This is the story of Robin Lee Row.
Sources: Court records from State of Idaho v Robin Lee Row, My Crime Library, a Thoughtco.com article by Charles Montaldo and the book “Deadly Confident” by Nancy Whitmore Poore.
This is the tragic and terrible tale of a young mother whose life of crime includes everything from check fraud, embezzlement, and arson to murder-including filicide (a parent who murders their own child or children).
The Early Years
Robin Lee Cornellier was born on September 12, 1957 in Nashua, New Hampshire. Her parents were 16 year old Virginia and 17 year old Charles Augustus Cornellier. Robin was the oldest of 5 children. The family was very poor. Charles seemed to have difficulty working a steady job and was known to have violent alcoholic binges. However, Robin always has maintained that she was very close with her father. She claimed her mother was cold and distant, but that might have been due to Virginia having to work all the time to keep the family afloat.
There were violent arguments in the home and also, there are allegations that a grandfather was sexually abusing Robin and at least one of her sisters. In her early teens, Robin’s parents divorced which was a very difficult thing for Robin since she rarely saw her father after the split. By age 14 she was pregnant and her mother took her for an abortion. 2 years later, at age 16, she was pregnant again, according to her sister, the father was a boyfriend named Mitch. This time Robin kept the pregnancy. In 1974, she gave birth to a son she named, Keith Cornellier. If Mitch was the father, he was never involved with Keith and it appears Robin was done with him before her son was born.
About a year later in October of 1975, Robin had another baby who she named Kristina Mae. The father was not known. In 1976, Robin’s father, Charles Augustus Cornellier was arrested and convicted of the murder of an antiques dealer during an attempted robbery. According to the Nashua Telegraph Newspaper in an article dated January 27, 1976 “Charles Cornellier – age 35 was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to second degree murder in the June 25, 1975 slaying of the proprietor of the Teri Mortell Antiques shop in Brookline. Mr. Mortell was shot 3 times when he struggled with Cornellier during a robbery.” Robin’s father was incarcerated for life at New Hampshire State Prison.
The First Signs of Trouble
Around the same time as her father was sentenced to prison, Robin met a boy named Wayne Hamilton and they began to date. Wayne was part of a little gang of young men who had a reputation for earning cash by committing petty crimes and also, setting fire to cars. In 1976, one of the guys from the gang implicated both Robin and Wayne in the “arson for hire” car burning schemes. Wayne ended up being given a choice to serve time in jail, or join the military. He ended up enlisting in the marines and left the area. Robin was not arrested.
Shortly after Wayne left in 1977, a fire mysteriously broke out in the apartment complex where Robin lived which forced her to have to move. There aren’t many details about this fire, just that we know it occurred where Robin lived and after the fire she and her two young children moved back in with her mother.
On January 31, 1977 Robin’s daughter, Krystina was found dead in Robin’s bed. She was 15 months old. Robin claimed that she had left Krystina sleeping and gone downstairs for milk. When she returned to her bedroom, the toddler was cold and not breathing. Her death was attributed to SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). At that time, SIDS had only been an accepted term or cause of death for about 9 years, it wasn’t until much later that researchers understood how extremely rare it is for a child older than 12 months to die of SIDS.
Sleepfoundation.org states that the majority of SIDS cases occur when infants are between 0 and 6 months old. However, at the time when 15 month old Krystina was found unresponsive and could not be revived, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome was less understood and no one really suspected anything was wrong when the coroner ruled the death “natural” likely caused by SIDS.
A few months after Krystina’s death, Robin’s boyfriend, Wayne was transferred to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. The two became engaged and Robin moved down south with 3 year old Keith. In March of 1977 she married Wayne and the little family moved into a mobile home off base.
The Second Fire We Know Of
It was in this mobile home where Robin experienced her second residential fire. According to Wayne, a few weeks after their wedding, he was asleep in bed when a loud sound startled him. He woke up to find flames shooting up from the dresser that sat next to the bedroom door. Wayne was able to put the fire out, but he noticed Robin was not in their bed. He found her sleeping on the couch. He later said she had never done that before. That fire was not reported to authorities.
