By Rose Quinn
Published in the Delaware County Daily Times
Keeping tight with family was second nature to Robert Allen “Robby” Payne. Making the rounds with all of his aunts, uncles and cousins was a welcome routine.
It never mattered to him how many relatives were hosting a holiday or special occasion dinner, “Robby always called ahead to make sure he had a plate,” Chelsea Baird, one among Payne’s core of five closest cousins, recently recalled.
“That could mean two, three or more stops … His belly was always full, that’s for sure,” Baird said recently, laughing as she shared the treasured memory.
He especially loved the pound cake made by his aunt Patricia Johnson, Chelsea’s mom.
Payne, a 31-year-old Chester resident, a soon-to-be dad and a beloved English teacher at Chester High School, was in full family mode on July 4, 2016, according to several family members.
Early in the day, Payne spoke with his father, the Rev. Robert Johnson of Philadelphia, on the phone, and they made plans to get together later in the week. Later that afternoon, Payne attended a celebration in Swarthmore, an annual Fourth of July block party in the neighborhood of his maternal aunt and uncle, Dorris and Arnold “Butch” Adams, the couple who raised Payne since age 5.
Meanwhile, Art Johnson, 35, another close cousin on Payne’s father’s side of the family, was looking for Payne to make an appearance at his holiday cookout in Philadelphia, as Payne had promised.
When Payne left the Swarthmore party between 4:30-5 p.m. to meet a woman in Chester, his aunt and uncle expected Payne to return to their home.
Tragically, Payne never made it back to Swarthmore, or to his cousin’s in Philadelphia.
- Payne, 31, of Chester, was fatally shot on July 4, 2016. He was found in the driver’s seat of his pre-owned, running white Crown Victoria, near the corner of Third and Kerlin streets in Chester, shortly before 6:45 p.m.
- Homicide investigation is ongoing by Detective Rhaheem Blanden of the Chester Police Department, along with detectives from the Delaware County Criminal Investigation Division.
- Anyone with information is asked to contact Detective Blanden at 610-447-8420 or at [email protected]; CID at 610-891-4700; or 911.
All the family Fourth of July celebrations were either over or winding down by the time relatives began to learn the devastating news: Robby was murdered.
The 18-year-old woman Payne had gone to meet in Chester found him in the driver’s seat of his running white Crown Victoria and called 911, according to investigators.
Chester police were dispatched to the scene near the corner of Third and Kerlin streets, about 6:45 p.m. on July 4, 2016. When officers arrived, Payne was unresponsive with multiple gunshot wounds to his head and body. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
Last week, as the Rev. Johnson was contemplating his Sunday sermon for today, the fifth anniversary of his son’s murder, he knew he would somehow include Robby, along with acknowledging countless, nameless others whose lives ended in gunfire.
It wouldn’t be the first time Johnson, pastor at the Second Nazareth Baptist Church in Philadelphia, spoke from the pulpit about street violence plaguing cities like Chester and Philadelphia, and beyond.
“I pray constantly for families who have to walk away from a cold grave. I pray they can survive because I almost didn’t survive.
“When you take the life of someone, there is a trickle-down effect. You damage an entire family,” said Rev. Johnson.
Johnson believes grief was a factor in the 2018 death of Robby’s mother. Rhonda Payne died by suicide in Arizona, he said.
“I know what it’s like out on that ledge and wondering, ‘Why go on in a world like this,’ ”Johnson continued. “The suffering is devastating.”
Johnson was fortunate to have support from friends in the ministry.
“I survived by the grace of God,” he said.
Johnson, who was recently engaged, continues to seek comfort through his faith, and his family. Among his great joys is spending time with Nasir Allen Payne, his 4-year-old grandson, the son Robby never lived to meet.
“Nasir is like a carbon copy of Robby,” said Johnson. “I look at that as a two-edged sword because I see so much of Robby in Nasir, but I do not get to see Robby at all.”
‘A great kid’
Robby Payne’s parents were both sophomores in college when they met at Cheyney University of Pennsylvania. Robert Johnson, a communications major at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania, was visiting his brother at Cheyney when he was introduced to Rhonda Payne, who was studying education. She later taught in Chester schools.
“Robby was very much planned,” Rev. Johnson said, noting he attended all the birth classes with Rhonda, and was in the delivery room at Crozer-Chester Medical Center when their son arrived shortly before midnight on Jan. 11, 1985.
“He was such a happy baby, and funny,” Johnson said.
Rev. Johnson holds precious his years of memories of raising Robby on Pusey Street in Chester and in South Philadelphia.
“He was almost a carbon copy of me,” said Johnson, citing his son’s caring nature. “He was a great kid … He was a magnet to everyone he came in contact with.”
