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Boy's Death Devastates Town, but Memories of His Life Sustain It : New York: Derrick Robie touched everyone he met. Community builds him a park as it prepares to try 13-year-old for murder.

April 03, 1994|BEN DOBBIN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

SAVONA, N.Y. — In the first chink of sunlight after a rainstorm, 4-year-old Derrick Robie would dig for worms. Once he got them lined up on the back porch--Mommy, Daddy, brother, baby--he'd give each worm a kiss.

Everything he could dream up, he was into--swatting tee balls, mixing meat loaf, helping unscrew lug nuts off the car wheel, hoarding hickory nuts in his coat pocket. "As much of a boy (as) he was," said his father, "he was very gentle with things."

Eric Smith lived on the other side of town, a 13-year-old with glasses and a mask of freckles who played drums in the school band, rode his bike everywhere and had an infectious cackle of a laugh.

Then, one overcast morning last August, in this pastoral village in western New York shadowed by steep-sided hills, Derrick was lured into a stand of pine trees a short distance from home and beaten to death.

Eric Smith, authorities say, confessed to the killing; he is expected to go on trial late this month on second-degree murder charges, and the death of Derrick will be examined again, in excruciating detail.

But the life of Derrick Robie--ebullient, precocious, doted on by all who knew him, a ripper of a kid in short sleeves and suspenders with a mop of blond hair and a mischievous grin--preoccupies those who loved him.

Dale and Doreen Robie moved nearly a mile out of town just before Christmas, to start afresh. But the walls of their dining room are filled with photographs of their ever-smiling son and mementos--a letter of condolence from the President, a poem written by neighbor Mary Davidson.

It begins, "Remember me in early spring, When tee-ball fields with laughter ring . . ."

The village came together before winter set in and cleared the base of the hill, jagged with pines, where Derrick died. On a knoll overlooking two new baseball fields, a crab apple tree, a flagpole and a 42-inch statue of him swinging a bat will be erected this summer.

"As horrid and as negative as this has been, you just look for something to try to turn positive," said Doreen Robie, 28.

"I hope people can look at the statue and just remember what childhood was supposed to be about, because we've lost it somewhere . . . with all these teen-agers that have gone totally haywire. I feel kind of naive because I thought I tried to keep him from everything."

The parents are sustained by an endless flow of memories. "I think Dory and I talk about him like he was in the next room most of the time," said Dale Robie, 34, a printer. "I think if we didn't, we'd feel pretty negative."

Recently, Doreen Robie unpacked a little gold box she always kept on the coffee table and found a hickory nut inside, placed there by small hands. "I just left it there, put the top back on and put it back on the shelf."

No one admired Derrick more than his little brother, Dalton. They played together a lot, and Derrick read him "Green Eggs and Ham" every bedtime.

"My angel on Earth," said Doreen Robie, touching her 2-year-old's head of blond curls. "I've got one each place now."

On Derrick's fifth birthday, on Oct. 2, she took a bag of big gingerbread cookies down to the kindergarten class he would have attended.

"They had a big party for him and sang happy birthday. That's probably been the hardest thing I've had to do since he died, next to burying him."

Over and over, she wonders how it could have happened. Three mornings a week, Derrick went to a summer recreation program run by the village in a field at the bottom of their dead-end street.

It was threatening to rain on Aug. 2, Dalton was fussing and Derrick was stamping his foot, pleading for permission to go down by himself. There was always a flow of neighborhood youngsters walking along the street, so his mother relented.

She didn't follow him down the driveway as usual. Her strong-willed boy hopped down the back step and was gone.

"We've had our share of people writing to us and calling us and telling me what a rotten mother I was," Doreen Robie said. "But people don't know the circumstances and they don't know the kind of parents we were."

There were no eyewitnesses; police say Eric somehow persuaded Derrick to take a shortcut through an empty, overgrown lot.

To Eric Smith's family, nothing had jumped out as a strong sign of mental illness--though there were some disturbing tendencies.

In 1989, he strangled a neighbor's cat with a garden hose. Two years later, when a schoolmate died in a car crash, he called the teen-ager's family on a few occasions, asking to speak with him.

Dr. Stephen Herman, a child psychiatrist hired by the defense, said in a preliminary report that the boy suffers from depression, nicotine addiction from smoking and a mental disorder that causes periodic explosive outbursts.

That will be sorted out at trial. In the meantime, the Robies replay the past, again and again.

The body was recovered on Monday afternoon, the same day Derrick disappeared; the Robies didn't sleep until Tuesday night--and then only with medication.

In the middle of the night, Doreen Robie said, "Dale jumped out of bed and said Derrick had come to him in his sleep. He told him he was OK, that he never felt a thing."

*

Contributions are being collected to help pay to bronze the statue that is being erected in Savona. They can be sent to The Derrick Robie Statue Fund, 252 1/2 Park Ave., Corning, N.Y. 14830.

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