Family members describe 82-year-old man who was beaten and robbed as a "survivor"
Tom and Linda Willhite say their father is a survivor.
Eighty-two-year-old Robert Willhite is currently recovering in the hospital after he was severely beaten during a violent robbery at his home in the Swedeborg area last week.
“He is a very tough man,” Linda Willhite said. “We were counting all the lives that he has already used up and we think he has one or two left.”
Robert Willhite has been in this community since the early 1960s. He served in the Navy for many years and is a Korean War veteran. He owned several businesses in the community throughout the years and is an active member of the Pulaski County Shrine Club.
“He is very independent,” Linda Willhite said about her father. “He still mows his own grass, even though he is in a wheelchair. He still drives and grocery shops on his own. He is very proud of his home on T-Highway, where he lives alone. He loves the local community.”
Linda Willhite said that her father never mentioned safety being a concern of his living alone in the Swedeborg area.
“He is of the generation that didn't believe in locking their doors,” Linda Willhite said.
Authorities aren't sure as to what exactly led multiple individuals to enter Willhite's home in the evening hours of July 24.
Willhite was alone that night and bound to his wheelchair when multiple individuals entered his home and then duct taped and severely beat the elderly man.
Linda Willhite described what her father looked like when she first saw him in the hospital as “very disturbing.”
“He has a lot of bruises,” she said. “His eyes were swollen shut. His nose is broken. His hands are very bruised as if he was fighting them off the best he could. Knowing our father, that does not surprise us at all.”
Pulaski County Sheriff Ron Long said that deputies were dispatched to Willhite's residence on Highway T Friday morning, July 25, after his van was found on a farmer's property.
When deputies arrived and approached the home, they heard a man screaming for help from inside. Deputies found Robert Willhite lying on the floor, with his hands and feet bound together by duct tape. He was partially clothed.
Long reported several collectable coins valued at approximately $5,000, along with two AR-15 rifles valued at $3,000, had been stolen from the victim's home.
Linda Willhite said that she commended the Pulaski County Sheriff's Department for going the extra mile to check on her father.
“We really want to thank the officers who took the extra step to look for my dad when they found the van,” Linda Willhite said. “Had that not happened he would not be here right now.”
Linda said excellent detective work by local law enforcement agencies helped lead to arrests in this case.
On July 28, deputies learned that a woman named Jessica Berry, 24, of Dixon, was possibly in possession of the stolen coins. When officers contacted Berry, she agreed to speak with them.
In a written statement, she told officers that she received a phone call from Roby Sapere saying “Dale went too far by tying the old man up with duct tape.” She went on to tell law enforcement that every time Robert Willhite moved or made a sound that Dale hit him.
Berry also said that Sapere drove her and another man by the residence, pointing out Willhite's home and telling them that was “the house.”
Berry was arrested on charges of receiving stolen property. Roby Sapere, 57, of Richland, has been charged with burglary and first-degree assault causing serious physical injury.
A third suspect, Thomas York, 35, of Dixon, has also been arrested and charged in this case. York is facing seven charges including first-degree assault, first-degree burglary, felonious restraint, two counts of theft/stealing of a firearm and two counts of unlawful possession of a firearm. He was identified from video surveillance tape after deputies tracked down the bar code on a pry bar found at the scene.
A fourth suspect in connection to this case, Melissa Winkle, 34, of Crocker, is charged with possessing burglary tools and receiving stolen property.
Long said that along with the arrests, some of the stolen property has been recovered along with multiple firearms stemming from other offenses committed in Pulaski and Miller counties.
Long said a total of five suspects believed to be involved have been taken into custody following what was described as an extensive manhunt. He said that the investigation of this case led to many other arrests of individuals of what he describes as an organized crime ring.
Among them is fugitive Vernon Dale Parker. He was tracked down and apprehended in the Fulton area. Parker is allegedly the Dale referred to in court documents. Long said that Parker is now in a state prison.
Long said that the explosive device found while deputies who were looking for Parker was dangerous and possibly was made to hurt law enforcement officers.
Linda Willhite said her father is still in critical condition, but is much more responsive.
“We were able to tell him the great work this team has done and give him some relief knowing that he is now safe,” Linda said.
Long asked the community to keep Robert Willhite in their thoughts and prayers.
Long thanked his deputies, the Missouri State Highway Patrol, Camden and Miller county sheriff's departments and the St. Robert, Waynesville, and Dixon police departments for helping with this case.
More charges are expected to be filed later this week for other individuals in connection with this case.
“This happened less than a week ago and we already have people charged and arrested,” Linda Willhite said. “We love this community and it is important to us that other people don't go through this. We feel safer now [after the arrests] not only for our father, but for the community.”
-Spree Hilliard contributed to this report.