Not long after that fire, Robin was arrested for writing bad checks. She was convicted of forgery and given a 4-year sentence in North Carolina State Penitentiary. By March 1978 she was out on parole, but Wayne was not interested in staying married. Robin moved back to New Hampshire with Keith. It seems as if she failed to comply with the terms of her parole and at some point, a warrant was issued for her from the state of North Carolina.
“This Is Why You Should Have Life Insurance On Your Kids”
Back in New Hampshire, Robin rented a small apartment. Her sister, Terry, had a young daughter and lived nearby. She and Robin would trade watching each others’ kids and because of that, Robin had a key to Terry’s apartment. One night, when Keith was 5 years old and staying with his Aunt Terry, a fire broke out. Terry was awakened by the sound of her daughter and Keith screaming and found the apartment engulfed in flames. Somehow, she managed to escape unharmed with both kids. The fire was devastating. Terry was extremely lucky to have gotten all three of them out safely. The fire department had difficulty identifying what caused the fire. Eventually they ruled it as accidental and possibly electrical. According to Terry at one point when she was discussing the fire with her sister, Robin made a comment to the effect of “this is why you should have life insurance on your kids”.
Tragedy In California
In early 1980, Robin and then 6 year old Keith moved to California. She had a friend who owned a little cabin in a place called Summerville which is in Northern California. It is very remote, and mostly consists of cabins, a store and a little dive bar. The nearest town is Pine Creek. Today, it is known as New Pine Creek and as of the 2010 census it had a population of less than 100 permanent residents. Both Summerville and Pine Creek are located on the California Oregon border. The friend had offered Robin her cabin as a place where Robin and Keith could live free while Robin worked to establish herself.
The cabin was a little two bedroom wood structure with very few amenities. On the night of June 19, 1980 Robin claimed she was woken up by her cat jumping on her face, and she found the cabin was on fire. She barely escaped and she ran to the neighboring home and banged on the door yelling for help. The neighbor ran to the burning cabin and heroically tried to find little Keith. Robin told him that Keith was trapped in the bathroom. The neighbor broke into the bathroom from outside the cabin, but could not find the boy. Eventually, Robin told the man that Keith was actually in his bedroom. The neighbor went to the front of the cabin but found the door was padlocked from the inside. Somehow he was able to get back inside and he crawled along the floor, into Keith’s room and tried unsuccessfully to locate the little boy. Unfortunately, he had to retreat due to the thick smoke and heat. It was not until after the fire had been put out that the badly burned body of 6 year old Keith was found on the floor of his room.
Fire investigators found a portable electric heater in Keith’s room with a pile of clothes pushed up against it (this becomes significant as the story goes on). They noticed that the heater had its switch in the “on” position, even though Summerville, CA was experiencing 90 degree days and very warm nights. Eventually the fire was ruled accidental with the likely cause being the heater igniting the clothing pile in Keith’s room.
Robin claimed she was in the hospital for several weeks due to smoke inhalation though there is no public record to verify that. What is on record is that she received $28,000 of insurance money for a policy she had taken out on Keith’s life. Remember, this was in 1980, so if you account for inflation that is the equivalent of having a little over $88,000 of life insurance today– on a six year old boy! Many people, including the local sheriff in Pine Creek were very suspicious of Robin, but with the fire ruled accidental, no one could be charged for the death of Keith Cornellier Hamilton.
Life Goes On
After she received the proceeds of the life insurance policy she had taken out on Keith, she bought a mobile home and a new car. Apparently there were several strange fires that broke out around the mobile home park where she lived but nothing that was ruled criminal or that resulted in people being hurt. At some point, she moved into an apartment in Pine Creek where she got pregnant, and in December of 1981 she gave birth to a son she named Joshua. Around this same time, she reported her car stolen and it was found totally burned. Robin collected an insurance payment for the loss of the car. In 1982 she was arrested again for financial crimes. This time it was embezzling from her employer. She pleaded guilty to grand theft and was sentenced to CA state prison for 3 years. Some friends in the area took care of Joshua while Robin was in prison. After 9 months, she was released on probation. She stayed in the Pine Creek area and got pregnant again, this time with a daughter who she named Tabitha. There were ongoing disputes about the paternity of both Joshua and Tabitha, but Robin did collect child support from a few different men, though she eventually left California and the men were no longer involved in any of their lives.
