Dead Reckoning

Only Michael Furlong knows how his wife fell to her death. But the authorities know this isn't the first time he's lost a mate.

Robson and Jacques had been close. Both single mothers, they had provided babysitting for each other's children, partied together, swapped clothes and shared bartending duties at the Star-Lite Lounge in Fountain, just north of Colorado Springs.

"She was one of the best. Good friend. Good mother," Jacques says now. Jacques is sitting at a wooden table at the Tomahawk Truck Stop with three other women, all once friends of Robson. They nurse large paper cups of iced tea; smoke hangs blue in the air.

Fountain is a very small town. Locals joke that it consists of five bars, six liquor stores and a police station--and boasts the highest number of DUI citations in the state. Together, the Tomahawk and the Star-Lite constitute the town's social heart.

For Robson, who came to Fountain with her boyfriend and her two-year-old son in 1980, they represented home. And Jacques, Sue Mattson, Theresa Tryon and Karol Abeyta were family.

Now these women are struggling to do the impossible: to communicate why they loved Robson, to describe all the qualities that made her unique. She was tough, they say, and loving. A small woman with graceful hands who ate hot peppers like candy, appreciated purple, went to flea markets, did crochet and macrame work and loved to cook.

Jacques remembers Robson bringing over salmon-and-rice dinners for her while she tended bar. "She was a little mother hen," she says. "She took care of all of us, and we took care of her."

But if Robson had her cozy domestic side, she also liked drinking, partying and men. She had a wicked sense of humor. She played "I Wanna Bop With You Baby" over and over on the Star-Lite jukebox. She loved celebrating holidays. The women crack up as they remember Halloween 1986, when Robson jiggled around behind the bar wearing "a big plastic butt, huge boobs and enough makeup for three hookers."

One of Robson's most tender relationships was with Theresa Tryon's father, Billy Bob Northern. Billy Bob looked like a beat-up Santa Claus, with his one eye, long white beard and round paunch. Long retired and suffering from emphysema, he was employed as a bouncer at the Star-Lite. Robson looked out for him, taking lunch to the trailer park where he lived, once running out of the bar when he didn't respond to her phone call, finding him comatose on the floor and summoning help. In return for her care, he took her to the Tomahawk for brunch every Sunday.

"She bought my dad a unicorn clock for Christmas," Tryon says, "a big gold plastic clock with red roses. It was the ugliest, cheesiest thing you ever saw. He loved that clock. He never took it down."

Nothing came easily to Linda Robson, her friends agree. She grew up on the Makah Indian Reservation in Neah Bay, Washington, daughter of an alcoholic mother and an abusive alcoholic father.

Her aunt, Vickie Burley, remembers her own father rushing over to Linda's house to intervene after Vickie had seen the little girl being thrown off the dining room table. After Linda's mother died of liver failure, Burley's family took in the young girl. But when Burley's father was forced to leave for California in search of work, Linda went to a foster home.

Linda gave birth to her son, Eugene James--now generally called JR--while in her teens; JR's father went to prison when the child was just three months old.

But then Linda met another man, Bill Humphreys, in Oregon. When he moved to Colorado, she followed, and they lived together in Fountain for five years. "At that point, I was the only father JR ever knew," Humphreys says.

For a while the relationship flourished. But Robson and Humphreys both started drinking heavily, and eventually "she started going out," Humphreys says. "I partied way too much. It got pretty bad."

Finally Robson and JR moved out, and soon after, Humphreys left town. "I was just getting too radical," he says, "drinking too much, feeling sorry for myself and lonely." Humphreys has been sober for ten years now.

Several months after Humphreys moved on, still grieving the loss of the relationship, Robson began dating Michael Furlong, an engineer who worked in Colorado Springs, the town where he'd spent much of his childhood.

At first, Theresa Tryon and Billy Bob Northern approved of Robson's new beau. They hoped that Furlong, with his quiet demeanor and professional career, would provide some stability for Linda and JR.

Jacques, however, mistrusted Furlong. "He had a weasel, sneaky, beady-eyed look to him," she says.

The relationship was strained from the start. Robson did not want a long-term commitment; Furlong did. He preferred a quiet life; she liked to party.

Sue Mattson passes a photograph around the table. It shows a slender woman in jeans. Her hair is dark and smooth, her smile wide, and she wears rose-tinted spectacles with large, round frames. "That's her," says Mattson.

"He was very possessive," she continues. "They would come in here after closing the bar. She'd come to the kitchen to talk to me and he would stand in the doorway to make sure she didn't go out the back door. If she went to the bathroom, he would follow her, stand right outside the door and wait. She told me once, 'I wish he would just let me breathe.'"

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