In the fall of 2005, a young Missouri man, 23-year-old Levi King, went on a vicious and inexplicable 24-hour killing spree, first shooting an elderly man and his daughter-in-law in the rural community of Pineville, Missouri, then stealing their truck and driving to Texas, where he randomly stopped at a darkened farm house on the outskirts of the small Panhandle town of Pampa.
Dressed completely in black and toting an AK-47, King broke through the back door and immediately went to the master bedroom. He first put three bullets into the body of the home’s owner, 31-year-old Brian Conrad. He next fired two shots into Molly, the family’s dog. Then he turned his gun on Conrad’s 35-year-old pregnant wife, Michell, who was screaming. He shot her five times.
Michell’s ten-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, Robin Doan, was at the end of the hallway, crouched by her bedroom door, which was partially open. She saw King walk out of her mother and stepfather’s bedroom and head her way. She ran back to her bed and pulled the covers over her head. He stepped into her bedroom, aimed his gun at her, and pulled the trigger. The shot went wide, hitting a pillow, but Robin made a grunting noise and fell to the floor, pretending she was dead. King fell for her act. He turned around, walked into a third bedroom, and shot Robin’s fourteen-year-old brother, Zach. King then walked into the kitchen and rummaged around for food before driving away.
Robin remained in her bed for perhaps a couple of hours, listening for a sound, too terrified to move. Finally, as the sun began to come up, she went to the living room, grabbed the family’s cordless phone and ran outside to the driveway, where she called 911. What she said to the dispatcher was absolutely heartbreaking: “Ma’am, there was a shootout in my house. I don’t know who’s alive in my house.” She told the dispatcher her name, adding, “My parents are Michell Conrad and Brian Conrad. My mom is pregnant and my brother is in high school. Please, can you just send somebody out here? I think I’m the only one alive. I’m ten years old and I don’t know what to do. I’m scared . . . I so hope my mom is not dead. I want my mommy. I want my mom.”
After his rampage through the house, King had driven to El Paso, crossed the border into Mexico, and for some reason, decided to return only hours later. He was detained by U.S. Border Patrol officers who found guns in his car. After they fingerprinted him and pulled his file, they saw that he was wanted for questioning about some Missouri shootings. Within a few days, he calmly confessed to the killings in both Missouri and Pampa. He explained that he had gotten angry because his father had kicked him out of the house back in Missouri, and he had decided to go out and shoot people.
When I read the story about the Pampa farmhouse killings, I couldn’t help but think it was the Texas version of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood—except in this case, there was one survivor, a pretty little girl who, when sheriff’s deputies arrived at her home, was still standing in her driveway, wearing purple pajamas decorated with polar bears and white Nike socks with purple rings around the tops. “There were so many shots,” she told one deputy. “I heard my mommy screaming.”
How, I wondered at the time, would that child ever get over the sound of those screams? How would she ever erase the image of Levi King coming toward her? How would she be able to grow up in any normal way after living through such an experience?
Over the years, whenever I saw a newspaper story with a Pampa dateline, I would think about Robin and wonder what had happened to her. I assumed that she had been shuttled off to relatives in a new town, probably a different state, to help her escape the nightmares. Late last year, I happened to see a film version of Capote’s life, and I started thinking about her again. I called Lynn Switzer, the former district attorney in Pampa who had prosecuted King for murder, and I asked if she could put me in touch with Robin, who is now nineteen. “Of course I can,” said Switzer. “She’s still living in Pampa, you know.”
“You’re kidding,” I said.
“No, this is not a girl who wants to run away.”
A few minutes later, she called me back and gave me Robin’s phone number. I dialed the number and a cheerful voice answered, “Hi.”
“I guess you know why I’m calling,” I said, after introducing myself.
“Oh, sure,” replied Robin. “But I want you to know that I’m not going to have great stories for you. I’m just trying to be another teenager, no different than anyone else.”
When we started talking, she said she wasn’t all that interested in talking about “what happened,” as she put it. She did tell me that she moved in with her father, a surveyor, and his new wife, who lived just outside of Pampa, a town of 19,000. (Her father and Robin’s mother had divorced when Robin was a toddler). Whenever he took her somewhere, she hunkered down in his pickup truck so that people wouldn’t stare at her. Everyone knew who she was; the shootings were the biggest thing to have happened to Pampa in decades. “I stayed out of school for a couple of months, and when I went back, other kids didn’t know what to say to me,” she said. “I sort of felt like a freak. But I wasn’t going to cry.”
“I guess I thought if I acted as if nothing had ever really happened, then I would be better off.”
