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Desperate Escape: The Cindy White Story

Sarah White, known as Cindy, was born in June of 1957. She was one of six children in her family. According to Cindy, she longed to be close to her father. Her father did, in fact, pay special attention to her. From the age of eight years old, Cindy’s father sexually abused her. Her father told her to keep it a secret because “that’s what daddy’s girls do” (Facing Evil). At some point, Cindy tells her mother about the abuse. Her mother, who was an alcoholic, told her to make sure she was never alone with her father but did nothing else to stop the abuse.

The abuse didn’t stop until 1971 when Cindy’s father passed away. Cindy struggled with her mental health after the death of her father and years of sexual abuse. In early 1975, Cindy was struggling to move one of her legs. The doctors determined that there was nothing physically wrong with Cindy. She was sent to a mental hospital where she would stay for the next ten months related to a diagnosis of involuntary paralysis. The psychological damage resulting from years of sexual abuse had caused Cindy to manifest physical symptoms.

After ten months in the psychiatric hospital, Cindy was released from the hospital. Unfortunately, her mother had died of stroke while she was in the hospital. Cindy was young, eighteen-years-old, and had no way to support herself. She was relieved when an acquaintance, Charles Roberson, invited her to stay with his family as a live-in nanny to he and his wife Carole’s four children. Cindy loved babysitting and happily accepted the offer.

At first, Cindy loved living with the Roberson family. Charles Hillary Roberson was born July 18th, 1930. He married Carole Yvonne Harrison, who was born June 19th, 1934. Together, they had four children. Michael Eugene Roberson was born in 1968, Dale Keith Roberson in 1969, Gary Wayne Roberson in 1970, and Rita Michelle Roberson born in 1971. Cindy enjoyed caring for the children and said she loved them as her own. The eighteen-year-old also admittedly enjoyed the attention Charles Roberson showed her at first. She described it as flirting, followed by the exchange of love letters.

On December 31st, 1975, a fire broke out at the Roberson home in Greenwood, Indiana. Police responding to the scene found young Cindy outside the home with severe burns. She was urgently transferred to the hospital for intensive treatment. In the emergency room, nurses documented “singed hair, her face was sooty and burned, she had no shoes on and her feet were muddy and dirty, and her forearms were burned to the extent that a physician immediately had to debride them. She was given a shot of Demerol for pain, her arms were put in soaks, and she was catheterized” (White V. State, 1978). She was put in intensive care.

The police initially believed that the fire was caused by faulty lights on the family’s Christmas tree. At first, Cindy said authorities told her that the Roberson family was able to safely escape the house fire. Once her condition had stabilized, the authorities explained that the entire Roberson family had died on that New Year’s Eve. Cindy says she was hysterical upon being told this news.

Police had more bombshells, however. Fire investigators had determined that the fire was not caused by the lights or the tree. In fact, they believed that accelerant was used to ignite the blaze. While investigating, police found nude pictures of Cindy in Charles Roberson’s possession. They also found love letters between Cindy and Charles. The detectives because suspicious of the babysitter. She was the only survivor of a fire that killed six people, including four small children.

Cindy said she was asleep on the couch when the fire woke her up. She said she went to the bedroom of Charles and Carole Roberson to alert them of the fire. She said that she went with Carole to gather the children. She claimed that Carole told her to exit out of the window and she would hand her the children, one-by-one. When asked what happened next, Cindy said “No one else came out of the house” (White V. State, 1978). Police knew this was false, as Charles Roberson was found on the living room couch.

The autopsies of Charles, Carole, Michael, Dale, Gary, and Rita Roberson indicated that they had all died of smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning. There were no signs of trauma on any of the fire victims. There were no signs of a struggle occurring in the home and no history domestic altercations in the Roberson home. From the outside looking in, the Roberson family was your average American family.

