Ian English, assistant prosecutor for Lucas County, stands Friday outside the building where Cindy Sumner’s body was found in the basement on Sept. 17, 2009.
To Cindy Sumner, everyone was a friend — even the man prosecutors claim enticed her to an abandoned warehouse with a simple text message, “I have a teddy bear for you.”
There, they allege, Elhadi Robbins raped the 20-year-old Toledo woman, killed her, and dragged her body to a water-filled boiler room in the building’s pitch-black basement.
“Elhadi Robbins had a sick obsession with Cindy Sumner,” Ian English, an assistant Lucas County prosecutor, said in a tone normally reserved for the courtroom. “That while everyone was her friend, he would do things to touch her, make comments in her presence, outside of her presence, that were inappropriate, that people felt were inappropriate for someone of her capacity.”
Ms. Sumner, 20, had cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, and learning disabilities. She also had an irresistible smile, a kind heart, a trusting nature. As her grandmother, Rosemary Schumacher, put it, “She never had a wrong thought about anyone.”
But on Aug. 6, 2009, the young woman most often described as “a sweetheart” disappeared. It would be more than a month before her decomposed remains would be found in that dark place.
In a lengthy interview with The Blade, Mr. English laid out the prosecution’s case against Robbins, 47, who was indicted for Ms. Sumner’s murder early in 2010, but died March 28 of this year in the Lucas County jail before his case could go to trial.
Sheriff's deputies said Robbins, who had a history of heart problems, collapsed while showering at the jail. His death is not considered suspicious, although the official cause of death has not been finalized.
Lucas County Coroner James Patrick said last week he was awaiting the results of toxicology tests and a microscopic examination of Robbins’ heart before issuing a final ruling.
For Ms. Sumner’s family, Robbins’ death was God’s verdict, God’s way of sparing them a trial and all that comes with it.
“I believe that God was the judge and the jury, and I believe that he let Elhadi fall in the water, in the shower, and said, ‘I took care of you. I am the judge and jury and this is how you’re going out,’ ” Debbie Sumner, the victim’s great aunt, said. “I feel as if justice has been done. It’s just over.”
Mrs. Schumacher said that after a pretrial hearing for Robbins just two days before he died, she told Mr. English, “Whether he walks or whether he’s convicted, it’s out of my hands, I just want it over with. It’s dragged on for almost four years now and it’s time to put Cindy to rest.”
‘Lord took care of it’
In her mind, she said, “The Lord took care of it.”
Robbins was a registered sex offender with a history of juvenile delinquency and adult felony convictions. He befriended Ms. Sumner as she rode around on a bicycle, once coming to her house to fix her bike — a possession family members said she loved.
Mr. English said Ms. Sumner had at times been to the Elm Street warehouse where a group of homeless people, including Robbins, hung out and sometimes stayed. Those very people told police Ms. Sumner “would politely move away” when Robbins got too friendly with her.
“He would make comments about his desires — sexual desires with Cindy Sumner — to other individuals,” Mr. English said. “The most common quote was, ‘It was creepy.’”
Ms. Sumner frequently rode her bicycle to Jamie Farr Park in North Toledo and sometimes met Robbins there and rode bikes with him. Both were seen at the park the day she went missing.
Mr. English said Robbins actually was interviewed by police soon after Toledo police found Ms. Sumner’s decomposed remains. At that time, he said, police talked to Robbins as a person who knew her rather than as a suspect in her death.
Robbins told police about his friendship with Ms. Sumner, saying they had a consensual sexual relationship. Mr. English said Robbins also steered detectives to a man they checked into and later dismissed as a suspect.
What led police to actively pursue Robbins as a suspect were two stories told by two different men who met him in two different jails — men Mr. English identifes as Brian and Brad.
Both contacted police with detailed accounts of what Robbins had confided to them about how he was infatuated with Ms. Sumner, how they’d been at the park where he tried to have sex with her, and how they went to the warehouse where they’d had relations.
Brian said Robbins told him Ms. Sumner had tried to get her phone from him and scratched at his face. He told him he’d been annoyed that her cell phone kept ringing, and he allegedly told him how he choked her from behind and took her body to the dark basement, carrying a solar landscape light with him.
“Brian, who was not connected to that warehouse, was not connected to Elhadi Robbins or any of these people, he not only knew about the allegation of sex at Jamie Farr Park, he knew about the phone ringing and ringing and ringing, which no one knew about, and he knew about these yard lights,” Mr. English said. “Those were used by people in that warehouse to go in the basement. It gave his story incredible credibility.”
He said Brian and Brad mentioned other details they could not have learned from any other source: that Robbins allegedly said he gave Ms. Sumner a doll but took it back after he killed her, that he left her in different clothes than the ones she was wearing when he attacked her.
A flurry of calls
Mr. English said phone records revealed the text message Robbins had sent to Ms. Sumner as well as the flurry of calls her family made to her the day she went missing. Mr. English said detectives found a shoe print matching Robbins’ on an old water heater near her body, though her remains were too decomposed for them to recover any DNA that could link anyone to the crime.
Robbins’ defense attorney, Ronnie Wingate, said the case was, in a word, circumstantial. A jury, he said, most likely could not have been convinced Robbins was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
“The state, because of prior affiliation or association with her, had jumped to the conclusion that he was the perpetrator, even though there was a sparcity of evidence,” Mr. Wingate said. “Elhadi Robbins was looking forward to his day in court whereby he could have been vindicated.”
While Mr. English said Brian’s testimony in particular would have been “essential” to the prosecution’s case, he conceded that juries do not always see the stories told by jailhouse informants as credible.
In the end, the delays that prevented the case from going to trial — the retirement of the original judge, intensive analysis of evidence, numerous expert witnesses — meant that there would be no trial.
Mr. English — as well as Ms. Sumner’s family members — say they don’t need a trial to believe Robbins did it.
“I’m 100 percent sure that he is the one,” Debbie Sumner said.
Learning the details of the investigation from Mr. English at a recent meeting, she said, was disturbing for her and other family members, who had attended court hearings for more than three years.
“We were very shocked that he lured her with a teddy bear, of all things. She loved them,” Debbie said, fighting back tears. “She was childlike, very friendly, and so sweet, and he took advantage of all that. Does that make us angry? It makes us very angry.”
Although in the judicial system, one is presumed innocent until proved guilty, the case, for all intents and purposes, is closed.
“For those who believe Elhadi Robbins is guilty, he’ll always be guilty,” Mr. Wingate said. “For those who believe he’s innocent, he’ll always be innocent. We will never know because he never did have his day in court.”
For his part, Mr. English said he would not take a case to trial unless he was “absolutely certain the person whose liberty is at stake is guilty of the offenses for which they are charged.”
Moving back into courtroom mode, he recites: “There is no question that Elhadi Ben Ali Robbins brutally attacked and murdered Cindy Sumner on Aug. 8, 2009, at 1510 Elm Street in Toledo, Lucas County, Ohio, and that he secreted her body in the basement of that building where she was eventually found after extensive detective work. In short, he did this, and ultimately he died while being held for the crime he committed.”
“That’s called substantial justice,” he adds.
Since Robbins’ death, Mr. English has reduced his case file on the murder from six cardboard boxes to one. He’s met with Ms. Sumner’s family, gone over the case with them, tried to answer their questions.
Like Ms. Sumner’s grandmother, he’d like it to be over with, would like to see Ms. Sumner rest in peace. It bothers him, though, that the scene of the crime — that warehouse where the basement is darker than any place he’s ever been — is still standing.
“It ought to be torn down,” Mr. English said. “Not only is it an eyesore, it’s a horrible memory.”
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-213-2134.