Portrait of a doomed marriage

The Robbs had trouble almost from the start. The Penn professor's wife was killed in December.

They weren't an obvious match - Ellen Gregory, the vivacious sales manager, and Rafael Robb, the reserved University of Pennsylvania economics professor she met through a dating service in 1987.

Her Israeli suitor wasn't the love of her life, but he was worldly and courted her with elegant dinners and theater tickets. He had impressive academic credentials, her personality lit up a room.

"They seemed like opposites who complemented each other," said Jane Dee, who worked with Ellen at the old Bamberger's store in King of Prussia.

Ellen's family knew better. Soon after the couple's 1990 wedding, Ellen complained that her husband was cold, tight-fisted and controlling and began to talk of divorce, said her brother, Art Gregory of Haddonfield.

The couple eventually retreated to separate bedrooms and retained but one bond - their daughter, born in 1994.

Last fall, after years of depression, Ellen finally screwed up the courage to end the wretched union.

"She told me it was like the clouds had parted," said Sharon Sellman, who lives in the Robbs' tranquil Upper Merion neighborhood. "She was very happy."

Ellen's joy was short-lived. On the morning of Dec. 22, hours before relatives say she was to leave her husband, the stay-at-home mother was bludgeoned to death as she wrapped a few last Christmas gifts.

Charged with first-degree murder is Rafael, 56, who police say attacked her from behind, crushing her face and skull beyond recognition. He awaits a preliminary hearing tomorrow in Montgomery County Court.

"I've not heard anybody comment in any negative way about Dr. Robb in terms of his relationships," said lawyer Robert Levant, whose client says he came home to find his wife dead at the kitchen table after what Rafael suggested to police was a bungled robbery.

But many who knew the Robbs say the polite, unassuming professor dominated Ellen financially and emotionally.

In October, the month she consulted a divorce lawyer, Ellen told a friend that Rafael had given her a black eye, police said, though no one saw the injury and Levant dismisses the claim.

She warned another confidante that if anything happened to her, Rafael should be considered the prime suspect, according to police.

And there was something else Ellen Robb confided: She suspected that her husband, who her relatives say never opened a joint bank account, had stashed money in foreign banks. An acquaintance in the investment world had found wire transfers, Ellen claimed.

On the day she died, Ellen, her daughter and her mother planned to travel to Massachusetts for a family holiday. Her Irish-Italian clan had organized a surprise party to celebrate her 50th birthday on Dec. 26 and the start of her new life.

Ellen would return to Upper Merion and pack while Rafael visited Israel, the couple had agreed. By New Year's Day, she and their only child would be living in a nearby townhouse.

Rafael Robb knew the divorce could be financially punishing, police allege. It was money, and the thought of losing his daughter, they say, that made the doting father snap.

Money was a recurring issue in the Robb marriage.

Ellen, who grew up with two brothers and her widowed mother in a modest Rosemont home, worked three jobs to put herself through Philadelphia College of Textile and Sciences, now Philadelphia University. After graduating, she threw herself into a career in retail, where the hours suited her well-known inability to get up early.

She was "very bubbly, loved to dance," said Becky Best, Ellen's maid of honor and her best friend at Radnor High.

Art Gregory believes that, at 30, Ellen was eager to start a family when she met Rafael. "The clock was ticking," he said. "Ellen really, really wanted children."

Rafael had other priorities. "With him, it was always work, work, work," said Ellen's mother, Mary Gregory of Honey Brook. "And when he was home, his face was in a book. She married the wrong man."

After attending an elite university in Jerusalem, where his Holocaust-survivor parents lived comfortably as owners of a fabric company, Rafael earned his doctorate at the University of California, Los Angeles, and joined the faculty at Penn in 1984. He earned about $180,000 a year there, according to a source familiar with the couple's finances.

He did his most important work, in the evolutionary field of game theory, a mathematical discipline used to analyze political, economic and military strategies, in the early 1990s.

"It was very influential," said Roberto Serrano, a game theorist at Brown University.

Many in Upper Merion, where Rafael bought the Forest Road split-level in his name during the couple's courtship, found him standoffish. "He only let you see a certain side of him," Mary Beth Pedlow, a friend of the couple, said.

But fellow academics and students at Penn, where he is on indefinite leave, described Rafael as cordial. He has published dozens of papers, with scholars from Greece, Israel and Japan, and in 2002 he won an undergraduate teaching award.

"You could easily see yourself liking him outside of the classroom," Penn junior Dimitry Cohen told the Penn student newspaper this month.

