On March 23, three days after the first day of spring, a burst of cold air assaulted northern Iowa. Spring had missed its cue.
New Hampton, a small farm community of 2,000 people, took the brunt of the storm, 14 inches of snow. Vehicles dotted the ditches. At the New Hampton Diner the next day, townsfolk fresh from church, their button-up shirts tucked into khaki pants or jeans, joked about their ordeal.
“Are you tired of the snow?” a man asked an elderly woman as he passed by her booth.
“What snow?” she shot back, and they laughed.
The storm delayed Jimmy Robinson’s plans to leave town on the kind of trip he’s made often throughout his adult life, as far as he or anyone knows.
Robinson’s transient path has wound throughout the country for over 40 years, many of them spent in Arizona. Robinson gets around on a bike with his belongings strapped to the sides, sometimes catching a ride from passing truckers or other motorists. Aside from Arizona, Robinson has roamed in Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, dining on fast food and sleeping in cheap motels when he can afford it. Though he says he never asks, people often give him money anyway.
By late March, Robinson had spent the past seven months in New Hampton, living with Laura and Nicholas Bentley. Laura is a stay-at-home mother of two, Nicholas a full-time commercial truck driver. Robinson is kind and funny—he, a Vikings fan, jokes with locals who root for the Green Bay Packers—and refuses all offers of long-term help. He says traveling is all he knows.
New Hampton sees relatively few long-term or short-term homeless residents, and many have crossed paths with this family: Robinson is the 17th homeless person the Bentleys have taken in. Despite this extensive history with those in need, the Bentleys have never encountered a case like Jimmy Robinson. Taking him in has given them, and other people trying to help him, a newfound understanding of some sufferers from chronic homelessness. They’ve learned from him. Now, if only they could learn who he is.
In many ways, Jimmy Robinson does not exist. He remembers almost nothing from his past, cannot list a birthplace or name any immediate family. He has no government identification, and the only traces of his origins are a bread-crumb trail that, so far, have led amateur and professional investigators nowhere.
Due to his lack of identity, Robinson is unable to apply officially for employment or any government benefits, and he has no ability to prove he is who he says he is. There is some confusion over his birthdate, but it is thought he is either 59 or 61. A Social Security card he carries starts with the number 9, though no authentic number has ever begun with that digit. He lives with mental impairments that have not been officially diagnosed—the Bentleys and Robinson can’t afford medical appointments for him, beyond the most necessary—and he sports 20/100 vision. For many who get to know him, it’s a wonder Jimmy has made it this far.
Robinson says he was married once, in Arizona, to a woman named Robin, his “street” wife, who was killed in a car accident. He has no official documentation of their marriage, nor her death, though acquaintances believe an accident, or more than one, may have contributed to Jimmy’s loss of memory. Asked about Robin, Robinson grows quiet, and often breaks down in tears.
Once, when a scar appeared on Robinson’s forehead, the Bentleys hoped it might help decipher his past. The mark faded after several months, and turned out to be only a bad case of sunburn. He says he spent close to 30 years in a homeless camp near Mesa, Arizona. Scott Chamberlain, an artist who met Robinson during this period, and once painted his portrait, later heard from other camp members that police told them Robinson was found in a nearby cave, dead. In truth, he was just gone, off on another of his sojourns.
The Bentleys are among a group in New Hampton who call themselves “Team Jimmy,” dedicated to supporting Robinson on his travels, and with the shared, unlikely dream of helping him find an identity. Everyone on Team Jimmy gets a responsibility. Laura and Nicholas take care of housing and food; others attempt communication with potential relatives, seeking out public records; still others might help with finances or just volunteer to take Robinson out for a game of pool at a bar. The team set up a Facebook page, “Where in the tar-nation is Jimmy Robinson,” where some 4,000-plus members can contribute supplies, send warm greetings, and keep tabs on this sympathetic mystery man.
Members of Team Jimmy first encountered Robinson in 2015, when he was found along the road walking out of New Hampton, and offered him some help. For a time, they took him into their care and housed him in a local motel, where he stayed on the motel owner’s dime.
After a couple months, Robinson left. He remembers and describes his subsequent travels well, if not a little haphazardly. He recalls passing through Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Nebraska, listing stops in LaCrosse, Duluth, Omaha, Lansing, and other cities, in an intertwining itinerary that would’ve had him zig-zagging up, down, and across enormous swaths of the Great Plains. He says he had a stop in a hospital, where he was deemed to be “fine,” and a run-in with the police, which left him without many of his belongings. He often travels on foot, pushing the bike alongside.
“It’s weighed down by my stuff,” he says, explaining why he often doesn’t ride.
In October 2017, Robinson was ambling toward Decorah when a woman spotted him dragging his bike up a hill. She called him a cab to move his bike and belongings to Cresco, Iowa, where he intended to stay at a campsite.
