The Buzz

Former media star reveals dark life

Spotlight and shadow, Jon Robinson lived a double life.

High school basketball star who went to play for Lefty Driesell at the University of Maryland. Morning host on WBT-AM. News anchor on Channel 3. Stadium announcer for the Carolina Panthers. Cancer survivor.

And most recently, host on WKQC-FM ("K" 104.7), where he catered to the world of suburban soccer moms and bid them a cheery day.

"I was lying the whole time and the crazy thing is people loved me for it. What I really wanted to say is, 'I shot heroin last night and smoked crack and watched eight hours of pornos.'

"I'm a fraud."

Robinson, 49, is now jobless. His Gastonia home is in foreclosure. He took out the last $1,400 of his savings this month, $300 of it earmarked to pay off a drug debt. Now the rest is gone, too. He expects to move into a homeless shelter.

He is gaunt, awash with despair and has thought of suicide. It is a stunning contrast to the handsome, athletic, vibrant professional image cultivated over two decades in the media limelight.

He doesn't want pity, money or sympathy. He agreed to tell his story, he says, because he is tired of living a lie.

"Only reason I'm doing this is so people will know. I don't want to be a fraud, anymore. I want people to know what I am."

What Jon Robinson is: A cocaine and heroin addict in a spiral of self-destruction.

"I'm skid row."

Wanting a father figure

Robinson's parents split up when he was 6. He has had little contact with his father since.

He was 10 years old and playing with friends on Paramount Circle in Gastonia when a man pulled up and asked if any of them wanted to go to theYMCA to shoot hoops. Robinson went.

Within weeks, Robinson says, the man was coaching him in basketball and serving as the father figure he craved. He was also a pedophile who molested Robinson until he was 15, even as he trained him to be a basketball star, Robinson says.

In 1977, Robinson played on the Gastonia Hunter Huss High team that won the state championship with future pro player Eric "Sleepy" Floyd. In 1978, Robinson went to Maryland on full scholarship.

It was in his freshman year, Robinson says, that he got a disturbing call. Someone had accused the coach at the Y of molesting a child.

"He hurt a lot of people in Gastonia. I carried that guilt for a long time ... If I had said something, I could have kept that from happening to them. But I was going to keep that secret to the grave."

In 1980, the coach pleaded guilty in Gaston County to taking indecent liberties with six boys in Gastonia and served four years of a 20-year sentence. In 1985, he pleaded guilty to child molestation charges in Anderson, S.C., involving four boys, and served 13 years of a 25-year sentence.

Four weeks ago, he was convicted in Asheville on federal child pornography charges. His name is Albert Charles Burgess Jr., now 60 years old. Because he is awaiting sentencing, federal judge Graham Mullen would not permit the Observer to interview him in the McDowell County Detention Center, where he is being held. He faces up to 40 years on the latest conviction.

Delving into drugs

Robinson was 12 when he started drinking beer and smoking marijuana. Soon he was snorting Dilaudid, a narcotic analgesic that was the OxyContin of its day. At 16, he tried cocaine. By 18, he was free-basing it.

He was a sophomore at Maryland when he tried heroin. "I loved it," Robinson says.

His drug use continued through college, though never on game days. He played for four years as a reserve guard, scoring about 400 points in his collegiate career. He graduated in 1983 and started climbing the ladder in a Charlotte-area radio career, secretly maintaining his addiction.

In 1992, he joined WBT-AM in the high-profile morning drive time slot. Intimidated by the job and the station's reputation, he stayed clean about six months. Then he started bingeing again. Some mornings he couldn't come to work. "Migraines," he'd tell co-host Don Russell.

After his wife gave birth to his first son in 1994, Robinson says he stopped using for a while. He went to Narcotics Anonymous meetings. He called his sponsor every day. He'd call others when he felt cravings.

But gradually, he drifted back to it.

"You think you can use and be OK. You think, 'I'm OK. I can handle it. ... Once I started, I couldn't stop. That was 1998. I've been using ever since, hot and heavy."

His first marriage ended as Robinson's behavior grew erratic. He started a relationship with a stripper, smoked crack in his garage and told his wife he didn't love her.

"That's going to haunt me for the rest of my life. She's good as gold."

Moving to television

In 1997, Robinson moved to WBTV (Channel 3) and rose through the ranks, often sitting in as anchor. To all outward appearances, he was a rising star.

"Jon Robinson had everything - looks, voice, charisma," says longtime WBTV reporter Steve Crump. "Based on his talent, he was the envy of a lot of people ... Heart of gold. Polite prankster. ... He just had this ability, when the red light on the camera went on, here was somebody who was your friend. He endeared a lot of viewers to him."

At WBTV, Robinson says, he quit using heroin, but continued with cocaine. He kept up outward appearances.

"Addicts have an amazing ability to compartmentalize, and I was one of those," he says. "It takes a lot of hard work to do it. It takes a lot of energy, a lot of hiding."

Angry at being passed over for a promotion, he left WBTV in 2004 and went to WCBD, the NBC affiliate in Charleston, as evening anchor. He quickly joined the city's upper-crust drug culture.

"It is a party-hard-and-heavy town. It was the worst place for me to be - I used every day."

He says one night he smoked crack between the 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts. He later looked at the tape. Although he could tell he was jumpy on air, no one else seemed to notice.

One night in 2006, after drinking and snorting cocaine, he got into a 2 a.m. street fight on Bay Street. Management heard about it. He was out of work within two months.

Back to Charlotte

Robinson returned to Charlotte in 2006 and landed a morning host job on the struggling WDYT-AM.

