When she was fifteenn, Jennifer Mee developed an unrelenting case of the hiccups—hiccupping as many as fifty times a minute for months. Soon the Florida teen's strange story went viral. Dubbed the “Hiccup Girl” by the media, she gained international sympathy and appeared on a slew of popular TV shows. Eventually, Jennifer's hiccups went away—and so did her fame.
Depressed and craving affection, Jennifer hooked up with the wrong people and slipped into drug dealing and street life—a downward spiral that led to the murder of an innocent young man. Now, renowned investigative journalist M. William Phelps expertly recounts Jennifer's shocking true story of thwarted desires, betrayed trust, and deadly manipulation.
Praise for M. William Phelps
“One of America's finest true-crime writers.” —Vincent Bugliosi, New York Times bestselling author of Helter Skelter
“Phelps is the Harlan Coben of real-life thrillers.” —Allison Brennan, New York Times bestselling author of Tell No Lies
Includes sixteen pages of dramatic photos
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About the Author
Touched by tragedy himself through the unsolved murder of his sister-in-law, Phelps is able to enter the hearts and minds of his subjects like no one else. He lives in Connecticut and can be reached at his website, www.mwilliamphelps.com.
Read an Excerpt
One Breath Away
By M. William Phelps
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 M. William Phelps
All rights reserved.
IT WAS ONE of those telephone calls in the middle of the night we all fear. The kind that jolts your heart, puts a pit in your gut, and startles you awake — your adrenaline pumping the moment you open your eyes.
Quickly roused from REM sleep by a voice calling out, letting her know there was someone on the phone, Rachel Robidoux had no idea that everything in life, as she knew it, was about to change. Nor would her life, or that of one of her children, ever be the same again.
She got out of bed and put the phone to her ear: "Hello? What is it?" Rachel could barely get the words out.
That time of night, hell, you'd expect bad news on the other end of the line.
The day preceding the telephone call, however, had started out like any other Sunday in forty-year-old Rachel Robidoux's life.
* * *
Rachel woke up at her usual 5 A.M. hour to get ready for work. It was October 24, 2010, the weather rather balmy for this time of the year in St. Petersburg, Florida. As Rachel opened the door to leave, a wall of humid, almost wet, tropical, 75-degree morning air hit her in the face.
Within Pinellas County, St. Petersburg is a rather large city, a population of about a quarter million, give or take. With Tropicana Field downtown, home to Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay Rays, St. Pete, as locals call it, still holds on to that resort-town feel its founder had intended back in 1888 when the city was born.
Rachel Robidoux worked at Denny's on Thirty-Fourth Street North, downtown. She'd been there for well over a decade. Normally, on Sundays, Rachel worked the day shift: seven to four. To this mother of five, although she'd gotten used to it by now, St. Pete might as well have been New York City. Rachel had been born and raised (mostly) in a one-stop-sign, one-intersection, everybody-knows-everybody, small New England town.
As the end of her shift on that Sunday approached, Rachel took a call from one of her five daughters, Ashley McCauley, who had turned seventeen that past April.
"You want to go to Crescent Lake Park with Grandma after you get out?"
This sounded like a good time, Rachel thought. "I'll pick you two up soon," she said.
Crescent Lake Park is in an area of St. Pete where families and lovers and kids hang out on those seemingly endless, perfect Florida days, with skies that warm color of robin's-egg blue. People flock there and enjoy the ducks and geese and swans, as well as the company they keep. Rachel needed this comforting space in her life. Not that things had been chaotic or all that difficult lately, having been through some rather extremely tough times in her life, same as just about every working-class family in the country. However, she'd had some issues over the past few years with her oldest daughter, Jennifer Mee. Jen had turned nineteen in July. Her life, as Rachel later put it, had not gone along a trajectory Rachel and her husband, Chris, Jennifer's stepfather, would have liked. Jen was Rachel's firstborn, a child from a failed relationship when Rachel was twenty-one. In fact, Jen was just eighteen months old when Rachel met Chris, Ashley three months old — their other children, Kayla, Destiny and McKenzie, Rachel and Chris had together. As far as the oldest girls were concerned, however, Chris Robidoux had always considered himself their father.
A little over a year ago, some weeks before her eighteenth birthday, Jennifer had moved out of the house and was out on her own. Before that, she had one foot out, anyway, often staying with one friend for a month, or babysitting, or staying with other friends for a few weeks here and there, maybe at a motel or even on a park bench. All this happened after Jennifer had garnered international fame in the days beyond January 23, 2007, for experiencing a bout with the hiccups that lasted for about five weeks. Still, with Jennifer moving out and "changing," as Rachel liked to say, it wasn't a major problem between Rachel and her daughter. For Rachel, it was more about the people who had flocked to Jennifer after her star rose — on top of the guys Jennifer had been dating for what was about four years.
"Thugs," Rachel called them.