Investigators than learned that two days before the fire at the Roberson home, Cindy’s grandmother’s home had been on fire. Cindy’s sisters and brothers all lived in the home. While no connection was made between the fires and the fire at her grandmother’s home was considered accidental, police learned that Cindy was overly interested in the details of the fire. Just hours before the Roberson house fire, Cindy spoke to her siblings and asked several questions about the fire. These questions included asking about the amount of damage, if anyone was injured, if the house was livable, and if the family needed new clothing following the fire.

Police believed that Cindy White and Charles Roberson were carrying out an extramarital affair, confirmed by the nude photos of Cindy and love letters. Although nothing in the letters indicated a conflict, police theorized that Cindy was a jilted lover who sought revenge against Charles and his family for refusing to divorce Carole for her. Cindy said this was ridiculous and not even close to the truth. However, she did not provide an alternate explanation. Cindy was arrested and charged with six counts of murder and arson.

Cindy’s defense attorney immediately asked for a psychiatric evaluation based upon Cindy’s mental health history. Cindy was found competent to stand trial. Her trial began in the Spring of 1976. Although police could prove a sexual relationship between Cindy and Charles, they had no evidence to back up the theory that she was an angry lover or provide motive for the fire. Cindy did not provide any explanation and denied setting the fire. She was convicted on all counts and sentenced to six life sentences with no possibility of parole.

Following her conviction, Cindy White began her long stay at the Indiana Women’s Prison. She stated in interviews that she was only sixteen when she came to prison, but records indicate she was eighteen. At the time, she was the youngest prisoner in the maximum-security women’s prison. Cindy’s defense team filed multiple appeals to overturn her conviction and sentence, all of which were denied. She continued to deny starting the fire.

Ten years later, in the late 1980’s, Cindy changed her story. Cindy said that she was embarrassed and ashamed of the truth, prompting her to be quiet. After years of being told to be quiet about the sexual abuse inflicted upon her by her father, Cindy found silence to be the natural response to trauma and abuse. She now explained the love letters and photos that police found, telling a truly sickening story.

Cindy said that after moving in with the Roberson family, Charles began flirting with her. At first, she welcomed the attention. However, this soon changed when Charles had her watch pornographic movies with her. Cindy said that he would also have her watch as he pleasured himself. This escalated to Charles forcing her to perform sexual acts on herself, him, other men, and even animals. Cindy claims she was forced to perform a sex act with a dog while Charles took photographs.

Cindy said she had assumed Carole Roberson was unaware of the sexual deviance of her husband until one day when she came home from work early while Charles was performing sexual acts on Cindy. Carole allegedly came in and asked, “What did I miss?” (Facing Evil), before joining Charles in abusing Cindy sexually. After a lifetime of sexual abuse, Cindy’s mental health and psychological state was rapidly deteriorating.

Cindy said that at one point she tried to leave. She was packing her stuff when Charles locked her in a bedroom. He then returned with one of the kittens that the family cat had recently birthed. Cindy said he broke the neck of the kitten in front of her and then decapitated it. She claimed that Charles told her he would do the same to her if she ever tried to leave again. Cindy felt hopeless and trapped.

On New Year’s Eve 1975, Cindy spoke with one of her siblings about the fire that occurred at her grandmother’s home two days earlier. The fire had been relatively small without any fatalities or injuries. Cindy asked several questions about the fire. She now said that the fire had given her an idea. She thought she had finally found a way to escape the abusive home she was in. She found a way to escape Charles and Carole Roberson’s alleged abuse. Cindy felt that if the home sustained a fire, she would have to leave and live elsewhere related to the damage.

Cindy now admits to starting a fire with paper and matches near the Christmas tree just hours before the new year. She said that her expectation was that she would wake the family up, alerting them of the fire, and everyone would escape safely. However, the fire spread much more quickly than Cindy had anticipated. Cindy tried to wake up the family, but lost consciousness due to smoke inhalation. Sources say that Cindy was seen leaving the back of the house, screaming, the night of the fire. Another witness said she had to be restrained because she repeatedly attempted to go back inside the burning home to get the children.

