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Tammy and Cindy Acuff visited a memorial site for slain Officer James Sell yesterday in Gassville, Ark.
Tammy and Cindy Acuff visited a memorial site for slain Officer James Sell yesterday in Gassville, Ark. (Essdras M. Suarez/ Globe Staff)

Teen gunman's tie to woman probed

After death of shooter, a hunt for clues to rampage

(Omission: A Page One story in yesterday's Globe about a New Bedford teenager's shootout with police in Arkansas did not include the title and full name of Bristol District Attorney Paul F. Walsh Jr. in late editions)

MOUNTAIN HOME, Ark. -- As authorities try to piece together the desperate and violent journey that led a New Bedford teenager to a bloody confrontation with police in rural Arkansas, officials said yesterday that Jacob D. Robida might have hugged Jennifer Rena Bailey seconds before he put a gun to her head and fatally shot her.

The embrace, authorities said, is one indication that Robida, 18, might have had a close relationship with Bailey, 33, a mother of three from Charleston, W.Va., who was in the passenger seat of his green Pontiac Grand Am when Robida shot her and then opened fire on police on the side of a highway in the high plains of the Ozark Mountains.

Robida was then shot twice by officers, and yesterday he died at Cox-South Hospital in Springfield, Mo. It had been three days since authorities say he swung a hatchet and fired a handgun in an attack at a New Bedford gay bar. His journey took him from Puzzles Lounge in New Bedford to West Virigina, where he picked up Bailey, and to a motel parking lot in Gassville, Ark., where he shot Officer James Sell.

As authorities try to learn what caused Robida, a high school dropout with swastika tattoos, to unleash such violence, much attention is focusing on his relationship with Bailey, whom he apparently met on the Internet and had visited at least once before in West Virginia. Yesterday, investigators fanned from New Bedford to Charleston, W.Va., to north central Arkansas in a hunt for clues.

''We all want to know, was he helped, what triggered all of this?" said Walsh. ''That's the million-dollar question. We want to know. And our community wants to know."

Walsh said it is not certain that Robida and Bailey were romantically involved, but it appears, based on Robida's prior visit and their embrace, that they had a personal relationship, he said.

Bristol County officials believe that Robida acted alone. But they were seeking to talk to those who knew him to make sure. Walsh said that at this point he does not expect criminal charges to be brought against anyone else.

''My hope is this was a lone crazy kid and something happened crazy to him, and he did this on his own," Walsh said.

In Baxter County, Ark., yesterday, authorities provided new details about the events that have shaken the quiet, trout-rich region, where violent crime is rare.

Authorities said that at about 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Sell was running a radar gun on a main throughway in town to check for speeders when he stopped Robida's car. Sell apparently had no idea a violent fugitive was behind the wheel. Although Arkansas authorities had received a bulletin about Robida, his Massachusetts license plate had been replaced with a Kentucky plate.

As Sell stepped from his cruiser and examined Robida's license, Robida suddenly opened fire. Maryann Hoyne, manager of the Brass Door motel, said she heard gunshots, called 911, and saw Sell lying on the ground.

''I saw there was nothing I could do for him, blood was flowing from his neck and head," she said.

Robida looked her in the eye, she said, but she was not afraid he would shoot her.

''He was trying to get out of there, he was running," she said.

Sell's patrol car contained a video camera, which Baxter County Sheriff John Montgomery called a ''vital piece of evidence," but he would not discuss its contents.

After the slaying, Robida led police on a 16-mile car chase, racing up to 90 miles an hour before officers lay spikes on the road, blowing out his front tires. In Norfork, Ark., Robida's car spun 180 degrees and came to rest facing police.

It's the next few seconds that investigators are examining. Walsh and New Bedford Mayor Scott W. Lang say that investigators have told them that Robida then turned to Bailey, hugged her, then put his gun to her head and killed her. Walsh and Lang stressed that the encounter is still under investigation and other scenarios are being considered. But the moment is considered key because it may reveal whether Bailey was a willing companion to Robida or had been forced into his flight from justice.

After Robida shot Bailey, he opened fire on police, who fired back, striking him twice in the head. He died at 3:38 a.m. yesterday.

Local resident Bart Conley, who raced to the scene when he heard gunfire, said he saw Robida slumped behind the wheel.

''We moved down here from Kansas City to get away from this stuff and now it's in our backyard," Conley said.

Conley's wife, Betty, recalled police rushing to the scene.

''I've never seen so many people in this town except for the Pioneer Parade," she said.

Robida, Montgomery said, had chosen a good route for a man on the run: taking the winding back roads through a tourist area accustomed to strangers passing through. He was hours from the nearest major interstate. Authorities said he could have been heading anywhere: Mexico, Oklahoma, or a small town in Arkansas.

The bodies of Robida, Sell, and Bailey were brought yesterday to the state medical examiner's office in Little Rock, Ark., where autopsies were planned.

State Police in West Virginia have released few details about Bailey and her relationship with Robida. No funeral arrangements have been announced for any of the deceased.

In Baxter County, residents grieved at the bloodshed. Sell, a well-liked collector of vintage cars, worked with the Blytheville Police Department for more than 25 years before retiring as captain in 2000. He had been working with the Gassville force since 2003.

In New Bedford, different emotions swept the community. Last week, police who searched Robida's bedroom found homemade posters disparaging African-Americans and Jews; neo-Nazi literature and skinhead paraphernalia; a makeshift coffin; and an empty knife sheath.

Yesterday his friends gathered at the apartment Robida shared with his parents on busy County Street. Some, dressed in black and listening to rock music, shooed reporters away.

''That kid's always been nothing but nice to me," said Heather Volton, 22, in an interview at a friend's house in Fall River. ''That kid never so much as raised his voice at me."

As Walsh and Lang prepare to fly to Arkansas for Sell's burial, they are grappling with feelings of remorse and guilt that a local teenager's rage had exploded into mayhem for a small town in Arkansas.

''There's a sense that this was really our problem," Walsh said, ''and then a 63-year-old police officer doing his job, a good old boy who seemed like a very good guy and lost his wife to cancer recently. . .well, one of our colleagues took a bullet."

Globe staff writers Jenna Russell, Maria Cramer, and Globe correspondents Liberty Parks and Waylon Harris contributed to this report. Russell reported from West Virginia.

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