Although Rachel and Jennifer spoke as much as two to three times per week, their conversations weren't like they used to be. It was definitely not the personal talk that mothers and daughters have. These days, Rachel understood (though she later admitted some denial on her part) that Jennifer was shielding parts of herself and her chosen lifestyle. Just a look at Jennifer's Myspace page, back when that gulf between mom and daughter had begun to grow, had given Rachel and Chris an idea of where Jen was headed: My love is nt a game im real n dnt wnt a fake lien cheaten azz nigga.
"I guess I should have known with the signs," Rachel recalled. "But I didn't. Jen was into some 'activities' and later she [said she] was ashamed of it all."
Rachel had no idea to what extent Jen had become involved in that street life, ripping and running with a group of hard-boiled, seasoned ruffians and tough street kids her own age. Jen had become somebody she had actually once said she despised. Maybe some naiveté existed on Rachel's part, or perhaps it was just a mother struggling to keep up with a middle-class lifestyle while still having three young kids at home. Whatever the reason, Rachel lost that close touch with Jen. As they drifted apart, Rachel felt her daughter was old enough to begin carving out her own life, make her own mistakes, and take responsibility. Besides that, Chris and Jen had been at odds for a long time now, butting heads like rams. Both Rachel and Chris knew they couldn't change Jennifer, or tell her how to live. They had been through so much during Jen's hiccup period. Both were tired, frustrated, and ready to move on.CHAPTER 2
DOWN AT CRESCENT Lake Park, after Rachel stopped and picked up her mother and Ashley, they sat and enjoyed the early evening. They fed the ducks, talked, and caught up on each other's lives. That early-morning humidity and warmth had turned into a scorching afternoon sun. During the week, Rachel lived at her mother's house just outside downtown St. Pete. Rachel and Chris and the kids had a house about ninety minutes out of town in the north, so it was more feasible and less expensive if Rachel stayed with her mother and father during the workweek. Chris collected disability — a stay-at-home dad, watching the kids, tending to the household chores. He had suffered several ailments, some psychological, others medical. The situation of Chris being home with the kids had been by design, in some ways, Rachel said. It happened after an incident some years back that greatly disturbed the entire family's trust in anyone else being around their children.
Throughout that afternoon at the park, Rachel had called Jennifer several times. She hadn't been able to reach her. Rachel, of course, wanted Jen to join them, but Jen wasn't responding to her phone calls, texts, or voice mails. And although Jen had changed and lived what Rachel and Chris saw as an unhealthy and dangerous lifestyle, they were not estranged from one another. They disagreed about things, but they always talked and tried to see each other when they could. Jen not answering her phone and not calling back was out of character.
"I was actually upset that I couldn't get hold of Jennifer on that day," Rachel remembered.
Where the heck is she?
* * *
Something happened during Rachel's break at work earlier that morning that had upset her, especially now as she thought back on it later in the day.
Jennifer had called. "Mom?"
"Yeah ...? Jennifer, hi. How are you?"
Jennifer knew her mother had had surgery for a recurring cyst a few weeks prior and had been in a lot of pain. She was taking powerful pain medication for it.
"Do you have any pain pills left from your operation?" Jennifer asked.
Rachel was alarmed. "Pain pills? Why would you need pain pills, Jennifer?"
"Mom, listen. ... Lamont got hurt. He's in a lot of pain." Lamont "Mont" Newton was Jennifer's most recent boyfriend; she had been dating the twenty-two-year-old St. Pete native for the past several months. Lamont seemed like a "nice guy," Rachel said. He was five-nine, and in great physical shape at 165 pounds. Lamont sported Bob Marley – type dreads down across his shoulders, had bushy eyebrows and clean-shaven facial skin, and generally had a calm disposition. He was polite. As Rachel saw it, Lamont was an excellent alternative and the polar opposite to Jen's previous boyfriend, a pants-down-to-his-knees, boxer-shorts-showing, ball cap tipped to one side, "yo" this/"yo" that, spot-on "thug" and violent abuser — a man who had beaten Jen on more than one occasion. In contrast, at least on the surface, Lamont came across as a guy who was entirely into Jennifer as a partner. Not what he could get from her.
"We wanted her to date within her own race," Rachel explained at the risk of coming across bigoted, claiming she and her husband were anything but racists. "Yet, Jen said she had chosen colored men to date because she had lost faith in — and wanted nothing to do with — white men altogether." Her decision stemmed specifically from a difficult period in her life when Jen was a child.
"No," Rachel said to the request for pain pills. "Tell him to go to the hospital, Jennifer. I need my medication."
Jennifer didn't sound frantic or dazed. "She didn't sound normal, either," Rachel was quick to point out. "More anxious — I felt like something was wrong, but I was clueless."
That request had come from Jen as though she was simply calling and asking her mother for some pain meds to help her boyfriend work through a back issue. And when she couldn't get the pills, well, that was it. The pair said their good-byes, promised to talk to one another later, and hung up.
But something was indeed wrong with Jennifer. Rachel had no idea that within a few hours after that phone call, their lives would take a turn none of them ever saw coming.CHAPTER 3
RACHEL CALLED JENNIFER again as they prepared to leave Crescent Lake Park on October 24, 2010, somewhere around six in the evening.
Still, no answer.
Damn, what's going on? Rachel asked herself.