By this point in her life, Robin Cornellier had been involved either directly or indirectly with 4 residential fires and a handful of automobile fires. In most of those cases, she stood to benefit. She also had 2 children die while in her care and she had been in prison twice.
The Story Continues In Idaho
In the summer of 1987 Robin decided it was time to leave Northern CA. She did so in a very unreliable car, with very little money and her two kids in tow. There were a few allegations of other fraudulent activities that had happened back in CA so it seems like she may have been fleeing. Apparently, the car she was driving got them as far as Reno, NV and then broke down. At that point, she used the money she had left and bought bus tickets to Boise, Idaho. She later said she had never even heard of Boise before. When Robin, Joshua and Tabitha got off the bus in Boise, it was August of 1987 and she was close to penniless. She ended up finding a shelter, and then some charitable organizations and ultimately the YWCA. (Young Women’s Christian Association) and with their assistance, she was able to get herself and the kids a place to live and ultimately she ended up working for the Y. She was actually well regarded and seemed to do a good job and rose to the ranks of managing one of the YWCA locations.
In March of 1988, Robin met 31 year old Randy Row. Two and a half months after meeting, they were married. Robin, Tabitha and Joshua moved in with Randy and ultimately they ended up renting a duplex together.
During the time Robin worked at the YWCA, an interesting event occurred. In the early morning one day in the fall of 1989, a fire broke out in the basement of the Y. Fortunately no one was hurt. Investigators concluded it was clearly an arson fire and they found a pile of clothing that seemed out of place and a small electric heater that was switched on. Both things seemed out of place, however, it was determined the heater was not the cause of the fire. The fire had originated in a corner of the room where it was likely ignited with an accelerant. Robin was not suspected of anything at the time, but she did collect a small amount of insurance compensation for Christmas presents she claimed she had stored in the basement and that were destroyed in the fire.
Randy had a bad accident on his motorcycle in 1989. He ended up with serious disabilities and was completely unable to work. This left Robin as the family wage earner. Randy stayed home and took on the responsibility of caring for the children. In February of 1991 Robin was promoted again to Manager of the YWCA’s bingo operation. It was pretty successful when it launched but by February of 1992, the game was losing money and Robin was told they would be shutting down the Bingo center, and doing an audit of the financial records.
A Horrible Tragedy At The Row House
Shortly after Robin heard this news, there was a disaster at the Row home. In the early morning hours of Monday February 10, 1992 a fire raged in their duplex located at 10489 Seneca Drive, in Boise Idaho. The fire killed Robin’s husband Randy and her two children Joshua Cornellier age 10 and Tabitha Cornellier age 8. Robin was not home when the fire broke out. She had been spending the weekend at a friend’s house.
According to the book, Deadly Confidant by Nancy Whitmore Poore, on the night of February 09, 2002 Robin Row had been asleep on the couch at her best friend Joan McHugh’s house. She woke up in the middle of the night filled full of dread and an overwhelming feeling something was wrong. She said she first tried to shake the feeling by doing ordinary things to distract herself. She did some laundry, took a shower, and got dressed, but around 5:00 am when she couldn’t stand it anymore, she woke Joan and said “I know something is wrong. I have had this premonition all night nagging me to go home”. She asked Joan to go with her to the duplex Robin and her husband Randy rented. Joan said “yes”.
At that time Robin was not a stranger to spending the night on the couch at Joan’s house. She told various people she had been having trouble with her husband. Joan was a good friend and offered Robin a place to stay when things got difficult. Robin’s children, Tabitha age 8 and Joshua age 10 preferred to stay home with their step-dad. He had been good to them and Robin did not want to disrupt their routine even if she needed a break from Randy. She had confided in Joan that Randy was emotionally and physically abusive to her. But, she said he was always loving towards the kids, and when she told them she was going to go stay with Joan, the kids had asked if they could stay home with Randy. Robin said she was fine with that and she proceeded to the McHugh home for the weekend. Joan would later disclose that things had been very acrimonious between Robin and Randy. Robin gave Joan the impression that she was “fleeing” a bad situation. Randy underscored that by calling the McHugh home several times while Robin was there and when he reached the McHughs or the answering machine he would relay angry and threatening messages while demanding that Robin return home.
