Spring 2019 - Features

The Coco Chanel of Crime

By February 21, 2019 No Comments
Carol Robinson

Take a look at Carol Robinson’s Facebook feed at certain times, and you might just be fooled into thinking she leads a somewhat normal life. Photos of her daughter, pictures of beachside reunions with high school and college friends, memes featuring cute kids and cute animals – you’ll find them all from the 1986 Auburn graduate.

But for every family photo or touching video shared, there are five, six, maybe 10 headlines from AL.com, ranging from sad and sorrowful stories to those that are just downright brutal and vicious. These are stories filled with murder and armed robbery and missing people, blood and guts, terrible car wrecks and domestic violence, all written by a petite blonde who shatters any stereotype of the grizzled newspaper veteran that might still exist

Carol and John Archibald

Pulitzer Prize-winner John Archibald (pictured left with Carol), a longtime friend and co-worker, calls Robinson “the Coco Chanel of Crime,” a nod to her wardrobe, stylish even in the midst of mayhem. Jefferson County Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Randy Christian says she’s “the best in the business, and there isn’t even a close second.” Robinson says she’s just doing her job, but she’s being modest. She is to crime reporting what James Spann is to the weather. People in Birmingham and around Alabama turn to Robinson first for what is often bad news, and millions read her stories every month. She is, quite simply, Alabama’s queen of crime.

That crown wasn’t just handed to her. Growing up in Vestavia Hills, the youngest child of a prominent UAB doctor and a nurse, neither Robinson nor anyone around her would have guessed she was destined for an award-winning career in newspaper crime-writing.

“I definitely did not do any writing in high school, other than what was required of me,” she says. “But, for as long as I can remember, I was reading all of the time. My parents literally had to take books away from me when we had company over. I also used to hide a book behind my textbooks in high school in class. I’m not saying I was reading anything of literary excellence – basically romance novels. But still, I think reading had a lot to do with me ending up writing for a living.”

That, and Auburn University, where she followed a high-school boyfriend. “We broke up within a week of me coming to Auburn,” Robinson says. “But I absolutely was in love with Auburn.”

Robinson was involved in her sorority, Phi Mu, and initially planned to major in social work before she decided she did not want to go to graduate school. She changed her major to public relations and, after doing a lot of writing during an internship with UAB public relations, took a number of writing classes her senior year and worked at both the Opelika-Auburn News and The Auburn Plainsman. After graduating with her public relations degree, she interviewed with a number of companies, eventually taking a job with The Birmingham News.

“I had no idea what I was doing, basically, but God certainly did,” she said.

Robinson began her Birmingham News career as the Auburn correspondent before being brought into the Birmingham newsroom for a brief stint with the features section, returning to  “hard news” again covering Fairfield, Midfield and Hueytown just outside of Birmingham. “It was there I started leaning toward crime reporting,” she said. “Sadly, I can’t remember too many details, but one of my first crime stories there was the death of a hat store owner killed in her business.”

INTREPID AND COMPASSIONATE

If the details escape Robinson, they don’t escape those she worked for and worked with.

FBI Ten Most Wanted Fugitive Maliciously Damaged, By means of an explosive device, buildings and property affecting interstate commerce which resulted in death and injury; Eric Robert Rudolph; # photos of Eric two from 1997 and one artist rendition from July 1998; Aliases: Bob Randolph, Robert Randolph, Bob Rudolph, Eric Rudolph, and Eric R. Rudolph

Tom Arenberg was one of her first editors at The News and remembers her being “intrepid” from the start.

“Everyone knows her now for being a legend in crime reporting, but I remember when she was one of the best news/feature takeout writers I’d ever read. I’d read her stories based on the byline alone. She’d write an enterprise story that filled two entire pages of a newspaper, and we’d give her a hard time about how long the story was. But once you started reading it, it was impossible to stop.”

Archibald, who started at The News the same year as Robinson, said it was clear early on that Robinson was at home covering crime as opposed to sitting in governmental meetings. “She thrived on adrenaline and deadline and pain and sorrow and all those things that make people human,” he said.