“They dropped me off there,” Robinson recalls, “and [the camp] was already closed for the season, so I had to pack my stuff up. There was a thunderstorm... it was pouring like mad, lightning, thunder... yeah, and this guy gave me a big blanket, and so I went to a park in Cresco, and I slept there.”
The next morning, Robinson waited out a thick fog—“I said, ‘forget this crap,’” he recalls—before embarking on his next step, toward Osage, Iowa. Someone posted to Facebook about a sighting of a man, and, by chance, members of Team Jimmy saw the post and picked him up. Robinson took shelter in the Bentleys’ small, aging house for the winter. Meanwhile, members of Team Jimmy pushed to find out who he really was.
Robinson’s room sits on the second floor, where he has a bed adorned with a Minnesota Vikings blanket, a seldom-used elliptical machine, and stacks of letters from people who follow him and the team on the Facebook page. Laura helps Robinson cook, shower, and do other basic day-to-day activities. If he’s not out of bed by 11 a.m., she wakes him up. On mornings when Laura doesn’t cook, Jimmy pours himself a bowl of shredded wheat cereal. During his time in New Hampton, Robinson has acquired a substantial gut.
Days in New Hampton consist of trips to the post office to retrieve mail, mostly from the Facebook group, and watching television, often sports; one recent day, he said the dial was tuned to “the Cubbies and the Sox.” Members of Team Jimmy have taken the avid sports fan to see the Minnesota Vikings and college football games in person. On nice days, he’ll walk, and over the winter he made money shoveling sidewalks and driveways, saving most of the money for future travel expenses.
The Bentleys have offered to let him stay at their home permanently, but Robinson declined. When asked, Robinson often grows quiet and visibly nervous, and ultimately says nothing or declines with no specific reason. Laura has wondered if there isn’t something or someone in the South that he wants to see or return to. Robinson says, “I like it there,” and leaves it at that.
The team has brought in attorneys, police, a private investigator, and amateur DNA experts in an attempt to bring clarity to Robinson’s past. (A DNA test determined Robinson is 50 percent Native American, the other half a mix of European.) The stitched-together team of sleuths hoped to provide Robinson connections to members of his biological family, and maybe track down his old life—or help him make a new one. Those efforts have failed so far.
Robinson calls himself a devout Christian, which means he fits right in as a resident of New Hampton, with its eight different churches. The Bentleys’ is Prairie Lakes Church, the town’s eighth and newest, a modern Baptist church featuring up-tempo music, a smart phone app, and streaming video. When he’s in town, Robinson attends every Sunday, with or without the Bentleys.
The day after the late-March snowstorm, Robinson sat in a chair with a Styrofoam cup of coffee and a glazed chocolate cake donut, and he waited for the service begin. The churchgoers filtered throughout the room and few a stopped by to say hi, or hug Jimmy. Dorie Baldwin, who manages financials for Team Jimmy, rushed in late, her hair in short tufts.
“I’m never late for church, Jimmy, and today they just had to drag me out of bed,” Baldwin said, and Jimmy laughed a little, quietly, just as the service began.
Outside the sun shined on the town. Melting snow dripped from the roofs of homes, turned to slush in the roads. The storm, called “Uma,” by the National Weather Service and “Winter’s Vengeance” by the local newspaper, felt like the cold season’s last gasp. In fact, the sun would give way to three more snow storms, delaying Robinson’s departure by over a month.
Elaine Sam stumbled across the “Where in the tar-nation” Facebook page last year, and has tracked it periodically ever since. Sam, a 59-year-old Native American who lives near Brainerd, Minnesota, says she took a growing interest out of concern for Robinson. In late November, Nancy Drews, a part of the “DNA portion” of Team Jimmy, reached out to Sam, and asked if she, too, would submit to a test of her DNA.
Sam is among numerous people the team has reached out to in efforts to find Robinson’s family, but few matches have been found; one of the closest hits declined to participate.
Drews, who is no longer involved with the team and declined to discuss her role, asked Sam if her mother might be interested as well. Results determined Robinson was distantly related, though no one in their family had ever heard of him.
Teri Nash, who led the DNA efforts for Robinson and the team, has helped five adoptees connect with long-lost families, using DNA results and Ancestry.com to track down likely matches. She says she usually makes progress within 72 hours.
“With Jimmy, I had no idea what I was getting into. At some point I thought, ‘This is ridiculous, why is this taking so long?’” says Nash.
Robinson presents a complex puzzle. Nash says if he is originally from Minnesota, his age could pin him around the time that Native American children were routinely swept out of their families through widespread adoption in the mid-’50s through the ’60s. It is the team’s leading theory for why it’s so difficult to find even the first clue about his familial past.
The DNA team dispersed after the lack of leads.
Sandy White Hawk, director and founder of the Minnesota-based First Nations Repatriation Institute, says Native families were often pressured into giving up their children, especially if the mother was single. The practice resulted in as many as one in four Native children being removed from their homes. The effects have been dramatic—suicide rates are high among adoptees—and with closed adoption records in Minnesota, all information given to adoptees is non-identifying towards their original families. Discovering biological parents or siblings is nearly impossible.
