As rush reaches its conclusion and coursework begins to intensify, the spring semester appears to start off like any other, save for one bizarre and ominous twist — the former Penn professor who killed his wife in 2006 just walked free from prison.
Rafael Robb, a former Penn Economics professor, was released from prison on Jan. 7 after serving 10 years behind bars for the killing of his wife.
Few on Penn’s campus can recall the tragic events that stunned the University a decade ago. Even fewer are willing to speak openly about them.
The Daily Pennsylvanian reached out to the former Economics Department head and eight professors who taught economics at the time. Only one agreed to an interview.
Ellen Gregory Robb’s body was found on Dec. 22, 2006, shortly after she had initiated the process of divorce. Although her husband initially claimed innocence, the police arrested him the next month.
“I would say the police immediately considered him a suspect,” Economics professor Petra Todd said. “Since I live in the suburbs, I thought it highly unlikely that someone would break in and murder this woman, so I suspected that it was him from the very beginning.”
Many Penn professors, however, viewed the situation differently.
“Some faculty thought he was innocent,” Todd explained. “For some people, it was a surprise when he admitted it a year later.”
Todd said that Robb had many friends among Penn faculty. Some professors even visited him in prison and attended his wife’s funeral before he pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter.
After Robb’s arrest, professors and students alike struggled to grasp the true identity behind Robb’s familiar face on campus.
“He was not super social but he was friendly,” Todd said. “Sometimes, he actually did nice things. We had a student who needed to buy some data, and he paid for her data. It was a couple thousand dollars ... and he just did it voluntarily. He seemed like a normal person.”
“He was always approachable [and] accommodating. I was really astonished,” Seungha Ku, a College junior at the time, in 2007.
Todd said that disagreement over Robb’s potential guilt discouraged discussion of the topic in the Economics Department for much of the year.
An expert in game theory, Robb made a shrewd calculation in 2008 by pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter, which carried a sentence of five to 10 years in prison, instead of continuing to plead not guilty to first and third-degree murder charges, for which he could have spent life in prison, according to a .
Todd described the atmosphere in the department as one of “relief” after Robb’s conviction.
“It’s nice to know exactly what happened and to have the truth out,” she said.
“He seemed like a normal person, so it’s really hard to predict that something like this would happen,” Todd said. “Each person has different aspects of their life. There’s the professional life and the personal life, and the person might be very different in their professional life and be able to function fine, even though they’re having tons of problems in their personal life.
“Obviously he had a lot of problems in his personal life, but we didn’t see that,” she said.