“She had an innate ability to get people to talk about their most private thoughts, in their most delicate moments. She gave them the opportunity, the permission somehow, to say the things they needed to say when they hurt the most. A lot of people think of that as an intrusion, but it can be a gift to those who need to know their loved one is remembered.”

That “gift” is often what has separated Robinson from the rest of the pack since she became lead crime reporter at The News in 1996. Many can rip the headlines from police reports and sources, but few delve as deeply into the lives of victims and perpetrators as Robinson does.

“A few years ago, there was the awful story of the mother who accidentally and fatally left her baby in a hot car,” Arenberg recalls. “Well, Carol not only finds the mother but gets her to open up and talk about it for publication. I mean, who else can do that?”

Robinson has done it again and again. She’s covered some of the biggest crimes in Alabama history — the Birmingham abortion-clinic bombing and the search for Eric Robert Rudolph, the ambush killing of three Birmingham policemen at an Ensley drug house, stories about the anniversary of Natalee Holloway’s disappearance – but her best work has often come with the lesser-known crimes, where she has gotten people to open up in surprising ways.

Exhibit A: Robinson’s story about Tiffany Pressley, whose brother, at the time of the story, was the youngest inmate on Death Row. Robinson wrote about Pressley’s high school basketball career and her tough upbringing. Rosie O’Donnell saw the story, invited Pressley on her talk show and gave her a four-year scholarship anywhere she chose. Her choice? Auburn.

“She walked on and ended up with a basketball scholarship,” Robinson says. “She was the first in her family to go to college. Not only did she graduate, but she went on to graduate school in juvenile criminal justice and is working in Georgia. We’ve stayed in touch all these years.”

STAY ON HER GOOD SIDE

Christian, who in January retired from the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office after 37 years and worked with the media for the past 16 years, says he knew early on he wanted to be on Robinson’s good side.

“I used to try to get to class early so I could get one of the typewriters instead of the handful of new-fangled computers.”

“I figured out pretty quickly that she had a job to do, and she was going to do it well with or without me, and it would benefit the sheriff’s office more if I tried to help rather than deter her,” he said. “I mean, she is a fireball, and you definitely want to be on her good side. The other side ain’t pretty. I feel sorry for the ones that find that out the hard way. I knew sincerely that when she needed to write something unflattering about us that she would be truthful and fair. You can’t ask for more than that.”

Robinson is legendary among her peers and her competitors for how she works her sources. That means people on the scene of Birmingham’s most horrific crimes and, perhaps even more
importantly, law enforcement and other sources will call her when she’s not on the scene.

At AL.com’s downtown office, she is plugged into her police scanners all day. She does not have scanners at home, but that does not mean she is not on duty. She writes anywhere from three to 12 stories a day (her record so far is 18 in one day).

“I do work pretty much 24-7 since the news cycle now never stops,” said Robinson, whose three decade journalism career has all been at The Birmingham News and now its digital arm, AL.com. “I am so, so fortunate that while I was raising my daughter as a single mom, there was not much internet or social media. I was able to focus on her at the time, and she was definitely my priority. I think it would be tough to do my job the way I do it now had I been raising her in this day and age.”

Things have changed considerably in the journalism world and it’s changed the way Robinson does her job.

“When I was in journalism class at Auburn, I used to try to get to class early so I could get one of the typewriters instead of the handful of new-fangled computers,” she said. “Now, I take my own photos and videos with my cell phone and even post many stories from my car at a crime scene. If anyone had told me that even 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have believed them.”

‘SHE’S A ROCKSTAR’

Robinson has been married and divorced twice and her first marriage, to an undercover drug agent, brought her Maci Warren, her 25-year-old daughter who graduated from the University of Alabama and is now a first-grade teacher. The two still live together, and Warren – once a cheerleader for the Crimson Tide – is now one of her mother’s biggest cheerleaders.