Now she was truly concerned for her daughter.
On the way to drop off Ashley at her apartment — Ashley lived on her own in the city — Rachel asked Ashley what she thought Jennifer was up to, and if Ashley knew of any recent problems Jen might have, especially ones that Rachel should know about. Ashley and Jen had been tight once, but not so much anymore. Ashley did not approve of the way Jennifer had been living her life.
It was probably nothing, they decided after talking it through. Jen was likely just being herself and secretive for no apparent reason. Jen had a "diagnosed learning disability," Rachel said. She had not graduated high school, partly because of her learning difficulties and the aftermath of her quasi-celebrity while becoming known around the world as the "Hiccup Girl" after a five-week bout with the hiccups. Some of the examinations Rachel had brought her daughter to had classified Jennifer as having the intelligence of a fifth or sixth grader, according to Rachel. Jennifer wasn't stupid by any means. Yet, she did not have a lot of common sense and was often involved in things before she knew what she was getting into, or how deep the water was.
When Rachel got back to her parents' place, she had dinner with her mother and father, called Chris to say she loved him and to check in with the younger kids still at home. They talked a little bit about the day and night. After that, totally wiped out, Rachel retired to bed by about 9:30 P.M.
As she lay in bed, thinking about her day, Rachel was worried about Jennifer, and what her daughter might be up to weighed heavily on the mind of the mother of five. Why hadn't they been able to get hold of her all day and night? Where had she gone? It was unlike Jennifer to go off without talking to her mother. Not answer a text or call back? Jen might have hidden things from the family, but she wasn't a daughter who disappeared off the radar.
By ten o'clock, Rachel fell asleep — and it was not an hour later when the phone call that would change everything rang throughout the dark stillness of her mother and father's house, rustling them awake.CHAPTER 4
AFTER THE COUNTY jail computer operator went through the various options for the man on the other end of the telephone, Jennifer Mee came on the line and said, "Is Mommy up?"
Jen's grandfather, Rachel's father, had answered the phone. Rachel was asleep. "No, she went to bed. ... How you doing?" the grandfather said before asking why Jennifer was calling from jail.
"I got charged with murder ... first-degree ...," Jen uttered in a casual manner, as if it was just another day. She came across unfazed by this alarming revelation, even as it came out of her own mouth.
"What'd you do?"
"Murder in the first degree," Jen reiterated.
"Murder? First degree?" the grandfather asked, stunned by the comment.
Rather plainly, maybe even calmly, Jennifer said, "Yes, sir." It was almost as if she herself did not understand what was happening, where she was, or how serious the charges she faced were.
There was silence. Then, "Well ... who did you kill?" Jen's grandfather asked.
"Um, I didn't do nothing. I was just there at the wrong time, the wrong place. I got caught up in it all."
"When did all of this happen?"
"It took place last night and the police found me and arrested me today."
That must have been the reason why Rachel had sensed something in Jen's voice earlier that morning. She'd been involved in an incident where someone was murdered the previous night and yet she hadn't mentioned it to Rachel during that phone call. Why hadn't she shared this information with her mother when she had the opportunity while trying to pry those pills out of Rachel?
Jen's grandfather told her he was going to wake up her mother.
Rachel sounded groggy and still half asleep when she came on the phone. "Hello ...?"
"Jennifer, what's going on?" Rachel asked, right away thinking, Drugs. She's been arrested on drug charges, along with all of those derelicts she hangs out and now lives with.
"I'm in jail."
"Why are you in jail?"
"Um, first degree ... um, murder in the first degree." Jennifer sounded a little more humbled now, even a bit scared.
"Who'd you kill?"
"I ain't kill nobody."
"Well, then, how are they charging you with ... murder?"
"Because I set everything up."
There was a brief moment of quiet between them after that.
Then Jennifer continued: "It all went wrong, Momma. Shit just went downhill after everything happened, Mom." She was crying now, maybe realizing for the first time how serious a turn her life had just taken.
"Who were you trying to kill, Jennifer?"
"Nobody," she said through tears and anguish, the weight of it all hitting her very hard. "It wasn't even supposed to happen like that, Mom — "
Rachel cut her off: "Well, something happened, obviously, Jennifer, if you're in jail."
"Okay," Jennifer said. "Me, Laron, and Lamont, all right ... A dude ... was talking about he wanted a half, right, so I told him to come meet me at the park where I ... and the boys run him into a little alley thing. ... Then Lamont pulled a gun out on him. The guy went to go reach for the gun and pulled the barrel and ..." As Jennifer tried to continue, voices could be heard in the background. Jennifer said she had to get off the phone. "Mom?"
"I'll call you when I can, because I have to go." She broke down. "Mommy, try to visit me. Please."
Rachel asked how.
Jen told her to call the jail in the morning and sort it out.
"Where you at, Clearwater Jail?" Rachel asked.
"Yes, ma'am," Jennifer answered.
"All right, Jennifer. I love you."
"I love you, too, Mom."
Excerpted from One Breath Away by M. William Phelps. Copyright © 2016 M. William Phelps. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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