Did Boy Pay Deadly Price For Father's Debts? -- Money Mattered Most To Man Accused Of Killing Son For Insurance, Accusers Say

NEWMAN LAKE, Spokane County - When Robert Wood learned that his home was on fire and his son was missing, he didn't call the fire department. He didn't call the cops.

He called his insurance agent.

For most of his life, money was what mattered to Wood. He stole and lied and skipped out on bills to get it.

But now police say Wood's desire for money may have moved into the unthinkable. They allege that Wood killed his 11-year-old son, Christopher, possibly to help solve his financial woes.

Wood, 43, a former manager for a real-estate firm, is in the Spokane County Jail. He is charged with setting his house on fire, strangling his son and dumping him down an isolated, snow-covered slope 40 miles away.

Wood is accused of killing his son, not in a rage, not for love gone sour, not for any of the reasons that usually trigger family killings. The only motive provided so far by Spokane County sheriff's deputies is money - $60,000 worth of life insurance on Christopher.

Just the idea of such a crime has reverberated far beyond this tiny square of rural suburbia, attracting national media attention. Wood has denied killing the boy.

"My daughter went and visited him this week," said Jolynne Wood, Christopher's mother and Wood's ex-wife. "She said, `Mom, if you'd sit in front of him and listen to him and talk to him, you'd know he didn't do it.'

"I hope she's right. I've had too many people talking about how bad he is. Financially, Bob was always over his head. But when it came to the kids, I never had a doubt about them being with him. I still can't picture him doing this."

It's not so much that Wood started falling apart, acquaintances say. It's just that he never put his life together.

Wood, a father of six who made more than $100,000 last year, had a history of spending what he didn't have, of angling for an extra dollar. He committed sneaky financial crimes, but never any violent ones.

Wood filed for bankruptcy twice. He's been convicted of theft twice. He's been convicted of using someone else's Social Security number. A bank foreclosed on one of his homes. He's been banned by a judge from having a checking account.

Yet, he almost always had a job. In the tiny Blue Skies subdivision 20 miles east of Spokane, where the identical split-level homes range in color from pale to paler, Wood was considered a model neighbor. He was the guy you'd ask to help put in a basketball hoop or a sprinkler system. He had barbecues.

He turned his new home, a $78,000 cookie-cutter with bad siding and an unfinished basement, into a light-gray suburban palace with lilac trim. There was a trampoline in the back yard, a new garage, a master bedroom with French windows and a jacuzzi.

Neighbors were jealous, neighbor Beth Hall said. They wondered how he could afford it.

"Bob, am I going to be reading about you in the paper someday and find out you're some bank robber?" Hall jokingly asked once.

Wood laughed.

Father was disciplinarian

Christopher, the youngest child from Wood's first marriage, was 3 when his parents divorced. Just before third grade, he left his mother to go live with his father. His parents thought he needed some discipline.

He was a pinball of a kid who hugged his principal and always had to be doing something, building a fort, riding a bike, playing video games on his Playstation. He was known as the Tetherball King and ate more licorice Twizzlers than anyone in his class.

Once, in third grade, his Cub Scout leader left the room while the boys made bird feeders out of pine cones, peanut butter and bird seed. Christopher made a beard on his face, of peanut butter covered in seed.

He liked to play spy. He stood at the door of his classroom when his teacher left, and he watched for her. He kept the books "I Spy Fantasy" and "Find Waldo Now" in the back seat of his father's truck.

When Wood's second wife, Debbie, filed for divorce, she questioned her husband's parenting skills. In court papers, Debbie Wood said her ex-husband left Christopher's monthly Scout meetings early because they were boring. She said he skipped one meeting because he wanted to go drinking with friends.

Wood also told co-workers and others that he suspected Christopher wasn't really his son, said Deputy Dave Reagan of the Spokane County Sheriff's Office.

The life-insurance policy on Christopher was originally supposed to cover burial costs, just in case. All six kids had $10,000 policies.

Last summer, Jolynne Wood bought $50,000 policies for four of her children. The larger policies were more of an investment.

Policies on children aren't that unusual. Almost one in five policies nationwide is for youths under 18. Parents buy them to cover potential burial costs, to ensure their children will have some life insurance down the road, or as a way to borrow money for college.

When Jolynne Wood couldn't afford the premiums, her ex-husband took over. He paid about $40 a month, including $11.42 for Christopher. He became the sole beneficiary.

To the outside world, Wood could easily afford the small premiums. Nice house, new girlfriend, trips out of the state for car races. He made more than $100,000 as one of the top five managers at Crown West Realty in Spokane.

