Friends, roommate detail last hours of Robbie Nottingham's life
This article was originally published in the August 24, 2003 issue of the Kingsport Times-News, and is reprinted here with permission.
By J.H. OSBORNE
JOHNSON CITY - As East Tennessee State University's spring break was winding down in March, Mary Nottingham urged her son to spend one more night at home before returning to his on-campus apartment.
But Robbie Nottingham told his mother that evening - as he would others several times in the last hours of his life - that he had an early morning ROTC event the next day.
That day never dawned for Robbie.
Before he left home that night, Mary asked Robbie if he ever got lonely at the apartment he shared with a fraternity brother. He said it could be lonely at times.
But the word "lonely" might not come to mind for someone reading written accounts of Robbie's last hours.
Even if his death could be called lonely, his death scene quickly became crowded.
At least eight people converged on the sight at about the same time, according to police records.
And others, including campus police and members of Robbie's family, soon joined them. Apartment residents came and went.
Most of those who saw or spoke to him that night would later use words like "upbeat," "positive" or "friendly" to describe Robbie in statements to police or private investigators.
A few used words like "lonely" and "sensitive."
Some said he could act a little risky when he'd been drinking. But he wasn't drinking that night.
Toxicology reports showed no alcohol or drugs in Robbie Notthingham's system that night.
Mary had asked Robbie to call her when he got to the apartment.
He did. At 10:59 p.m.
Four hours later, at 3 a.m., Mary and Jim Nottingham received a telephone call from someone with the ROTC program at ETSU.
They said Robbie was dead.
That was about an hour and a half after other students at ETSU Housing's Buccaneer Ridge Apartments pulled a "panic" switch to call for help because a body had been found.
According to files compiled by campus police and a private investigator hired by the Nottinghams, Robbie had contact with at least seven or eight other people after getting home that night.
Several of those, along with additional students visiting or living at Buccaneer Ridge, were involved in the discovery of his body.
A chronology of Robbie's last hours, pieced together from statements made by all those students, reads like this:
•Robbie entered the Buccaneer Ridge complex - it's a gated area, requiring a security pass or a "buzz in" from someone inside to enter - a little before 11 p.m.
•A girl downstairs in Building H - Robbie lived on the third floor - saw Robbie walking into the building carrying some milk. She asked him to join her and some friends in her apartment. Robbie knew everyone there from high school.
•Robbie took his milk upstairs and returned, joining the group in watching a Lakers game on television.
•There were already three guys and two girls at the apartment. The girls had just returned from a spring break trip to Panama City, Fla.
•Robbie left the gathering sometime between 11:30 p.m. and midnight.
•A little after midnight some other students were leaving Building H and saw Robbie standing on the third-floor balcony. They called to him - one of them another fraternity brother - and asked if he wanted to join them for an outing to an off-campus nightspot. Robbie said no, he had ROTC in the morning. The fraternity brother later described him as "normal Robbie" during the encounter.
•His roommate, David Knopp, arrived back at their apartment from spring break in Daytona Beach, Fla., sometime between 12:15 and 12:30 a.m. He said Robbie's door was closed, and his light was off.
•At some point one of the three guys watching the Lakers game left the apartment downstairs.
•Upstairs, Knopp heard the water running in Robbie's bathroom and assumed he was showering. A little later, he heard the front door close. A report from the private investigator indicates Knopp described it as the door "slammed."
•About 1 a.m. one of the students who had gone to the nightspot returned to Building H. He did not see Robbie Nottingham when he entered the building.
•About 1:30 a.m. the two girls and two guys downstairs - where Robbie had socialized over the Lakers game two hours earlier - decided to go grab some fast food.
•They found a body in a pool of blood on the sidewalk outside. Neither girl's cellular phone would work. The apartment's phone did not allow outgoing calls. They pulled the building's panic switch - setting off lights and an audible alarm.
•Moments later a carload of girls, just back from spring break in Cancun, Mexico, drove through the Buccaneer Ridge gate and pulled up to Building H. One of its occupants was Knopp's girlfriend. She and the others in the car saw someone standing in the building's entrance - and a person lying on the sidewalk. They thought it was someone - at least one at first said a girl - "passed out."
One of the girls in the car ran toward the figure on the sidewalk, got close, and "realized it was a dead body."
She screamed. She went back to the car, got in and locked the doors, and called 911. The operator asked her to check for a pulse. She and Knopp's girlfriend got out of the car and went back to the body, but neither could bring themselves to check for a pulse.
None of those present - including four of the five people Robbie watched television with and his roommate's girlfriend - said they recognized the body as that of Robbie.
•Upstairs, Knopp heard the alarm and looked out a window. But he didn't see the body. Moments later his girlfriend came into the apartment screaming someone was dead outside. He went with her back down the steps and said, "It's Robbie."
That's when campus security arrived on the scene.
"It's the call every parent dreads," Robbie's father, Jim Nottingham, said last week. "You send your kids to school, and you hope they are safe. We were naive."
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