Jack Robinson served in the United States Air Force for 25 years. A proud airman, he had enlisted right out of high school, quickly rose to the rank of Technical Sergeant and served a tour in Vietnam.
But Jack’s other passion was trains. He loved trains, his daughter Tammy told Dateline.
Growing up in Columbia, South Carolina, part of a family with a lot siblings, but not a lot of money, Christmases for Jack were limited and the children typically only received one gift each. Jack always asked for some sort of toy train. But he longed to one day ride one.
It would be years before he got that chance. After his marriage with Tammy’s mother ended, Jack opted to stay in Columbia while his ex-wife and their daughter moved their lives to Florida.
Jack retired from the U.S. Air Force after 25 years and then spent an additional 20 years as a civil servant working at the Moncrief Army Health Clinic.
But he always made time to visit his daughter and two grandsons in Florida. Tammy told Dateline that when her boys were little, just 2 and 4, her father decided to take them on his, and their, first train ride.
“He wanted the boys to experience the train,” Tammy said. “Because he never got that opportunity. He was excited to see their reactions.”
The train rides between South Carolina and Florida continued for years.
Until the summer of 1996.
Jack’s grandsons were 10 and 12 that summer. Tammy told Dateline they still loved hanging out with their grandfather - going to the beach and getting ice cream.
But a phone call Tammy received on August 17, 1996 would shatter their lives forever.
“I was told my father was dead,” she said. “But not just that, he had been murdered. Stabbed to death. I didn’t know what to think. We were in shock for the longest time.”
According to Deputy Chief Stan Smith with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, deputies responded to the Rosewood boat landing at the end of Rosewood Drive, just down the road from the SC State Fairgrounds in Columbia, for a report of a man who had been stabbed.
That’s where they discovered the injured 65-year-old Jack Robinson.
Witnesses told deputies that Jack, who had driven down to the boat landing in his white four-door 1991 Dodge Dynasty, met with a man and walked with him into a wooded area.
A short time later, witnesses heard the two men start to argue, and said they heard Jack tell the man he could get him money and then loudly exclaimed, “what is it that you want,” before the argument seemed to turned physical.
Jack’s daughter told Dateline that she doesn’t believe the murder was over money because she knows her father would have given the person cash if he had it, although she said he rarely carried much cash.
The argument between the two men that day was followed by a scream, witnesses say, and then they said they saw Jack stumble out of the woods, clutching his stomach and chest. He had been stabbed and was pleading for help.
The witnesses called 911 and Jack was rushed to Palmetto Health Richland Hospital where he died from his injuries within just a few hours.
Chief Smith told Dateline that three witnesses gave their statements to the deputies in duty at that time. And they all had the same story. They also gave a solid description of the suspect to police.
He was described as a Latino male about 5’10”, 160 lbs., with a mustache, and he wearing dark Ray-Ban or aviator style sunglasses. He was believed to be around 25-35 years old.
An investigation revealed that Jack most likely knew the suspect and there were theories that they may have had a physical relationship.
Tammy told Dateline that shortly before her father was killed, he frequented a gay bar in the area. She added that the boat landing was a hangout spot for some locals, but she does not know what he would be doing there that day.
Tammy said her father had a number of friends, but that he was quiet and mostly kept to himself, unless he was helping others.
“He would never hesitate to help someone in need,” she said. “He would never hurt someone and it makes no sense why someone would want to hurt him.”
When Jack wasn’t working or spending time with his grandsons, he was volunteering at homeless shelters and working on campaigns for the local Democratic party.
About a year following the murder, Tammy said she got word that a man charged in another death in the county was also a person of interest in her father’s murder.
“At that point, I thought it was over,” she told Dateline. But it wasn’t even close. I was in for another shock.”
It turned out that the man was never charged in her father’s murder.
About 14 years after her father was killed, Tammy was online, browsing the internet for family history. She stumbled upon her father’s name. It was included in a sheriff’s office press release asking the public to come forward with information.
“I called and was connected with Chief Smith of the cold case unit,” she said. “And I’ve been working his case ever since. I work his case every day.”
August marked 25 years since her father’s murder and Tammy hasn’t given up her search for answers.
On August 17, 2021, Tammy, along with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department held a news conference in Columbia, South Carolina.
A composite sketch and an age-progression composite of what the suspect could look like today was released by deputies in the hope that someone will recognize him and come forward.
“This particular situation is the first time we’ve used this new computer technology to enhance a composite sketch and also an age progression of that, so we’re excited about the possibility it may lead us to identify him or give us a new lead - just hearing the story once again,” Lieutenant Kevin Isenhoward of the Richland County Sheriff’s Department said at the press conference in August.
New posters and a billboard have gone up in the area where Jack was killed. Tammy regularly posts to the Justice for Jack Robinson Facebook page, hoping one day someone comes forward and helps solve the case.
She told Dateline that she will not stop telling her father’s story until she knows the name of the person who took him away and caused their family 25 years of pain.
“It’s been a 25-year nightmare,” she said. “When someone is murdered, someone you love, it tears you apart and never leaves you.”
Tammy, will be 63 this year, close to the age her father was when he was killed, and said she feels most of her life has been consumed with his case. Her hope is that it’ll be solved before she’s gone.
“My sons have promised to take over the fight if anything happens to me,” Tammy said. “So that gives me some peace.”
For now, she continues to give her father a voice by telling his story.
“It’s hard to talk about my father, hard to tell his story, Tammy said. “But I have to tell his story so he’s never forgotten.”
Anyone with information about Jack’s case is asked to contact the Richland County Sheriff’s Department at 803-576-3073 or Crime Stoppers at 1-888-CRIME SC.