In April 2008, he was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma in his throat. At first, he was given a 20 percent chance of survival, but subsequent exams showed it had not spread and his odds were far better.

Doctors attacked with a 45-day regimen of chemotherapy and radiation. He stayed away from illicit drugs then because doctors prescribed morphine for the pain. While he was recovering, the station laid him off in a round of budget cuts.

Now remarried, Robinson had a 22-month-old son who feared for his father's health. "He would lay in bed with me and pat my hand and say, 'It's OK, daddy.'"

On the last day of chemotherapy, in July 2008, his wife threw a backyard party for him. He has a picture from that day, with him mugging victoriously with 45 red and white balloons.

"I looked like a champion - like, 'look at me, I'm strong.' And my boys were over here. And all I could think about is how I wanted to go get some crack."

A new start in radio

In December 2008, he returned to the air, as morning host on K104.7. Its morning show audience surged 40 percent in Robinson's first three months. "Mad Mamas in Minivans," a women's sound-off segment, was one of the show's attractions.

Behind the scenes, Robinson's life was falling apart. He'd miss shifts. There was turbulence on the home front. Fearing for their safety, his wife took their son and went to Ohio to live awhile with a relative.

In May, Robinson entered rehab at Behavioral Health Center/First Step at Union Regional Medical Center in Monroe. He stayed 28 days.

After he was discharged, his wife returned from Ohio, planning to reconcile.

"My son and I came back under the impression he was sober, only to find out he'd been using drugs on a regular basis a week after he'd gotten out of rehab. I am terrified of him, and I am trying to protect my 3-year-old son and myself," Amanda Robinson wrote in a restraining order she obtained after a household scuffle Aug. 15.

Under the terms of the order, Robinson was not to have any contact with her for a year. But she complained that he had telephoned and texted on Oct. 21 and Robinson admits he violated the order by doing so.

He was arrested at the CBS Radio studios on South Boulevard when he finished his air shift Oct. 23, a Friday. He was held without bond in the Mecklenburg County Jail for two days.

On Oct. 25, he missed his Sunday duty as stadium announcer for the Carolina Panthers, a job he had held since the franchise started in 1995. He is no longer with the team.

Reliving childhood abuse

Robinson's estranged wife, Amanda Robinson, 29, says she believes the sex abuse he suffered as a child was a factor in his undoing.

"When something is taken away from you that is yours - your innocence - it's almost like taking a part of your being, your soul," she says. "There's this little boy still inside Jon who never got any healing a long time ago."

Two years ago, she rode with Robinson when he drove up to Hendersonville to confront his old coach. They sat in the rain outside Charles Burgess' apartment for hours, but never saw him.

Robinson says he was having nightmares that Burgess was coming to prey on his own children.

"He would be in the house without me knowing it. He'd walk out with my son and say, 'He's mine now.' I couldn't do anything about it. I couldn't get up and move or save him. Every night he was in the house, he had my son."

During rehab, Robinson got some counseling on sex abuse. He doesn't want to go into therapy for it, he says. Too painful.

"I will not sit down with a counselor and relive what happened to me as a boy. That's really weird, especially when all these people tell me that's what will save my life."

Voice on the radio

Amanda Robinson says she still cares about her husband. She would listen to him on the radio and says she could tell by his voice whether he had been using drugs. She sees little chance for reconciliation.

"Every little girl's dream is to get married and have a family and grow old together ... I never in a million years thought this is where our life would take us. I didn't get married to get divorced or to become an early widow ...

"He's not the same person, anymore. He doesn't even know himself. If you don't love yourself, you can't love anybody else."

Hope for addicts

Charles Odell, executive director of the Dilworth Center for Chemical Dependency, has worked with alcoholics and addicts since 1983. He has not been involved in Robinson's treatment.

Recovery rates for people who abuse cocaine and heroin are better than is commonly believed, he says. About 70 percent of patients who successfully complete initial treatment - inpatient or outpatient - stay clean for two years or more.

"If you can get two years sobriety, you can get 20," says Odell. "Those first two years are the most challenging."

For most addicts, success comes through abstinence and dedication to group support programs like Narcotics Anonymous.

Guilt, shame, remorse, resentment and depression tend to wash on to the families of drug users, Odell says. And even when someone is in successful recovery, family members live with anxiety the drug use will return, that the bomb will drop again.

"People get well. People get well all the time. I've seen hard cases get well," Odell says, but he adds it can be a long struggle.

"If it's 50 miles into the woods, it's 50 miles back."

An accelerating spiral

After his October arrest, Robinson quit going to work.

"I just completely came unglued. And part of it was intentional. I wanted to get away from this guy I had become.

"I wanted them to fire me. I think they should have ... but they've been nothing but good to me."

Supervisors at CBS Radio kept him on the payroll until his contract expired at the end of November.

Friends and relatives have reached out to him, but Robinson says he doesn't expect to get better until he hits bottom. And he's not sure where that is.

"I've called bottom a gazillion times. There's always a trap door to fall through," he says.

"I'm not going to promise I'm going to get clean. That's not the happy ending here. I don't think there is a happy ending to this deal.

"I love my sons and that's the hardest part. I couldn't get clean for them. I couldn't beat the demons."

Last Monday, fearing Robinson was a danger to himself, a relative had him hospitalized against his will for evaluation. He was released Thursday, after 72 hours.

He told his family he would start going back to Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

He told them he would try again to get out of the shadows.

RESEARCHER MARIA DAVID CONTRIBUTED.

Reach Mark Washburn: 704-358-5007; mwashburn@charlotteobserver.com

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