By Andrew Ford and Stacey Barchenger Published March 16, 2014 by Florida Today
Before Robert Striffler died on a sidewalk at the Brevard County courthouse on a warm and sunny Florida afternoon, he lived a life that seemed to come in waves: cresting highs, and crashing lows.
He could muse on law, literature and scripture. But he could be furious and his speech peppered with profanity as he ranted about politics and conspiracy theories and made vicious, empty threats.
“I will have you die before I die, and then I will die,” he once growled on the telephone to a FLORIDA TODAY reporter. In another call, the gritty voice cooed, quoting from Atlas Shrugged.
Police who arrested him wrote of drunkenness. Family pondered his mental health. Or was it both?
Over the course of two decades, dozens of officials charged with protecting the public encountered Striffler. Many were aware something was off. But Striffler was difficult to deal with. He disliked authority. He got heated. Beer sometimes seemed to fan the flames.
Some people tried to help. But Striffler did not respond.
His demons, whatever they may have been, were not dealt with. They remained with him until he was shot dead by police on a day he was due in court. He was 51.
Striffler called it judgment day. He showed up in Viera with a pack of cigarettes. He carried what looked like a pistol.
Friends say it was exactly the way Striffler wanted to die.
Striffler was born in New York and lived there until he was 8, when the family moved to Albuquerque, N.M. His older sister, Linda Martin, first saw signs of trouble when Striffler was a teenager, things like breaking windows and doing drugs.
The family went to counseling.
“Did I think about it as mental illness back then?” asked Martin, who lives in the Tampa Bay area. “No, I thought about it as a wayward kid.”
Striffler was a high school dropout, though Martin thinks he later earned a GED.
“It’s a lifetime of trouble,” Martin said. “But there have been bright spots. Periods of doing well and then sinking.”
When he was about 30, in the early 1990s, Striffler hit his high water mark. He made good money selling timeshares. He worked in the Bahamas and in the Virgin Islands.
The job brought him to Cocoa Beach, to Discovery Beach Resort. He took Denise Desmarais under his wing, training her in the time-share business. He had a quiet intensity around colleagues, Desmarais said. “His wheels were rolling all the time,” she said.
But he also could sweet-talk potential customers.
One day, Striffler approached a family relaxing on the beach with his trademark pitch: You can stay at a world-class resort. You should.
“You should always look up,” Desmarais recalled him saying. The family checked into the resort.
But even then, there were concerns something was wrong with Striffler. He’d had some minor run-ins with police.
Striffler once invited Desmarais to a holiday dinner at his parents’ home in Suntree. His mom and dad pulled out photo albums from a trip to Hawaii that Striffler paid for.
They were proud, but suspected something might be wrong. Striffler’s mother took Desmarais aside, and asked in a worried tone how her son was doing.
“He would tell me he would slip into dark moods and it was harder to get out of it,” Desmarais said.
Desmarais was concerned about Striffler’s drinking, and urged him to get help.
He told her he’d been to counseling, but he was done with it. He called it a “lesson in futility.”
Striffler warned Desmarais he would disappear someday.
And one day he did.
His sister lost track of him, too. He vanished for years at a time. Since then, Desmarais only saw Striffler in jail mugshots.
Until she turned on the TV two weeks ago.
By the turn of the millennium, Striffler was living on the streets.
He began regularly visiting the Melbourne soup kitchen Daily Bread in 2002, where his rants earned him the nickname “Political Bob.”
Striffler railed about his interactions with Melbourne police officers and city and county officials. He felt they were not listening. He complained that they were targeting him. He was obsessed with his view of fairness and justice, and would become belligerent in his efforts to have people listen.
“The more Striffler talked, the less sense he made,” one deputy wrote.
Striffler often wrote letters to judges who presided over his 19 cases since 2000, some letters as long as 28 pages. His penmanship was precise, but his message lacked clarity.
“I was on my way into the cold night shelter that night so I wouldn’t freeze. The officer laughed and jollied at my arrest. God bless his soul! In the interest of the fairness doctrine, people should not fear unfairness sanctioned … A person should not have to lose freedom and employment over deliberate false applications of law.”
An uncontrollable tirade got Striffler kicked out of Daily Bread in 2011. The ban expired in 2013. Executive Director John Farrell said they would have welcomed Striffler back.
But Striffler didn’t come.
Police once found him sleeping, reeking of alcohol, behind a downtown church. He created disturbances at 7-Eleven. He was stopped for riding his bike through stop signs and soliciting money. Striffler repeatedly threatened to kill himself, police officers and their families. But when interviewed, he said he didn’t want to harm himself.
Police were at a loss. They said Striffler was never taken into custody under the Baker Act, a law that allows them to force people into institutions when they are a danger to themselves or others.
Striffler appeared in front of at least seven judges and worked with at least 27 attorneys.
A series of mugshots shows a slight man standing 5-foot-8 with blue eyes. Sometimes his hair is long, other times cropped short. Early pictures show a fresh-faced man at 35 years old; more recent photos show Striffler with crows feet, grimacing at the camera.
Attorneys abandoned his cases because his behavior created “irreconcilable differences.”
Attorneys worried he was not mentally fit to stand trial and asked for psychiatric evaluations. Once, Striffler refused to make an appointment with the psychologist. He eventually completed the evaluation, but the result is confidential.