After Robin woke Joan around 5:30 on Monday morning, February 10th, the two women jumped into Robin’s car and drove to the duplex. As they stopped at an intersection on Robin’s street, they saw flashing lights, and were approached by a police officer who told them they could not go down the street. Robin became very agitated and started to scream, “That’s my house, my family is in there! There’s something wrong at my house.” Joan later told people that Robin actually said the house “might be on fire” before either of them could have possibly seen anything that would indicate there was a fire. Yet, after they parked the car and followed the officer on foot, Joan was completely shocked to see that the house was actually engulfed in flames. Robin started to run towards the fire but she was restrained by first responders and just started wailing “My children”, “My children”…before she went into what Joan thought must have been shock and became silent.
Unfortunately, it turned out Robin’s early morning premonition was right. Her 10 year old son Joshua was the first pulled from the house. His little dead body was covered with a plastic sheet and laid out on the lawn. The next body to be removed from the burning structure was Randy Row. There was some initial confusion that led firefighters to believe that possibly Robin’s daughter Tabitha had been spared. Firemen had searched her room and she was not there, but then Robin remembered that Tabitha would often go into Robin’s bedroom and curl up on the floor. She relayed that information to the fire fighters and that is ultimately where they found Tabitha’s body. All three members of the household who had been home that night died from smoke inhalation. The cause of the fire appeared to be very suspicious and was immediately assumed to be arson.
According to an article published by Charles Montaldo on thought.com, the fire appeared to have been ignited in two places on the first floor of the two-story apartment. The primary fire started where the apartment opened to the garage. The second fire started in one or more piles of clothes that were in the living room. There was also a space heater near a pile of laundry in that room. That’s right, piles of clothing and a space heater! The fire investigator reported that an undetermined flammable liquid was used as an accelerant. Various sources reported that the duplex’s smoke alarms had been disabled by someone flipping off the circuit switch that tied to them. Further, it was noted that the furnace fan was set to run continuously. This was especially strange being that it was during winter in Boise, Idaho where the average night low temperature is around 28 degrees. What is interesting to note though, is someone familiar with fires might know that having that fan running would speed up the circulation of deadly fumes throughout the residence.
Boise is in ADA county. So the ADA county sheriff’s office was the primary investigative agency. Chief Investigator Gary Raney was assigned to the case. It did not take him long to focus on Robin Row as his primary suspect. As any true crime follower knows, the surviving spouse is always the first suspect, not to mention Robin’s very convenient absence from her own home on the night this tragedy unfolded, but when Sheriff Raney did some digging into Robin’s past, he knew he was really on the right track.
During his investigation into the townhouse arson and murders of Randy, Joshua and Tabitha, Raney quickly discovered that Robin was supposedly in possession of an amount of cash from the bingo games that she had brought home due to it being a weekend and was to have deposited that Monday, February 10. When she was asked about this after the fire, Robin claimed the cash had been destroyed when the duplex burnt down.
Due to her history, especially the loss of another child in a suspicious fire, and other things that had been observed and reported – Sheriff’s Investigator Raney was able to get search warrants for the remains of the duplex, for Robin’s car, her friend Joan McHugh’s residence and also, for a storage facility Robin had rented. According to an article on “My Crime Library.com” called “Robin Lee Row Other News” during those searches, police discovered 6 insurance policies carried by Row on the lives of her now dead husband and two children. The most recent policy had been taken out just 17 days before the fire. The policies totaled $276,500. Robin Lee Row was the sole beneficiary. To put that in perspective, that would be equivalent to nearly $475,000 today.
When searching her storage facility, the investigators found that it only held Robin’s clothing, newer looking furniture, and some of Robin’s memorabilia. It also held fragile possessions that clearly belonged to Robin and had been wrapped in a newspaper dated February 7, 1992. Just 3 days before the fire. Investigators also found the missing cash and bingo cards from the game at the YWCA. Nothing of Randy’s or the children’s was found there.