In a 1997 petition for appeal, Cindy claimed she was not competent to stand trial in 1976 due to mental illness that stunted her psychologically and emotionally. She claimed that her mental illness was a direct consequence of abuse she endured first from her father, then her own brother, and finally Charles and Carole Roberson. County Prosecutor Lance Hamner told the court that “sexual abuse is not an excuse for murder” (Del Vechio, 1997). Cindy also claimed to have attempted suicide at least three times prior to the murders. Further substantiating Cindy’s claims of a life filled with sexual abuse; her sister testified that she too suffered sexual abuse at the hands of their father.

Cindy had, in 1998, served twenty-two years of her sentence. Prison ministry member Bob Eggles said, “She has paid her dues. She was originally entitled to be where she is, but I think she has proven she can qualify as rehabilitated” (Del Vechio, 1997). It was also noted that she demonstrated religious faith while in prison and had helped save two choking victims and a heart attack victim while in prison. She was no longer then eighteen-year-old misguided woman who set the fire that killed the Roberson family, according to her supporters.

An article in the Daily Journal in 1998, however, states that Cindy White should remain in prison for life. The author, who is not identified, said that even is Cindy is rehabilitated, her sentenced also serves as retribution, protection to society, and deterrence of crime. Finally, the author says, “Even if the Robersons were guilty of a moral lapse, they didn’t deserve to die. And it’s easy for White to make sickening allegations when the victims aren’t alive to defend themselves” (The Daily Journal, 1998).

The 1998 attempt at appeal, as well as every other attempt, was denied. In the 1998 appeal, the judge determined that Cindy was not eligible for parole at any time because the sentencing laws in 1976 stated she would not be eligible for parole. She remains incarcerated to this day at the Indiana Women’s Prison, making her the longest incarcerated woman in Indiana. She has been in prison for forty-six years and will remain there until death unless she is granted clemency.

Former FBI Profiler Candice De Long interviewed Cindy on her show Facing Evil. Candice stated that she believed Cindy’s claims of sexual abuse and her claim that the deaths were not intentional. She believes that Cindy was trying to escape sexual abuse the only way she knew how, ending in a massive tragedy for both the Robersons and Cindy White. De Long explains that she has interviewed countless murderers and master manipulators and based upon this experience she does not believe Cindy White to be an evil murderer. She hopes that Cindy will be granted clemency.

Cindy has suffered two strokes and is now mostly wheelchair bound. In an interview with Sir Trevor McDonald, Cindy explained that she wishes she could have become a mother but has become a mother-like figure to many young women that she is incarcerated with. She hopes to one day be free to live with her sister but has accepted that she will likely die behind bars after spending her entire adult life incarcerated. There is a petition advocating for Cindy’s freedom here: petition: Free Sarah Cindy White ( Her supporters indicate that Cindy was barely an adult at the time of the crime, citing studies showing the human brain is not fully developed until age twenty-five. The supporters further cite the abuse Cindy suffered at the hands of all the men in her life: her father, brother, and Charles Roberson. Finally, supporters argue that forty-six years is a fair sentence for an eighteen-year-old charged with murder, referring to court cases that deemed life sentences for juveniles as unconstitutional. One thing is for sure, many criminals have faced much less punishment for much more severe crimes. However, is forty-six years enough penance for the lives of six people, including four innocent children?

The PODCAST episode for this story is exclusive to Patreon supporters.


Facing Evil. The Perfect Victim. Available on Discovery Plus

Evans, T. (2015). Show revisits infamous case. 12 Jun 2015

Associated Press. (1976). ‘Cindy’ White meted 6 life terms. Muncie Evening Press. 21 May 1976

The Daily Journal. (1998). Notorious killer should remain behind prison bars. 28 Feb 1998.

Del Vechio, J. (1997). Murderer seeking new trial. The Daily Journal. 4 Mar 1997

The Indianapolis Star. (1976). Woman charged with murder in fire may stand mute until examinations. The Indianapolis Star.

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