WILLMAR – Shuffling into the courtroom, his ankles cuffed, Robert Inocencio Warwick looked taller and heavier than the teen who had been charged one year ago in his grandmother’s brutal slaying. By last week’s guilty plea, his voice had dropped deeper. His hair, which once swooped across his forehead, was closely cropped.
Family and friends who packed the Kandiyohi County courtroom for his sentencing stared at him, searching his face for the “Robbie” they had known.
His aunt, Cheri Ekbom, took the stand and asked what many wondered: Whatever happened to that “sweet young boy” who had called his grandmother, Lila Warwick, his hero? Why would he, as prosecutors have alleged, mastermind her murder?
Warwick, who turned 18 in jail, pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree murder for his role in Lila Warwick’s slaying last summer, admitting that he knew the plot to burglarize her house and steal her safe could leave her dead. So there will be no trial — and, for some family members, few answers.
But some of Robert Warwick’s friends need no more answers. They believe Robbie when he told the courtroom that he and Brok Junkermeier, the 19-year-old who stabbed and strangled Lila Warwick, had planned to rob his grandma, but not kill her.
“Brok told me it wouldn’t happen …” Warwick said. “But it happened.”
Robbie Warwick “wasn’t a mastermind, evil person,” Jesus Cisneros-Pizarro said Thursday, sitting at a picnic table while his buddies played basketball. “He was a good kid. He was a great friend.”
Cisneros-Pizarro and Warwick were tight. They’d play “Call of Duty” for hours, shoot hoops at the court near Robbie’s house, build forts in the woods.
Cisneros-Pizarro was at Robbie Warwick’s house on the rainy day when the cops came. They wanted to wait, they said, for Robbie’s mother, Jenny, before breaking the news: Lila Warwick had been found dead.
“He comes downstairs, crying,” Cisneros-Pizarro said. “He says to me, the police are here. It’s really bad. Stay down here.”
When Robbie returned to the basement, maybe an hour later, he was still sobbing. Cisneros-Pizarro walked home.
The next day was Cisneros-Pizarro’s birthday, and Robbie joined the crew at Buffalo Wild Wings in St. Cloud to celebrate. Then he was gone, arrested.
Cisneros-Pizarro heard the rumors, of course. He also knew that things between Robbie and his grandmother had been “rocky.”
Growing up, Lila Warwick was “a big influence” on Robbie, he said, partly because her son — Robbie’s father, Kent Warwick — wasn’t around.
Robbie had lived with his grandmother for a short time. She was best friends with Robbie’s younger sister. She drove the kids to practices.
But there was tension between Lila and Robbie’s mother, Jenny Warwick, who divorced Kent Warwick in 2001. One family member testified during Junkermeier’s trial that Lila kept a tab of the things she bought for the kids. Lila avoided talking to Jenny, which bothered Robbie, Cisneros-Pizarro said.
Still, he had never heard of a plot to rob Lila Warwick, he said. He couldn’t imagine Robbie intending to hurt her.
“Honestly, I never even saw it coming. Never,” Cisneros-Pizarro said. “I knew he didn’t like his grandmother. But things stay at that. I don’t know people who escalate things. If they do, it’s because they hate them or something.
“But I don’t think he hated his grandmother.”
‘My hero is my grandma’
Sifting through her mother’s desk drawer a few days after she was murdered, Ekbom found a note. At the top of the page, typed in big, bold letters: HERO. At the bottom, a name: Robbie Warwick.
“My hero is my grandma Lila,” he wrote. “She is 5’7” and has brown hair. She also has glasses.”
A week before, the undated letter was a simple keepsake of a grandson’s kind words. But by then, Warwick was sitting in jail, accused of plotting her death, then stealing her safe. His words caught in the back of Ekbom’s throat.
“My grandma does the right thing,” Ekbom said, reading the note aloud in the courtroom here Wednesday. “One time a lady dropped 20 dollars and my grandma still gave the 20 dollars back to the lady.”
Ekbom looked up at Robbie. He was crying, rocking forward and back, wiping his tears with the sleeve of his orange sweatshirt.
In trying to make sense of her mother’s murder, Ekbom has pored over the notes she took during Junkermeier’s trial, which ended abruptly after three days of testimony, when he pleaded guilty to first-degree, premeditated murder. One friend mentioned that Robbie didn’t think his grandma liked him. That’s a lie, Ekbom said. But she can see how Robbie might not understand how Lila loved him — but not his actions.
In the months before she was killed, Lila Warwick had confronted Robbie about smoking pot, Ekbom said.
“My mom wasn’t afraid to be assertive,” she said outside the Kandiyohi County Courthouse last week. “As a teenager, you don’t want to hear your grandma get in your face.”
Ekbom’s brother, Robbie’s father, lives in North Dakota and hasn’t been a part of his life for many years, Ekbom said. Lila had worried about Robbie not having a “father figure, a mentor figure in his life,” she added.
“Grandmas shouldn’t have to confront,” she said. “They should just love and do grandma stuff. Not do parenting stuff. And sometimes the boundaries there were a little blurry.”
Teen said he tagged along
Had Junkermeier’s trial continued, jurors would have likely heard from an 18-year-old who told investigators that he was one of Robbie’s best friends. Driving with Junkermeier and Warwick, the teenager heard the pair planning.
Warwick “would just keep on asking Brok questions all about it,” he said, according to the transcript filed in Kandiyohi County Court. “They would talk about how they would get in and, I don’t know, they, they just like trying to like iron out details, I think.”
The teenager told investigators in the August interview that Warwick and Junkermeier had committed petty crimes together before. He admitted to being along when Junkermeier and Warwick stole a “silver ten commandments” and a Harley-Davidson bag from a car. The friend also tagged along the day of Lila Warwick’s death, when Junkermeier and Warwick went to Lila Warwick’s house to steal her safe.
But the teenager pushed back against the idea that Warwick was plotting Lila Warwick’s murder.
“I have known him since he was a little kid,” he said. “I know he loved his grandma, and I don’t know if he meant for it to go that far. I think he meant more just for a robbery.”
Remember that time?
At his first hearing, Warwick was 17 and allowed to hug his mother, Jenny Warwick. Last week, the 18-year-old could give no embraces. Jenny Warwick sobbed just the same.
“I’m deeply sorry for what my son has done that caused our family and the community such deep pain and sorrow,” she said in a written statement Friday. “I don’t love what my son has done, but I love my son.” She declined to talk to reporters.
In the courtroom Wednesday, Cisneros-Pizarro looked at Warwick until he nodded back at him.
“It’s good that he remembers that we’re here,” he said, “that we’re his friends.”
Cisneros-Pizarro used to text Robert Warwick constantly. Now, he writes him letters. It’s not a natural thing. “I put the address up here, right?” he joked.
The letters are light, filled with nostalgia. Remember when we used to play at the park all the time? That reminds me of the time when so-and-so spilled a soda. “That kind of thing,” he said.
“We talk about the good times because he’s gotta get through the bad ones,” Cisneros-Pizarro said. He plans to “be there for him” in 30 years, when Warwick’s life sentence offers the possibility of parole.
The friends don’t talk about the crime. But that’s OK, Cisneros-Pizarro said, because he’s not haunted by the question of “why.”
“We shared secrets, we shared almost everything,” he said. “But maybe he had secrets that he didn’t want to vent to even me. Maybe. I’ll never know.
“It’s all in his head, not anyone else’s.”