At this point, Raney felt he knew what had happened. This woman had a history of collecting money after mysterious fires, and clearly she was suspected in the death of her son Keith. In early 1990 there was much more awareness of SIDs and the age range for the infants affected, so she was looking suspicious for little Krystina’s death too. Between the life insurance and the fact that she had only removed her own things from the duplex and put them in storage, it seemed like an open-and-shut case. However, there was literally no direct evidence. Where were her fingerprints, or DNA, or proof that she had purchased an accelerant? Could they show she had singe marks on her skin? No they could not. And, it seemed she had an alibi. She was at the McHugh house all night on Sunday February 9… Or was she? It became very important for Investigator Raney to find out exactly where Robin Lee Row was during the critical time frame in which the fire had been started.
The arson investigators had concluded that the fire had been intentionally set downstairs with a flammable substance that likely burned slowly before igniting a much hotter burning petroleum product. With its slow ignition there would have been time for someone to leave the McHugh house, drive to the duplex, start the fire, and get back to the McHugh house even before anyone noticed the blaze. Especially since the smoke detectors had been disabled.
Raney had a lot of circumstantial evidence regarding the arson and murders, but nothing else. He continued to interview Robin who seemed cooperative and almost eager to talk. The book “ Deadly Confident” has some chapters where the author has transcribed those interviews. Sheriff Raney was also working on Robin’s best friend, Joan McHugh.
While they did not have enough to arrest Robin for arson and murder, law enforcement officials realized they did have enough hard evidence to arrest and charge her with grand theft for the stolen YWCA money and other financial crimes against her employer. On February 13, 1992 she was booked into the Ada county jail.
While in jail, Robin was in frequent communication with her friend, and alibi witness, Joan McHugh. Investigator Raney questioned Joan, but she was firmly on Robin’s side. She was indignant that the police would even approach her with their suspicions. Joan was convinced that Randy was most likely the culprit. Robin had told Joan about Randy’s violent erratic behavior and threats he had made and Joan had actually been on the receiving end of angry phone calls from Randy when Robin was at her house. Joan, her husband Bernie and her son John all believed Randy had set the fire to punish Robin for leaving him.
Speaking of Joan’s son, another thing that investigators uncovered was in the weeks leading up to the fire, Robin had started a sexual affair with Joan’s adult son, John Blackwell. Robin appears to have been very smitten with John, though he was reported to have told people that to him it was just sex and nothing romantic. While she was in jail, Robin made several calls to him and wrote many letters showing her infatuation with him.
From her statements to the investigators, it seemed all Joan knew for sure was that Robin was asleep on her couch until she woke up with that bad premonition. Joan was adamant that Robin could not have started the fire. However, during a conversation with Sheriff’s Investigator Raney, Joan was made aware of the large dollar amount of the life insurance policies and also the fact that the last policy was taken out just 17 days before the fire. This did not immediately make Joan believe Robin was guilty, but it gave her enough doubt that she agreed to use a device to record her next conversation with Robin whenever Robin called her from the county jail.
According to the book Deadly Confident, Joan sort of talked herself into recording the calls thinking she would be able to prove Robin’s innocence. Joan badly wanted to believe her friend would have a good explanation for the things the sheriff’s investigator had pointed out as suspicious. Raney suggested that Joan make up a story to really test Robin’s alibi. He told Joan to tell Robin that she (Joan) had woken up in the early morning hours of February 10, went downstairs and found that Robin wasn’t there. Raney explained if Robin was innocent, then she would reply “what are you talking about, you must be crazy, I was right on that couch asleep”. Or, give some other very plausible explanation, but, if Robin made some excuse about why she wasn’t downstairs, then that would certainly indicate guilt.
In her next phone conversation with Robin, Joan followed Raney’s suggestion. Unfortunately for Joan, Robin did not prove her innocence. When confronted with Joan’s lie about going downstairs and not seeing Robin anywhere during that critical time period, Robin hesitated and then told Joan she could not remember where she was.
