The small beads in an 8-year-old’s hair turned out to be a big factor in a preliminary hearing Monday morning dealing with charges Hiawatha Robinson Jr. murdered his own daughter, Hiawayi Robinson.
Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich and other prosecutors were able to convince District Judge Joe Basenburg of probable cause linking Robinson to his daughter’s sodomy and death. The case will now move forward to a Mobile County grand jury.
Information about the beads in Hiawayi’s hair — highlighted in testimony from Special Agent Deric Taylor of the Alabama Bureau of Investigation — were key in establishing probable cause Robinson was involved in his daughter’s murder.
According to Taylor, investigators found two clear plastic beads along Rebel Road near where her body was discovered Sept. 18, 2014, that were similar to those found in the hair of “the deceased.” A piece of black duct tape was also found in the same vicinity.
Robinson later gave authorities permission to search the red Chevrolet Tahoe owned by his girlfriend Taisheira “Tasha” Parker, which Robinson frequently drove. According to Taylor, during search of that vehicle investigators found a single clear plastic hair bead and a piece of black duct tape similar to the ones found at the site where Hiawayi’s body was discovered.
“The Tahoe has a hatch-back part of it, and the third-row seats can fold down,” Taylor said. “The bead was found in the rear along the tracks at the base of third-row seats.”
The prosecution also discussed the collection of surveillance footage for the area where Hiawayi lived, which Rich said was another crucial link between Robinson and his daughter’s disappearance. Footage from a Best Future convenience store shows Hiawayi buying candy at approximately 4:03 p.m. the day she went missing. A second camera from the same area also shows what appears to be the red Tahoe Robinson often drove in the area of the store and later turning onto Bear Fork Road.
According to investigators, Hiawayi came home from school on Sept. 16, 2014 and spoke with her father on the telephone — a 17-minute conversation documented in phone records obtained by law enforcement.
Sgt. Robert Martin, of the Prichard Police Department, said family members told authorities that after she spoke with her father, Hiawayi left the house to meet him at a relative’s apartment to get money for her birthday.
“(Robinson) stated that he did speak with his daughter on the day she was reported missing,” Martin said. “He said she had asked him to give her $150 for her birthday, which he thought was the next day, but he got confused.”
However, in his testimony, Taylor said Robinson told investigators the Friday before her disappearance, Sept. 12, 2014, was the last time he had seen his daughter. According to Taylor, on that day Robinson took Hiawayi to a Texaco gas station to get candy. He said the surveillance video from that location shows Hiawayi had her “hair down” and had “no beads.”
“Her family said the braids were put in on the Sunday before she went missing,” Taylor said. “At the scene where her body was discovered, there appeared to be one braid in her hair that looked like it had come apart to where some of the beads had fallen out.”
Phone records were another motivating factor in Basenburg’s decision to move the case forward to a grand jury. Investigators were given permission to search Robinson’s cell phone, and used “pings” given off by the phone to determine its location during the day Hiawayi went missing.
According to Taylor, “pings” from Robinson’s phone were detected at the apartment complex where Hiawayi lived with her mother, at the convenience store where she was last seen in surveillance videos and at the site where her body was discovered.
Taylor also said Robinson made calls shortly after Hiawayi’s disappearance that the family considered “abnormal.”
“Within about 15 minutes after she left the store, a phone call was placed from Mr. Robinson to Brenda Populus (Hiawayi’s Grandmother) and then there were three more calls made in about an hour and a half,” Taylor said. “According to the family, he wanted to know where Hiawayi was and if she had returned home. During interviews with investigators, the grandmother said it was abnormal. According to her, he would never call looking for her or wanting to know where she was.”
Another piece of evidence came from a surveillance system in Parker’s house, where Robinson would often stay. According to investigators, footage turned over to police shows Robinson washing a pair of “adult” pants at 7 p.m. the night Hiawayi went missing. According to Taylor, Robinson was holding the pants in the video with his fingertips, “as if he didn’t want to get anything on them.”
When asked, Parker told investigators that Robinson did not usually do laundry at her house, which is why authorities found him washing a single pair of pants to be suspicious. When a search warrant was issued for Parker’s house two weeks later, authorities said they were unable to locate the particular clothing item.
During his testimony, Taylor also discussed Robinson’s demeanor through the course of the initial investigation, which Taylor said was helpful at first but changed over time.
“At first it appeared, according to the interviews, that he was cooperating, but as time progressed, it appeared that he became very agitated with law enforcement,” Taylor said. “One time during a portion of an interview conducted at the command center, Mr. Robinson became very irritated and stopped answering questions altogether — even though we were trying to help find out where his daughter was.”
According to Taylor, Robinson told one FBI investigator the only thing he wanted to do was “to go home, and take a dump.”
Though there have been rampant rumors about how the 8-year-old’s body was discovered, prosecutors hadn’t discussed the details until Monday. According to Taylor the site where her body was found is a “dump” for trash and old appliances.
“The body was laying next to a large pile of trash, and the body itself was laying on other trash,” Taylor said. “The Hello Kitty T-shirt she was wearing was pulled up just above her navel, and her pants and underwear were off of her body.”
Taylor said an autopsy performed later revealed signs of vaginal and anal trauma, but the exact mechanism of death is unknown, which resulted in the official cause of death being listed as “homicidal violence.”
A toxicology report showed no signs of drugs or poison. Swabs taken from the mouth, anus and vagina were sent to an FBI lab for examination, and at least one of those tested positive for seminal fluid. However, the DNA evidence collected was considered to be too contaminated to be used. Still, Rich said there were well over 100 other pieces of evidence still being processed at the FBI’s lab in Quantico, Va.
She said the prosecution was “very confident” in the evidence it has collected, and said she wouldn’t qualify the case to have “a lack of DNA evidence.”
During the court proceedings, most of the victim’s family were in tears after hearing some of the initial evidence presented. Others had to the leave the courtroom entirely.
“This (hearing) was extremely emotional for the family,” Rich said. “It’s the first time the mother and relatives had heard a graphic description of how she was found.”
Jeff Deen, Robinson’s defense attorney, called the case “sad,” but raised questions about the prosecution’s allegations that his client was involved in Hiawayi’s death.
Deen said there was no evidence or testimony to suggest an animosity between Hiawayi and her father and he also questioned the prosecution’s attempts to link Robinson to the case by the surveillance footage of the red Tahoe.
“There’s no DNA evidence connecting him to the case. It’s all circumstantial,” Deen said. “All the people that have spoken to us that know him say ‘Hiawatha Robinson couldn’t be involved with something like this.’ The State has their case of what they think happened, but we’ll have to see what happens from here.”