it's so hard to accept.... It makes no sense."
Senseless though it was, police say Robyn's death was no accident. Plymouth County District Attorney William O'Malley revealed after the shooting that a Mercedes sedan, traveling a short distance behind the school bus, was also hit by gunfire, though no one was injured. In previous months, it turned out, three other motorists had reported being shot at while driving on or near Route 25. A search of the area yielded no physical clues, but an anonymous tip four days after Robyn's death led to the arrest of three suspects. William Ferrara, 42, of Wareham, Mass., and Scott E. Chipman, 24, of Dennis, Mass., were charged with first-degree murder, and Caren A. Stenroos, 32, of East Wareham, was charged as an accessory after the fact. All have pleaded not guilty.
Though the motive for the shooting remained a mystery, all three suspects seemed to inhabit a disorderly netherworld on the fringe of society. Chipman, described by neighbors as a "terror," had been convicted of arson in 1984. He was unemployed, as was Ferrara, who hadn't held a job in 10 years. Stenroos, who had been undergoing psychiatric treatment for depression, had twice in the past year been accused of child neglect, and two of her children, a 6-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl, had been placed in foster homes last year. Her two older children had been adopted by their paternal grandparents. One neighbor complained that there would be noisy drunken fights at Stenroos' house at all hours. "They turned this nice quiet street into a ghetto," she said. "Everybody in the neighborhood wanted to get her out."
Though the arrests calmed the fears of area residents, they did little to ease the trauma in Robyn's largely blue-collar hometown of New Bedford (pop. 100,000). At her funeral some 1,200 mourners filled St. Joseph's Church as Robyn, dressed in her red-and-white basketball uniform, was eulogized. At the funeral mass, Susan Arruda read the 23rd Psalm. Later, Robyn's teammates stood at tearful attention as her pink casket was borne from the church. Among the funeral flower arrangements was one from Danny Ainge, who had learned of Robyn's devotion. "So many people will miss her," says her classmate Stephanie Andrade, 14. "Sometimes I can't go to sleep at night. I keep seeing her face. Everyone at school is still so upset."
To help deal with the grief and the horror, New Bedford officials brought in additional guidance counselors from around the city. So far, more than 400 of the high school's students have sought them out. Others search for gestures to express their grief. Some school athletes have worn black arm bands in competition; the swim team made buttons bearing Robyn's jersey number, 13, and sold them to raise money for a scholarship fund in her name.
Robyn's parents remain inconsolable. Her mother, Jo-Ann, was "incredibly close to Robyn—like a sister," says Robert Dabrowski. She could not bring herself to speak publicly. Robert, who has been divorced from Jo-Ann for about two years, finds some solace in talking about his daughter, as if the vividness of his memories might somehow restore her to him. "From the time Robyn was barely 3," he says, "she'd struggle to throw the ball into the hoop. Sometimes I'd have to hold her up on her toes, but she loved it. She was always with a basketball, bouncing it, dribbling it between her legs, whatever..."
Then he is abruptly brought back to the present. "She was getting her braces off this week, and she was so excited,' " he says, staring at a picture of his daughter taken on the night of her junior high school prom. "She was beautiful. It was her first—and last—date." He smiles, and adds fondly, "She didn't even know how to walk in heels. She lived in sneakers." But even these tender thoughts hurt. There is indescribable pain in Robert Dabrowski's voice when he says, "We had tickets for March 3, when Ainge would be playing the Celtics at the Boston Garden."
Six days after Robyn's death, struggling still to bring his despair and outrage under control, Robert sits nervously in the back row of a Plymouth District courtroom, waiting for the arraignment of the three suspects in his daughter's killing. "I had to come; I had to set eyes on them," he says. Ferrara, although in custody, is hospitalized for pains in his chest. But as Stenroos and Chipman pass silently, in handcuffs, Dabrowski clenches his teeth and squeezes tightly the hand of his girlfriend, Deborah Mellow. Suddenly, in an explosion of fury and grief, he points his finger at Chipman and screams, "You scum!" Then he buries his head in Mellow's shoulder and weeps.
"I'm going to miss Robyn so much," he says. "I was so looking forward to watching her grow up—to her dating and all those things. I'd always dreamed of the day I would walk her down the aisle and dance that father dance with her. But it's gone now," he says with a sigh. "All of it. She's gone.
Karen S. Schneider, S. Avery Brown in New Bedford