“When I was younger, I never really understood exactly what went into her job other than the fact that she got to carry around police scanners and my friends always thought that was cool,” Warren says.

“Once I got older, I really started to respect her job a lot more and I realize how much other people in the community do, too. She’s a rock star.”

Theirs is a typical mother-daughter relationship, or as typical as it can be, Warren said.

“We sit on the couch after a long day of work and online shop, watch HGTV, go shopping or out to dinner, and do other things that normal moms and daughters, or roommates, would do,” she said. “But it’s also totally normal for her to get a phone call about a murder, or even a FaceTime call from a family member or friend of the murder victim. I do have to get on to her a lot about always being on her phone or computer, but I know she has to always have them on hand in case a big story pops up. Sometimes she will start telling me about a story that happened that day, and I’ll stop her and say, ‘Stop! I don’t want to hear anything sad.’ But then I start telling her a story about my day at work as a first-grade teacher, and she responds the exact same way. I guess once you are exposed to it every day, it really is what’s normal.”

Still, Warren regularly wakes up to the garage door opening and her mother (in her Lexus convertible with the license tag “Byline”) heading out in the middle of the night to a crime scene somewhere in the Birmingham metro area.

“Sometimes, it makes me a little nervous, but she knows what she’s doing,” Warren said. “I’ll even walk downstairs to leave for work early and she’ll be typing away, writing the story from the crime scene that she’s been at all night and hasn’t slept since. I truly don’t know how she does it.”

“When I was younger, I never really understood exactly what went into her job other than the fact that she got to carry around police scanners and my friends always thought that was cool,” Warren said. “Once I got older, I really started to respect her job a lot more and I realize how much other people in the community do, too. She’s a rock star.”; Photo of Robinson with her daughter, Mad Warren

Arenberg, now a journalism professor at the University of Alabama, doesn’t know how she does it, either. “The transformation from print to digital in the news business threw a lot of veterans for a loop, but Carol has embraced it and thrived,” he said. “Nobody brings more online readership to AL.com than Carol. It’s not just that she realizes crime is a popular topic; it’s also the volume and quality of the crime stories she does. I’m pretty sure she never sleeps.”

FEARLESS REPORTING

In her 32 years and thousands of stories (since 2009, when they began being counted, she has written just over 17,000), Robinson has rarely feared for her safety.

“There have been only a few dicey moments, and even those weren’t really threatening,” she said. “Once, a man chased me down the street with a chainsaw. However, it was electric, and he had no plug, and I was in a car, and he was on foot, so not much danger there. I get surprised when new reporters freak out and think it’s a big story if they’re out on a story and hear gunshots in the distance.”
Robinson is fearless and Archibald has seen that at work first-hand.

“Once, a man chased me down the street with a chainsaw.”

“I covered cops before she did, and I remember one time we were on the scene of a crime and there were a bunch of obvious gang members standing on the corner of a particularly dangerous southwest Birmingham street,” he recalled. “She walked up to one of them, a guy in a bulky coat, reached out and pulled his coat open. She said, ‘What you packin’?’ He just shook his head and laughed. And told her.”

Robinson points to her Auburn journalism professors Jack Simms, Jerry Brown and Gillis Morgan and early editors Arenberg, Randy Henderson and Paul Foreman as mentors. Her inspiration? Legendary South Florida crime writer Edna Buchanan.

Archibald says Robinson herself  “is a celebrity among the criminal element.”

“Her reputation precedes her now,” he says. “I used to say she was the Edna Buchanan of Alabama, but nobody knows who that is anymore. I have to tell them that Edna Buchanan was the Carol Robinson of Miami.”

Robinson has been covering crime full-time for more than 30 years, and she doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

“Sometimes, I do get tired of getting up in the middle of the night to cover a story, but I’d rather be there than not be there,” she said. “There is no better way to cover a story than to be on the scene. I can’t stand not being there, so it is what it is. I would say I still thrive on it. Included in my prayers before I go to bed every night is, ‘Lord, please don’t let there be any crime tonight. But if there is, please don’t let me miss it.’”