“Robin was the kind of child who put on a very brave face in front of other people,” said Switzer. “She would say, ‘I can handle this. I’m strong.’ And I’d say, ‘Robin, I know you’re brave, honey, but you’ve been through a cataclysmic event. It’s got to be tearing you up.’ And she’d say, ‘I’m fine. Let’s talk about something else.’ ”
In middle school, Robin moved in with an aunt who lived in Pampa and had more time to take care of her. Switzer regularly visited with Robin, in part because she needed her to be her star witness at King’s trial. Despite Robin’s insistence that she was “just fine,” Switzer had no idea whether the young girl would be able to handle the trauma of testifying in front of a packed courtroom with Levi King sitting front and center at the defendant’s table. Switzer arranged for Robin to talk to a therapist, which turned out badly. “I told him I didn’t want to talk to anyone, and that I wanted to be left alone,” Robin said.
Switzer brought in another therapist, who, according to Robin, “wanted me to watch cheesy videos and write in a diary. I said, ‘Nope.’ ” She did like a third therapist whom Switzer found. But Robin always did her best to remain in complete control. “I never wanted to interact too much,” she said.
Robin went through months of therapy, but Switzer had no idea whether any of the therapy made an impact on Robin. “She was still working very hard to remain in complete control,” Switzer said. Just before King’s trial began, in 2009, she let Robin know it would be perfectly okay if she preferred to stay home. “We’ll get a conviction,” she told Robin, who was then fourteen years old. But Robin insisted that she was ready to talk.
After a week of testimony, Switzer called Robin’s name. She came into the courtroom, which was packed with Pampa residents. They leaned forward as she took the stand. No one had any idea what she would say—or if she would say anything at all.
Robin recounted the events of the night of the murder, quickly going through the details. Then Switzer asked her if she missed her mother. Seemingly caught by surprise, Robin said she wished her mother had been around this past year for some of the bigger milestones in her life, including the eighth grade dance and her first day of high school. Suddenly, she turned and stared straight at King and told him she was constantly haunted by her mother’s screams from that night and was still sometimes scared to go to sleep.
Robin began to sob. She walked out of the courtroom and went with Switzer into a small private room, where she continued sobbing. It was the first time since the shootings, Switzer told me, that Robin had “truly let out her grief.”
The specatators in the courtroom assumed that that would be the last they would hear from Robin. Switzer herself had no plans to call Robin back to the courtroom. But Robin told the prosecutor that she had one more thing to say. And so, after King was sentenced to life without parole—one of the twelve jurors refused to vote for the death penalty, which requires a unanimous vote—Robin took the stand to make a victim’s impact statement. She looked at King and told him that she forgave him, and that she hoped when the day came for him to meet God, he would ask for forgiveness too. King kept his head down, unable to look at the teenager.
“I don’t know why I said what I said,” Robin told me when I asked her about the forgiveness statement. “Maybe I just wanted him to know that I wasn’t going to let my life be ruined by him—that I wasn’t going to let him take away the best of me.”
She paused. “I wanted him to know my life was still going to turn out to be good, no matter what awful things he had done to me and my family.”
After the trial, Robin did her best to lead what she described as “a very normal teenage life.” She became a cheerleader at Pampa High School. She briefly played on the girls’ basketball team. During the summer, she worked at the local water amusement park (she once saved a little boy who was drowning). When she graduated from high school in May 2013, a group of police officers and deputies who had worked on the murder case raised $10,000 to pay for her to go to junior college in nearby Borger. (She’s a cheerleader there too.) But she acknowledges that even today, nearly ten years after the murders, everyone in Pampa still wonders if she’s alright. “I can tell how they watch me,” she said. “It’s like a game for them, waiting to see if I am going to mess up and have some breakdown because of what happened to me when I was ten years old. I mean, I once dyed my hair a different color, and the word spread that I was finally going off the deep end. But I’ve kept my head on my shoulders. I was raised better than that.”
“So, how often do you really still think about that night?”
“Well, I try not to think about it,” Robin finally said. “And I still have dreams of being shot at. I still have dreams of doing things with my mom and talking to my brother. I dream about our dog, Molly. And sometimes I lie in bed and ask myself, ‘What could I have done? What could I have done to have kept him from shooting my family?’ ”
I then asked if her if she ever thinks about “him,” meaning Levi King. “I don’t write him letters, if that’s what you want to know,” she said. “And I don’t waste my time sitting around hoping he rots in hell. What I’m trying to do is let go and move on and do some good.”
Robin told me she has come up with a plan for her life. Her goal is to enroll this coming fall at West Texas A&M University, in Canyon, an hour-and-a-half drive away from Pampa, and get her degree in nursing. “I want to do pediatric nursing,” she said. “I want to help kids who get hurt, who need help. I want to be the first one there.”
There was a long silence over the phone, and I couldn’t help but wonder if Robin was trying not to cry. “I just wish I could tell my mom that I’m going to be a nurse,” she said. “I think she would like that a lot.”