By Carolyn Banks,
the author of several suspense novels and a forthcoming children's book, "Granger Pinkbelly: The Puppy From Hell"
Tuesday, June 10, 2003; Page C08
ANYONE YOU WANT ME TO BE
A True Story of Sex and Death on the Internet
By John Douglas and Stephen Singular
Scribner. 308 pp. $25
In his youth, John Robinson was an Eagle Scout and a seminarian. In his fifties, he advertised himself as a sadist looking for love slaves. A balding grandfather, he was accused of murdering several of the women who answered his kinky call. He stored their bodies in barrels. Prosecutors used these grisly finds to secure Robinson's conviction and his death sentence.
The Internet -- in both its enormous range of contact and its capacity for anonymity -- enabled John Robinson to commit his crimes. Not only did it allow this pudgy family man to spend his leisure hours trolling for victims, it also permitted those victims -- women with dark longings -- to voice their long-hidden needs.
Robinson was ruthless. He used whatever promise would work as a lure. His wife, Nancy, was frequently a room away while he tapped away at his keyboard, scouring cyberspace for prey. Nancy never seemed to have suspected this shadow side of her husband.
"Anyone You Want Me to Be" is a riveting story. The authors, John Douglas and Stephen Singular, see this true crime book as a cautionary tale. Douglas, a former FBI profiler, says in an introduction that the story of John Robinson "needed to be shared with those looking for romance and sex on-line." Indeed.
At first, Robinson's crimes could be described as petty scams, some even amusing. He was, for instance, named the Kansas City Area Association of Sheltered Workshops' Man of the Year in 1977. The thing was, he had engineered the entire campaign. Even the accolade had been a nonexistent honor until Robinson nominated himself for it and forged letters supporting the nomination. The Kansas City Times covered the event, and later excoriated Robinson when the sham was exposed. Other exploits included posing as a lawyer and collecting legal fees, as well as claiming to have been the person who secured financing for Sylvester Stallone's "First Blood."
But then things turned serious. Women who came to work for Robinson in the various shady businesses he set up began to disappear. The first was never found, though relatives received letters purporting to have been written by her long after her disappearance. Robinson skated on that one, but he went on to use the letters-from-afar motif over and over again in subsequent disappearances. Apparently, even the women found rotting in the barrels had continued to send letters home long after they had died.
Robinson continued his unholy life, it seems, for some 20 years. The letters home were not the only way Robinson avoided arrest and prosecution. Living near the Kansas-Missouri border, he also played jurisdictional games that kept him free. It's ironic, and sad: He used high-tech means to find his victims, and counted on gut-level police rivalries -- the ultimate low-tech sort of rivalry -- to keep out of the law's reach. Even after the third woman connected to him disappeared, no investigation was launched.
"Anyone You Want Me to Be" also gives an amazing portrait of the wide range of women Robinson was able to draw into his sadomasochistic web. Granted, these were women who clicked on to the Internet sites where Robinson lurked. Still, they are far from being the one-dimensional, desperate souls that we might imagine. There are Lore Remington, a Nova Scotia housewife; Alecia Cox, an aspiring entertainer; and Vickie Neufeld, a Galveston psychologist. Robinson incurs Neufeld's wrath and is reported to the police for stealing a box containing her sex toys -- which she claims have great sentimental value.
The John Robinson case bequeathed to investigators a new designation for a new class of murderer -- the cyberserial killer. Imagine how the jurors in Robinson's Kansas City trial learned about the S&M subculture where Robinson stalked his prey. They heard about Gorean chat rooms. ("Gorean had no safe words and no rules; submission to the dominant was total. The Gorean concept had been laid out in twenty-five science fiction novels about the planet Gor, written by a philosophy professor named John Norman. On Gor, all the women were slaves to men and had to satisfy their every sexual desire.") They watched a 39-minute videotape of John Robinson in flagrante delicto with one of his eventual murder victims. And yet another irony: " . . . as the video neared its end and the sex finally stopped, everyone saw a fragment of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory pop up on the screen. Nothing could have underscored Robinson's double life, as doting grandfather and sexual predator, any better."
The book fits the authors' description of the trial, which, they write, "was, in some ways, about sex among unglamorous people and how the Internet had unleashed so many pent-up possibilities. The case evoked all the questions and mysteries about human desire and the human longing for connection."