But Robert and Rhonda’s relationship was not without problems, and the unmarried couple parted ways. Johnson was separated from Robby for a few years, but when father and son reunited, their bond grew strong.
Johnson was and continues to be grateful for the love the Adams’ showered on his son, he said.
‘Nothing is the same’
As a child, Payne was always sensitive to others, Arnold Adams told the Daily Times during an extensive interview in 2016. He said Payne had an infectious smile, and that he had amassed a legion of friends.
A 2003 graduate of Strath Haven High School, Payne was a standout athlete in football, basketball and track.
As an adult, Payne had many close relationships. Family members described him as loyal, grounded and fun. They said he was just as passionate about his ancestry as he was about current social issues.
They said Payne loved teaching, and he was excited about raising a son.
According to Rev. Johnson, Payne was also excited about a book he was writing about his African and Native American Indian roots. Johnson noted he is part Cherokee, and also indicated that Rhonda had Native American roots.
“When Robby found out about his Indian ancestry, he started fasting on Thanksgiving,” his father said. “He did that because he was bothered by the way they were treated.”
At 31, Baird is now the same age as Robby, whom she considered “like a brother,” was taken from her. Describing Payne as her confidante since she was 16, she said there was nothing they didn’t talk about. She misses his intellect and his guidance, and she wishes he was here to know her son, and to see her accomplishments.
“Since he’s been gone, nothing is the same…Robby was a once in a lifetime,” said Baird. “How can you forget a beautiful soul like that, it’s impossible.”
A newlywed, Art said Robby would have loved his wedding in Mali, West Africa, and his cousin’s absence was very much felt.
The cousins were practically “inseparable,” whether they were betting beers on sports games at a bar, or talking about the lineage of educators on his mother’s side of the family, Art Johnson said.
The pair was planning to start a massage therapy business. “Robby was already in school and I was about to enroll … It was picking up steam. It wasn’t just talk,” said Art.
Payne was a “ladies man,” an extrovert who made friends easily, his cousin said. He also liked to dance, especially songs by his favorite Michael Jackson. Also, Payne was a fan of the late Muhammad Ali, because of their mutual Afrocentric interests, the cousin said.
“For this to happen to him of all people, it’s just ridiculous … I still don’t know really what happened,” Art said. “He was the most pure hearted person on the planet. Robby was almost not fit for this world, he was so good.”
Losing Payne changed Art Johnson’s life in many ways, including inspiring him to want to emulate his cousin.
“”When I saw at the funeral how many people he had interacted with, it was mind blowing. It became part of me,” Art said. “I want to live my life trying to be more like him. I want to be more open to people, really connect with people, the way Robby did.”
‘Whoever did this, had no right’
Payne suffered 23 entry wounds – one each to his lip, abdomen, arm and shoulder; two each to his neck, back, chest, side; and 11 to his hip and thigh, Chester Police Commissioner Steven Gretsky said, citing a report by the Delaware County Medical Examiner’s Office.
As Payne’s death remains an open investigation, authorities have no suspects or an established motive.
“This homicide occurred in the area of Third and Kerlin, which is one of the busiest intersections. A total of 13 7.62 x 39 casings were recovered from the scene. The caliber comes from a high-powered assault rifle,” Gretsky said. “I’m hoping that whoever witnessed this homicide contacts the City of Chester Police Department and the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office. We want to bring the individual or individuals responsible to justice.”
Lt. William Gordon of the Delaware County Criminal Investigation Division was among the investigators who responded to the scene five years ago. Payne’s car was parked at the curb on Third Street, at Kerlin, he said.
The “beat up” Crown Victoria, which Payne purchased on craigslist less than a week before his death, had a broken window and no air conditioning, among other problems, his father previously noted.
While a few onlookers gathered as the initial investigation unfolded, Gordon said no one provided any information, with the exception of the woman who found Payne and called for help.
Since inheriting the investigation in 2017, city Detective Rhaheem Blanden said he has not had much information to work with, and that the investigation file contains little more than the initial reports.
According to Blanden, the woman who found Payne provided a statement early in the investigation. “But she became uncooperative about four or five months later,” he said.
While no scenario has been ruled out, an early theory that Payne may have been lured to his death has never been substantiated, and there was no indication of a robbery, according to Gordon.
“He wasn’t a bad guy by any means, and he didn’t cross anyone that we are aware of,” Gordon said, noting his death drew an outpouring of sympathy, especially from the education community.
Echoing Gretsky, Gordon and Blanden appealed to the public for information.
Meanwhile, Payne’s father waits – and prays- for justice.
“You would think it would have gotten easier. But I am frustrated … You keep on living, but every day it is before you. Some days you cry a little harder than others,” Rev. Johnson said. “Whoever did this had no right to take a life. And, they still exist.”
Third in a special and occasional series in partnership with the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office.