CONWAY, Ark. — An Arkansas woman who adopted her granddaughter after her son's death in Iraq stabbed the 7-year-old girl in the chest and then set fire to their home in an apparent murder-suicide, authorities said Monday.
Janice Robbins, 63, left a suicide note in her pickup truck before killing her granddaughter, Abby Robbins, and herself on Saturday, Faulkner County sheriff's spokesman Maj. Andy Shock said. In the note, she wrote that she didn't want to leave the girl behind.
Robbins stabbed the girl once in the chest, but it was the smoke from the fire, not the stab wound, that killed Abby and her grandmother, the county coroner said.
"We can't speculate at this point whether or not they were conscious ... but we do know they were alive during the time of the fire," said coroner Patrick F. Moore.
Authorities found a gas can next to each of the bodies inside the lakeside home, which was engulfed in flames by the time firefighters arrived early Saturday morning.
Abby's father, Army Staff Sgt. William T. "Terry" Robbins, was shot and killed by a fellow soldier in Iraq in 2005 during a dispute over alcohol.
Sometime after his death, Janice Robbins adopted Abby, with the process becoming final in 2010.
"She was a very loving grandmother and after the adoption Abby called her 'Mother,'" Moore told reporters during a news conference near the family's home, which is about 30 miles north of Little Rock.
Officials said there were no indications Robbins was in financial trouble, and investigators were trying to find out if she had been getting counseling for depression.
They're awaiting the results of toxicological testing, which would show if she was taking medication and whether she gave drugs to the young girl before setting the home on fire. Those tests will likely take weeks.
Relatives told investigators that Robbins, a nurse who retired from the Army in 2005 and retired altogether three years later, struggled with depression after her son William's death, Moore said. Authorities said she had another son who died a few years earlier.
Abby Robbins may have been struggling to cope with her father's death, too, as there were indications she may have been seeing a mental health professional, Moore said.
"Janice may have thought that this would be too much for Abby to bear," he said.
Still, investigators said it appears Robbins planned her and her granddaughter's deaths very deliberately. She left the suicide note in the pickup truck, and taped an envelope to the side of the truck with keys so authorities could get inside, Shock said. She also left a plastic bin in the truck that contained her will, Abby's birth certificate and other personal effects.
"It seems to me that this was not an overnight reaction," Shock said.
And yet, no one saw it coming.
"This was the farthest thing from the neighbors' minds," Moore said.
Robin Holloway, who lives a few doors down from the charred remains of Robbins' home, said she nothing seemed out of the ordinary when she saw Robbins letting her schnauzer out the day before the fire. Then, on Saturday morning, Holloway was running toward the fire, trying to help her neighbors.
"And to think we risked our lives," Holloway said, shaking her head.
Robbins and her granddaughter moved to the lakeside neighborhood near Conway a few months ago, but in that short period of time, Holloway said she got to know Abby as a "smart, happy, articulate" girl.
"It just breaks my heart," she said. "That was a child. How could you do that to a child?"
Next to the home, melted plastic snaked around the remnants of Abby's childhood: stuffed animals, a baby doll, a child's spa kit with advertisements of smiling girls on the box.
Out front, plastic statues of Mary and Joseph knelt before an infant Jesus covered in soot.
In her suicide note, Robbins begged, "Please pray for my soul."
Associated Press writer Chuck Bartels contributed to this report from Little Rock, Ark.
Follow Jeannie Nuss at http://twitter.com/jeannienuss