Authorities have quietly filed a felony conspiracy complaint and issued an arrest warrant under seal against Michael Robertson, the former boss and lover of convicted murderer Kristin Rossum. Robertson, who has been living free and working as a forensic toxicology consultant in Australia since the murder of Rossum’s husband in 2000, could be arrested and held on $100,000 bail if he ever returns to the United States.
In a case that continues to draw national attention, Rossum, a former toxicologist for the county Medical Examiner’s Office, was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in February 2003 for stealing drugs from her lab, using them to poison Gregory de Villers, then staging a suicide scene in their University City apartment by sprinkling red rose petals over his body. The cause of death, ruled to be acute fentanyl intoxication, has been challenged by Rossum’s appellate attorneys as recently as late August.
Fentanyl, a controlled narcotic and fast-acting painkiller that is 100 times stronger than morphine, is used to treat cancer patients and is also administered during short procedures such as colonoscopies. An overdose of fentanyl, which has become increasingly popular as a recreational drug, can cause respiratory failure.
I covered the case from arrest to sentencing for the San Diego Union-Tribune and went on to write the book Poisoned Love on the case. I’m often asked by readers, “What ever happened to Robertson? Did he get charged?” My answer has always been “no.” But for nearly the past seven years, I — along with news reporters who published that same information — have been misinformed.
As it turns out, the single count of “conspiracy to commit an act injurious to public” filed against Robertson, who ran the Medical Examiner’s toxicology lab at the time of de Villers’s murder, has been kept on the QT since November 3, 2006. If found guilty, Robertson, now 43 and living with a new wife and family in Brisbane, could face three years in county jail or state prison.
Before this complaint was filed, prosecutors labeled Robertson as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the murder case, and the investigation into Robertson’s potential involvement remains open today. Under the law, charges of murder and conspiracy to commit murder are treated much the same.
“I assume that’s why they did it. Just to keep a file open in case anything ever comes up in the future,” said Chuck Goldberg, Robertson’s local criminal defense attorney. “And I’m confident nothing ever will come up.”
Goldberg said he assumed the charges were filed “to preserve jurisdiction so that the statute of limitations wouldn’t run out.” But, he added, “We believe the statute had already run before they filed this.”
Goldberg sounded surprised when I called him about the charges in early September, because he said neither he nor Robertson was ever notified.
“I negotiated with the DA’s office, and they knew I represented him,” he said.
Steve Walker, communications director for the DA’s office, said it’s common when an arrest warrant is issued — even a murder warrant — not to notify the suspect, and when charges are filed, “We’re not legally required to notify the defendant or his attorney.”
Asked if the District Attorney’s Office had kept the conspiracy charge under wraps so Robertson could be caught unawares and arrested if he decided to come back to the United States, Walker declined to comment.
“Because this is a pending case, we are unable to discuss it,” he said.
He also said he couldn’t confirm whether prosecutors filed the conspiracy charge as a “placeholder” or a stepping stone toward hopefully filing more serious charges later, or whether any move to extradite Robertson had been undertaken.
Even the de Villers family didn’t know about the complaint.
“I knew it would be difficult for Michael Robertson to return to the U.S. but was unaware of the details regarding his arrest warrant,” Greg de Villers’s brother, Bertrand, wrote in an email.
According to the felony complaint, “On or about November 6, 2000, Michael David Robertson did unlawfully conspire together and with Kristin Rossum to pervert [and] obstruct justice and the due administration of the laws; to wit: by obstructing the investigation into the murder of Gregory de Villers.”
The complaint lists 77 “overt acts” of how Robertson and Rossum worked together “to cover up the true circumstances surrounding the murder.” The complaint was signed by detective Laurie Agnew of the San Diego Police Department, who has since retired. But it was not signed by any particular prosecutor. The warrant was issued by John M. Thompson, the trial judge in the Rossum case, who also approved the request to seal Robertson’s warrant affidavit.
Goldberg said the DA has taken no steps to extradite Robertson from Australia, where he returned to tend to his mother, who was ill with cancer, a month before Rossum was arrested in late June 2001. Robertson has since gotten divorced and remarried.
I emailed Robertson personally for his reaction, but he did not want to comment. Robertson has always maintained his innocence in de Villers’s murder, however, saying he doesn’t want to elaborate for fear it will be “misinterpreted or misrepresented.”
“I really would like to be able to say more, but it’s just wise at this stage to get on with things, try and put this behind me as best I can, and move on,” he told an Australian radio reporter in 2004. “And if my circumstance does change I may at some future stage be more than willing to comment on the turn of events that have unfolded over the last few years. But, at this stage, I’m just unwilling to take the risk of saying anything on the record that again may come back to haunt me, so to speak.”
The felony complaint was filed more than three years after Detective Agnew and Dave Hendren, one of the trial prosecutors, traveled to Melbourne, Australia, in the summer of 2003, by which time Hendren’s co-counsel, Dan Goldstein, had become a superior-court judge. Hendren is now the DA’s North County branch office chief.