Jeff Jardine

Reversal of fortune: How did a philanthropist become a triple-homicide suspect?

Robert Lynch is being held at the Stanislaus County jail in downtown Modesto. The 74-year-old, pictured on Tuesday, is accused of homicide – three homicides to be precise, with one of the victims being an unborn child. He’s claiming self-defense in the incident that happened Oct. 5.
Robert Lynch is being held at the Stanislaus County jail in downtown Modesto. The 74-year-old, pictured on Tuesday, is accused of homicide – three homicides to be precise, with one of the victims being an unborn child. He’s claiming self-defense in the incident that happened Oct. 5. jlee@modbee.com

He founded the area’s March of Dimes walkathon decades ago.

He was chairman of the Turlock Chamber of Commerce board in the 1970s. He once delivered The Modesto Bee in Turlock, became an Eagle Scout and served in the Navy.

And he spent several years volunteering as a docent at the McHenry Museum & Historical Society of Stanislaus County, donating some very pricey art to the cause, as well.

Earlier this week, 74-year-old Robert Leon Lynch sat handcuffed in a small room deep in the bowels of the Stanislaus County Public Safety Center downtown. He wore the red- and white-striped jumpsuit of an inmate accused of homicide – three homicides to be precise, with one of the victims being an unborn child.

What happened? How did Lynch go from a man who raised money to help thousands of kids, who once owned a successful insurance business and promoted others in Turlock, and who taught children about Morse code at the museum, to this?

“I’m still trying to understand it,” he said. “I’m still in a state of shock. My life’s a mess, and I suppose it’s because of me.”

Lynch pleaded not guilty to the charge of killing Chad Everet Romesha, a 41-year-old with a string of felony convictions ranging from narcotics to robbery, and 30-year-old Cynthia Antrim, who was pregnant.

In a letter he wrote to The Bee from the jail, Lynch pleaded for help in getting representation. He said that he killed Romesha because “the man I shot was going to kill me, I didn’t know what to do,” claiming self-defense in the incident that happened Oct. 5 near the Tuolumne River.

Lynch claimed he’d been robbed, beaten and sexually assaulted in the weeks before the homicides, and reported the attacks to the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department.

He said that Antrim and Romesha made it clear they intended to extract money from him, and that Romesha told him, “I’m gonna get you.”

Detective Greg Buck, who is investigating the homicides, confirmed only that a report had been filed in which Lynch is, indeed, listed as the victim. Buck is investigating both cases and declined to comment further.

Lynch’s innocence or guilt will be determined in court, where he is scheduled to return for a hearing Friday. Nonetheless, people he’s known for many years wonder what happened. How did he end up homeless and associating with a felon like Romesha? Or even Antrim, whom Lynch described as a drug abuser but whose rap sheet included only a conviction for illegal possession of a shopping cart and a case involving a seat-belt violation?

Former Stanislaus County Supervisor Ray Simon, who served on the March of Dimes board with Lynch long ago, couldn’t believe it when he heard of Lynch’s arrest.

“He really promoted the walkathon,” Simon said. “He was totally involved. I was pretty much a part-time chairman, but he was really involved. (Lynch’s situation is) amazing to me. I never would have suspected it.”

Same goes for Sharon Silva, the Turlock Chamber of Commerce’s CEO.

“He was really involved in charities,” she said. “He was very organized.”

Lynch’s first marriage ended in divorce, his second wife died and his third was a member of the chamber board. That one also ended in divorce, Silva recalled. Lynch has two sons, but stays in contact with neither and said he won’t reach out to them now.

“No,” he said. “This is my problem.”

He said he retired shortly after turning 50 and moved to Nevada, with stops in Arizona and New Mexico before meeting a woman and settling down in St. Amant, La., which is between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

“I was there when (Hurricane) Katrina hit,” he said. “I was living with a woman and bought her a house there. I moved back to the Valley after Katrina.”

He lived in Ralston Tower downtown and worked as a docent at the McHenry Museum and McHenry Mansion until April 2013, said Wayne Mathes, who manages both venues for the city.

“He donated an extensive collection of Weller pottery,” Mathes said. “He gave tours at both places, school tours.”

Lynch told Mathes months in advance that he would be leaving the museum, “that he was going to go on a mission for his church to Singapore or someplace,” Mathes said.

Instead, Lynch simply ended his volunteer docent work. At some point, he gave a friend access to his bank account and said she cleaned it out. So he went to the bank and removed her name from the account. Then he gave notice he would leave the senior complex in January, doing so on good terms and without incident, said Chris Ragon, spokeswoman for the Retirement Housing Foundation, which oversees Ralston Tower.

Lynch planned to move into a trailer, but said its owner didn’t make necessary repairs before he had to leave Ralston. He found himself homeless. He’d put his belongings in a Modesto storage facility and planned to sell them. That, he said, is where he met Antrim and, later, Romesha.

He gave Antrim money at times, including $100 for a collection of dolls he’d allowed her to keep in his storage unit. He said he asked for a receipt and grabbed a piece of paper on which she scribbled. The paper, he said, turned out to be a receipt from his bank, and showed he had a balance of around $9,000. She somehow ended up with the paper and later confronted him, wanting more money.

“I let a lot of people do things I shouldn’t,” he said. “I’m very Christian. Sometimes, when I try to help, it doesn’t work out. But I’ve had my successes, too.”

This wasn’t one of them. Antrim and Romesha became more persistent about getting money from him, Lynch said.

“She told me, ‘All the problems you’re having are because of me and Chad. You’d better give us money,’” Lynch said.

Romesha’s threats prompted Lynch to buy a shotgun, picking it up after the 10-day waiting period. By that time, he’d already gone to the Sheriff’s Department to file the claims of robbery and sexual assault.

“I told the (deputy) I’d gotten a shotgun and was going to protect myself,” Lynch said.

Soon after, he said, he went to a trailer park by the Tuolumne River to see if the deputy had arrested Romesha and Antrim.

Romesha confronted him there. Lynch said he never saw Antrim, and hadn’t since Sept. 24. Regardless, moments later, Romesha and the pregnant Antrim were dead.

Lynch is in jail, assigned a public defender he said he hasn’t met.

“I’ve saved thousands and thousands of lives through the March of Dimes and here I am begging for help,” he said.

Quite a reversal, indeed. This case isn’t about the lives he saved. It’s about the three that authorities say he took.

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

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