Attempts to get Striffler help proved fruitless over many years.
Striffler’s father, then 79 years old, wrote a judge in 2006.
“I can only tell you this is not the same person his mother and I have known and loved since birth.”
Charles Striffler wrote of his own declining health and of caring for his ailing wife.
“I am asking for you Judge Babb please help my son get rehabilitation for his problems of alcohol drug or otherwise and enable his mother and I to have some peace of mind before we are called. May God bless you.”
Melbourne police took Striffler to a hospital last July, when they suspected he was drunk. He had made two rambling calls to 9-1-1 between 11:30 p.m. and 1 a.m.
In one call, Striffler called himself “Dude Love.” He referenced someone named “Cactus Jack.” But Striffler was quickly released. Later that night, he called 9-1-1 for a third time.
Striffler bragged about beating the system.
But what happened in most cases, he’d been in jail pending trial longer than any sentence on his misdemeanor charges would have carried. Prosecutors could not justify pursuing those cases.
Striffler had been banned from both the Public Defender’s Office in 2009 and Melbourne City Hall in 2010 because of threats he made to staffers there. City staff circulated a photo of him.
On Feb. 3 of this year, prosecutor Michelle Perlman got a call from Striffler’s attorneys. They told her Striffler made threats.
Her staff circulated a photo of him.
On Feb. 4, Striffler’s sister called the FBI. Striffler called her that day to say goodbye, and to tell her to watch the newspapers. She told authorities he had a mental health problem and she was concerned he’d hurt others.
The FBI told the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office.
The sheriff’s office circulated a photo of him. They said any deputy who found him should consider a Baker Act.
On Feb. 5, a man later identified as Striffler stood outside Moore Justice Center with a sign. Someone overheard him say he would “shoot everyone that needs to be shot!” Courthouse deputies confronted him. He said he was exercising his First Amendment and Second Amendment rights. A deputy wrote a suspicious-person report and left him alone.
Later that same day, officials went to Striffler’s home on Highland Avenue to talk about the possible threats his sister had alluded to. That time, he never made comments about harming anyone. He did not meet the criteria for a Baker Act.
Striffler called FLORIDA TODAY dozens of times in recent years. His voice was rough. He dropped off videos of himself at home, at Melbourne City Hall, at Daily Bread and attorney’s offices.
In one, he said he was concerned about a schizophrenic person threatening him. The videos show him haggard, imploring anyone to listen.
“What I’m seeking, is a forum, a legitimate forum seeking the truth,” he says in one video.
Between arrests, Striffler found odd jobs. He worked in a labor pool. As a maintenance man. A roofer.
But stints in jail meant he didn’t show up for work. He lost jobs. He was evicted. His hamster starved.
For the past year, he lived at a boarding house at the back of a beauty salon on Highland Avenue in Melbourne. He owned a blue scooter.
He became friendly with Linda and Kent Bradley, a Melbourne Beach couple for whom he’d been working for four years. He did a variety of jobs for them: concrete and tile work, painting, landscaping.
Last fall, he told them he had advanced-stage cancer. He had a sore in his mouth, and after struggling to find help, said he got the cancer diagnosis. FLORIDA TODAY could not confirm that Striffler did, in fact, have cancer.
“He sat here at my table and told me that his bucket list was empty,” Linda Bradley said. “That he had been everywhere and done everything. And let the chips fall.”
The Bradleys think that’s what led Striffler to the Moore Justice Center on Feb. 28. He did not want to wither from the cancer. He had told Kent Bradley he’d go out with a bang.
Striffler was due in court the day he died, this time for the misuse of 9-1-1 case. Yet another attorney wanted to withdraw. That morning, Striffler called his friend Bob Scruggs. He talked about “judgment day.”
Scruggs called Striffler’s sister, who tipped off the public defender’s office. A secretary texted the chief investigator, who was watching the trial of an accused cop-killer.
Striffler said he was coming to blow people away.
An alert spread through the building.
Striffler left his blue scooter at home. He took a bus to Viera. He arrived two hours after his attorney quit.
Police thought he had a gun and maybe a bomb in the bag he was carrying.
Clerks moved back from windows. They lay on the ground in fear. Some peeked out to shoot shaky cellphone videos.
Striffler paced outside for three hours. Occasionally, he sat down to smoke in the shade.
Officials said he did not make demands. But he taunted them. He put the gun into his waistband, set it on the ground, waved it around.
Eventually the SWAT team moved in. They used Tasers to try and subdue Striffler to no avail.
Sheriff Wayne Ivey said Striffler made an aggressive move and two deputies shot at him. He was dead when deputies reached his body.
Desmarais, who had not seen Striffler in 20 years, watched the standoff on live TV. An old conversation haunted her.
She recalled sitting on a bench at Shepard Park in Cocoa Beach with Striffler, waiting for a rain squall to pass so they could get back to work.
He told her he thought he would die alone. But he wanted to go out so people would notice. He wanted to be remembered.
“What did he call it; D-day?” Desmarais asked.
She was reminded his words were “judgment day.”
“And the only one who got judged was him. How sad is that?”
Striffler’s body lay partly across a row of bushes near the leafless trees at the entrance to the justice center. His gun lay in the mulch. His sweatshirt and bag lay on the curb.
Deputies found Striffler’s bag held nothing explosive. The gun he carried was fake.
It was an Airsoft toy that fires without a bang.