More Serious Charges
By March 20, 1992, the deputy prosecuting attorney signed a criminal complaint to charge Robin with 3 counts of first degree felony murder and one count of aggravated arson and a judge issued a warrant for her arrest. When she learned she was being charged with felony murder, Robin called Joan and told her that she remembered where she had been during the early morning hours when the fire started. She said she was actually outside the McHugh home talking to her psychiatrist. In another call later the same day, Joan pressed Robin for the name of the psychiatrist, but Robin refused to tell her anything more. And, at this point, Joan McHugh realized that her friend was very likely a cold blooded murderer. In her complete devastation, she told Robin that she was working with Sheriff’s Investigator Raney at which point Robin stopped talking to her altogether.
The trial of Robin Lee Row was held from late January to early March of 1993. Her defense tried their best to throw suspicion at Randy, and even hinted that it was possible Joan’s son John could have started the fire. The prosecution had a large number of witnesses who contradicted most of the claims made by the defense. The jury returned guilty verdicts on all counts.
How We Got To The Death Sentence
Robin’s sentencing hearing began on October 19, 1993. The state was seeking the death penalty. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court found that four statutory aggravating circumstances had been proven by the evidence and beyond a reasonable doubt. They have to prove these aggravating circumstances to justify a death sentence. The first few circumstances were that Robin had committed multiple murders at the same time, the murders were committed during an arson, and they were accompanied by a specific intent to kill. Then additional circumstances were that the murders were committed for financial gain and finally as stated in the transcripts “Row exhibited an utter disregard for human life”.
On the side of the defense, they needed to prove “Mitigating” factors to try to prevent the judge from imposing a death sentence. The court acknowledged there were some proven facts in mitigation. They found that “Robin had endured a difficult and abusive childhood, had shown some responsibility in the past, did not have an extensive record of violent crimes, was involved in a mutually abusive relationship with Randy, and suffered from various mental, psychological and personality problems.”
According to the book “Deadly Confident” at some point during the sentencing hearing, Robin was allowed to give testimony and at that time she admitted to finally regaining memory of the events of February 10, 1992. She claimed things had been so traumatic that she initially believed she was innocent of the crimes, but that after interviews and hypnosis she realized she was involved and had just been blocking it out. In the book, she is quoted as saying “I was at Joan McHughs house and I was very agitated and desperate to get out of a bad marriage… I drove out to the house that evening; I don’t remember times, I think it was 3:00 or 3:30, something like that. The facts I recall are different than what testimony was presented….The house was not intended to burn down. It was just intended to do some structural damage, enough that we would have to have left. The children and I would go to Joan’s and Randy, I assume would go to his family… And I felt this was the only way to get him out of my life. After the fire was set, I went back to Joan’s house.” There is some dispute as to why she said these things. It is possible that she believed some form of admission might lead to a more favorable sentence of life in prison instead of the death penalty. However, neither the mitigating factors or her admission helped. On December 16, 1993, Robin Lee Row was sentenced to death for the 3 murder convictions and she was given twenty years for the aggravated arson charge.
Later, when she had different attorneys and was filing various appeals, Robin retracted the statement she made during the sentencing hearing. Her explanation was that back then, during the hearing, she just wanted to die so she thought, “ this would be the fastest way to make that happen”. In fact, on January 8, 2010 the blog “Women Condemned” where true crime author Kelly Banaski posted this from Robin Lee Row: “I know most of you think everyone on death row claims to be innocent. In my case, it’s true! . . . I couldn’t leave behind the legacy that if I died everyone would think the children’s mother killed them. I wanted to die when I heard my children were dead. The pain I felt was excruciating. It was as if my heart had been ripped out of my chest and stomped on, tearing it to shreds. . . At first memories would come rushing back through my mind and they were so hard to handle. A commercial would remind me of my son or I’d hear a song that was my daughter’s favorite. All over I’d see them or think of them. The agony was unbearable. . .I’m tired. Emotionally drained. I’m lonely. Living in isolation is a hard thing. I wanted out and saw execution as a way out.”
Regardless of what is true, if she was hoping for a quick death, she didn’t get it. As of January 2021 Robin Lee Row is still incarcerated on Idaho’s death row at the Women’s Correctional Facility in Pocatello. Idaho. An Associated Press article published on February 2, 2019, states she currently has an appeal pending in Idaho’s US District Court so there is no date set for an execution.
[…] Part 3 […]