Nash says she was hoping to locate Robinson within a “big family tree,” but all she found was “a tumble weed.”
In 2015, Robinson lived through a strange near-repeat of what Team Jimmy believes is his past. Laura Bentley petitioned a Chickasaw County judge to give her guardianship of Robinson. Robinson opposed the move, saying he wanted to be free to roam, and the judge ruled in his favor.
“Jimmy told the judge his lifestyle, and the judge said we can’t take those rights away from him,” Bentley says. Since then, she has fully supported Robinson’s independence, and resisted any suggestions she should make Jimmy stay in one place. The push for guardianship nearly fractured their relationship. When she visited him in his motel room during those days, he was distant.
On October 1, 1976, Jimmy Don Robinson, age 21, went missing from Elmore City, Oklahoma. Robinson, an Army veteran, was seen driving in a Toyota Celica. A few weeks later the vehicle was found abandoned. His disappearance is one of the Garvin County Sheriff Department’s oldest cold cases. Last year, Team Jimmy came into contact with undersheriff Jim Mullett, who had been wondering if perhaps their Jimmy Robinson was the same as his. The team hoped for a breakthrough.
Fingerprints and DNA tests found no match. “My heart dropped,” Laura says.
Mullett did manage to find two arrest records that matched Robinson’s. A James Ronald Robinson, what the team believes to be Jimmy’s real name, was arrested and released in Shakopee in 1979, and a man by the same name was cited for jaywalking in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, in 2017. Neither record generated new leads.
Last December, Laura Bentley spearheaded a meeting with the federal Department of Health and Human Services and Social Security Administration at a diner, working to secure Robinson a new identity. The officials peppered Robinson with questions, asking about anything he could remember. The team was apprehensive—Robinson can sometimes shut down, socially, if he gets too nervous—but hopeful. By the end, the departments said there was nothing they could do.
“It was a waste of our time and our resources,” Laura says. “It was something that could be said over the phone.”
The Bentleys estimate that they have spent $400-$500 a month on Robinson, among food, medical trips, and other costs. Aside from $1,200 raised during a Team Jimmy fundraiser, there has been no other aid. The steep financial burden is stretching the Bentleys beyond their means.
“Laura is really the backbone of the team,” says Ricky King, a friend who handles “communications” for Team Jimmy. “There’s hours upon hours when we’re all sleeping, where she’s doing research and contacting people.”
On April 27, his bike stocked with belongings and his sights set on Oklahoma, Robinson walked out of the Bentleys’ home. He said the trip would take him 30 days. By the end of the day he had reached Waverly, Iowa, a 30-minute drive from New Hampton, and booked a motel room. Laura kept the Facebook page updated, and fans who spotted Robinson posted pictures they had snapped.
Laura visited Robinson twice in Waverly, bringing him food and helping with his laundry. She tried to convince him to come back, and make New Hampton his home. He insisted he needed to press on to Oklahoma, and from there to Vega, Texas. No one was quite sure why.
By May 5, Robinson had reached only as far as Cedar Falls, still less than an hour away. Laura aired her concerns to the Facebook group, writing: “Jimmy is exhausted but refuses to retire.” Robinson was “out of money and his body isn’t well,” wrote Laura, who, unlike Robinson, sounded ready to give up. Her family would “not continue to keep 100 percent tabs on Jimmy,” she wrote, explaining the endeavor was “exhausting for us as well.”
As Laura’s stamina flagged, supporters have tried to step in, promising a meal or other minor acts of generosity if Robinson made it through their areas. Others offers included people saying they’d buy him a bus ticket to Oklahoma, or drive him themselves. This is exactly the kind of help Team Jimmy hoped for when they took Robinson’s story public. It’s also the kind he is least likely to accept.
Robinson reached Traer, Iowa, where a group who follow him on the Facebook page put him up in a hotel for five nights. He left, toward Oklahoma. Under-nourished, and already weary from his trek, Robinson struggled on the road, and in the afternoon, fell into a grassy curb, exhausted.
Ricky King got a call from the prepaid phone the team had given Robinson. Jimmy was stuck, and wanted to come home. King called in a welfare check as he and other team members raced to Robinson’s location. An ambulance beat them there, and medics found Robinson to be tired and hungry, though otherwise all right. Once Team Jimmy arrived, King says Robinson reiterated he wanted to go with them. He missed New Hampton. He missed the team members’ kids.
Robinson is known for changing his mind, King admits, but he thinks that Jimmy will stick around town for the foreseeable future. After a call for donations to help him relocate, the Facebook page reported that one supporter donated a pop-up camper for him to stay at a local campground. Team Jimmy is seeking donations to fund a new, more independent life.
When Jimmy left town in May, he said he’d stopped caring about learning his identity anymore, and was ready to just travel. Others had also seemed to lose the desire to solve the fundamental puzzle of his life.
With Robinson’s return to New Hampton, the quest to solve the mystery is back on.
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