But he was slipping, and co-workers started noticing. In early January, Wood's bosses say they confronted him. According to court documents, he admitted siphoning more than $100,000 from the company. Other employees told police that Wood stole gas, equipment and building materials and used company money to make repairs on his car.

Crown West fired Wood and called police.

The same day, Wood asked two real-estate agents to look at his house. They told him it was too big for the neighborhood, just too much house. They said he'd have a difficult time getting his money back. Wood told one agent that he still owed $125,000.

Soon after, his new fiancee broke off the engagement, court papers say. Wood started telling her that he felt like something very bad was going to happen.

Boy's last breakfast

On the morning of Feb. 9, Christopher ate breakfast, Marshmallow Mateys, a generic brand of Lucky Charms.

A passing school-bus driver first saw the smoke. Neighbors came out of their homes. They knew that Robert Wood was checking on property north of Spokane. Christopher's older sister, the only other child who lived with Wood, had already left for high school.

They quickly found out Christopher had never made it to class.

"We were just frantic," said Hall, the neighbor. "We thought Christopher was in the house, burning. We wanted to run in through the flames."

Hall tried to call Wood on his cellular phone. After an hour, he finally answered.

He said he was 40 minutes away. He said Christopher had had problems playing with matches and probably ran after accidentally starting the fire. Wood then called his insurance agent.

Neighbor Ron Adamson started looking for footprints in the fresh snow behind the home, in case the boy had fled. Adamson looked for Christopher, driving up and down streets.

Wood pulled up almost two hours after Hall had called him, while the fire still burned. He went to lunch with his insurance agent. That afternoon, Wood filed a missing-person report.

"He'd cry whenever he'd talk about Christopher," Jolynne Wood said. "He wanted him to come home. He always said he would hug him first. Then he was going to yell at him."

The home was a wreck, with a huge charred bite in the middle. The new vinyl siding was melted into curlicues, insulation scattered in the front yard. Trained dogs couldn't find any trace of Christopher inside.

Fliers of Christopher's smiling face were posted in convenience stores and passed out to postal carriers. A search party formed, a slow-moving parade of headlights combing long blocks and fields, looking for the boy who stood just over 4 feet and wore a Dallas Cowboys jacket.

A neighbor across the street sheltered Wood and his daughter. Wood brought clothing and a file folder with him. This folder, unlike his other file folders, wasn't damaged in the fire. Police said it contained the insurance policies on his children and his home.

Boy's backpack found

The day after the fire, a man had car trouble while driving his son to school, along a road about 15 miles from the Wood house. The boy saw a blue Dallas Cowboys backpack, with Christopher's name and his inline skates inside.

The next morning, a road-grader operator stood up to adjust his jacket. He spotted Christopher's body down a snow-covered embankment off a remote road 35 miles north of Spokane.

Christopher's shoes were on the wrong feet, suggesting that he hadn't put them on himself. He was covered in vomit.

Sheriff's deputies don't like to think about what might have happened if the body hadn't been found quickly. It could have been destroyed by animals, buried in snow, or never found. "There's just a whole gamut of could've-beens, all of them bad as far as a homicide investigation goes," Deputy Reagan said.

Vomit found on Christopher's clothing matched that found in the bed of his father's truck and on the fender of a car parked in his garage, police say.

That same day, Feb. 11, Wood took film to a pharmacy. He had taken pictures of rooms in his home, at the same angles, before and after the fire. He was booked into jail that afternoon on suspicion of theft, for stealing from Crown West Realty. He was charged Feb. 26 with murder and arson. Woods' lawyer has declined to discuss the case.

Tributes from friends

The yard has become a shrine to the boy. Posters, cards, balloons and flowers lined the street. Adults wrote poems, kids scrawled on poster board. "He broke our hearts!" "We all miss you. Your best, best, best, best, best, friend. Tanner."

One neighbor girl asked other children to give teddy bears in Christopher's memory. Last week, eight 33-gallon garbage bags, all filled with bears, were carried out of his school. They'll be donated to shelters and families hit by tragedy.

Farmer's Insurance is still investigating, deciding whether to pay on Christopher's life-insurance policy.

Along with other neighbors, Adamson is trying to heal. The Mormon bishop and father of 10 met Wood about five years ago, while trying to convince him to return to the church. Wood never did.

Now Adamson has probably seen Wood more than anyone except his lawyer. Adamson sat in Wood's cell, prayed with him during his son's funeral. Wood told him that he didn't do it.

Adamson said he doesn't have an opinion. He forgives Wood for whatever happened. "If it's one thing I've felt, looking into the eyes of Bob, he is vexed," Adamson said. "He is just sick about this."

Kim Barker's phone message number is 206-464-2255. Her e-mail address is: kbarker@seattletimes.com