Whatever affection the Robbs felt quickly faded as they fought over her spending and the overseas sabbaticals that accompanied his rising stature.

Three years into the marriage, with Rafael teaching in France, Ellen made the first of several attempts at divorce, Gregory said. She told friends her husband wanted out.

Then Ellen learned she was pregnant. She worried about raising the child alone, said Gregory, with whom Ellen stayed often during a rough pregnancy.

"Pretty much everybody had their fingers crossed that he wouldn't come back," he said.

But Rafael returned for the birth and the parents reconciled. A few years later, Ellen gamely accompanied him for nine months in Israel. Not knowing Hebrew, she felt lost, but she endeared herself to her mother-in-law by throwing her a birthday party, friends said.

Rafael's sister in Israel did not return phone calls, and his mother is seriously ill. Rafael's father is deceased.

Raffi, as he is known, increasingly used his power as the family's sole wage-earner to dominate Ellen, Gregory said. Instead of cash, he gave her a credit card for household items and would cut it off, he said.

"Everything had to go through that card. He would ask her, 'Why did you buy this? Why did you buy that?' "

She began binge-buying, then she would feel guilty and return most items, Pedlow said.

"Bills would come in and he'd go ballistic," Gregory said.

Even attempts at generosity were thwarted by Rafael's penuriousness, said Gregory, who in 2005 offered to sell his sister his 2003 Volkswagen Passat for a fraction of its value. Rafael, who drove a late-model BMW, killed the deal by demanding Gregory pay the transfer tax and title the car in his name. Ellen continued to drive her vintage Subaru without airbags.

Over the years, Ellen spent a $40,000 to $50,000 inheritance and her 401(k) on purchases Rafael wouldn't pay for, Gregory said. And she became convinced that Rafael had put savings into offshore accounts.

"Ellen said, 'Mother, he has money in countries you never heard of,' " Mary Gregory said.

It's a claim several friends heard over the years, but which Levant, Rafael's attorney, disputes.

The only family member Rafael seemed to enjoy was his daughter. At get-togethers and Shore vacations with in-laws, he took his own car so he could leave at will, relatives said.

"We'd question why he was even there," Gregory said.

Ellen remained in the marriage for her daughter. When the girl entered Roberts Elementary School, Ellen, impeccably dressed in corduroys and sweaters, was the mother who volunteered for everything. When depression later immobilized Ellen, Rafael chaperoned class trips and helped sell Girl Scout cookies.

"He spoiled [his daughter] more than his wife," Jeanette Gregory said, referring to the clothes, dinners, and New York shows he lavished on the girl.

He was equally generous with her friends, treating them to movies and trips to amusement parks, said Arnold Jentleson, a neighbor whose son often went along on the outings.

"He was a very nice guy. Warm, jovial, joking," said Jentleson, who helped Rafael find a lawyer and who has his financial power of attorney.

People had known for years that the marriage was a shambles, he said. "A lot of people live that way," said Jentleson, adding he did not believe Rafael could commit murder.

At Ellen's viewing, "He hugged my son and cried like a baby," Jentleson said.

In recent years, Ellen slipped deeper into her problems and away from her friends. By early 2004, she rarely left the house or returned phone calls. In March of that year, she still hadn't taken down her Christmas tree. The house was so cluttered it was hard to get past the front door.

"Things were bad," Pedlow said. Her friend sought counseling, Pedlow said, but she claimed that antidepressants aggravated her chronic colitis.

Five months ago, Ellen finally consulted a lawyer and rented a place in King of Prussia for $1,550 a month. She expected to get $4,000 in monthly support, Ellen told the real estate agent.

It was her daughter who gave Ellen the push she needed, Art Gregory said.

Ellen worried that stress at home was harming the girl. And something else was troubling her, Gregory said: Was it just 12-year-old attitude or had her daughter begun to mimic Rafael's belittling behavior?

"She didn't want [her daughter] to think that's how men treated women," Pedlow said.

In December, Ellen asked Rafael to move into the townhouse, police said. When he refused, she decided to take her daughter and leave instead.

Pedlow remembers her last conversation with Ellen, two days before her friend was beaten beyond recognition at her kitchen table.

"I'm turning 50, my life is changing," Ellen said. "I want a better life for me and I want a better life for my daughter."


Contact staff writer Kathy Boccella at kboccella@phillynews.com or 610-313-8123.

Inquirer staff writer Nancy Phillips contributed to this article.