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Robert Emery's act of selflessness may have saved a UVa student's life

University of Virginia psychology professor Robert Emery has penned scholarly papers, authored a well-regarded book on divorce and won the university’s highest honor for teaching. But for at least one UVa student, that work pales in comparison to what he accomplished one night in early October.

Emery was preparing for bed at his family’s Rugby Road residence the night of Oct. 7 when he heard screams outside.

“He did what we think we’d do in a situation like that, but he actually did it,” said his daughter Lucy Emery, who was part of the family team that her father quickly assembled that night to stop what police have said was an abduction in progress.

“He ran out into the street having no idea exactly what was going on with a dangerous guy and confronted him,” she told The Daily Progress. “He starts challenging this guy.”

The Emery family scrambled as the “dangerous guy,” later identified as 41-year-old Suffolk resident James Robert Allen, attempted to flee in a truck with a UVa student inside.

As they pursued the vehicle on foot, the young woman came tumbling out onto the pavement shortly before the truck crashed into parked cars along the street and came to a rest against a tree trunk in a fraternity house yard near the intersection of Grady and Cabell avenues.

Police reported that members of the Emery family remained with the victim, who had been strangled to the point of unconsciousness and had her wrists bound with duct tape. The young woman was so shaken by the attack that she initially declined entreaties from first responders, according to Lucy Emery. However, she appears to have recovered from her physical injuries sufficiently to be in court last month to watch the suspect waive his preliminary hearing.

Allen faces an abduction charge as well as the prospect of additional charges if levied by a grand jury convening next month in Charlottesville Circuit Court.

Lucy Emery said she remembers the night of Oct. 7 vividly. She said she and her boyfriend were in Charlottesville visiting from Pennsylvania State University, where she is pursuing a medical degree. They were watching television while her mother was reading. It was a warm night, she recalled, and some of the windows of the house were open. Suddenly, she said, her father called out.

“He came running downstairs and said he thought he heard screaming.”

While every person in the house played a role, including her calling 911, Lucy Emery credits her father as the ringleader.

“He did not hesitate for a split second,” she said. “He showed complete bravery and complete selflessness while being barefoot in his pajamas in the middle of the night.”

Charlottesville Police Chief Michael Kochis was among those praising the Emery family.

“It sounds like they saved her life,” Kochis told The Daily Progress at the time. “Community members that get involved to help people they’ve never met is amazing, and I thank them for it.”

“It wasn’t just me,” Robert Emery insisted to The Daily Progress.

In addition to his daughter and her boyfriend, Emery’s wife, Kimberly Carpenter Emery, an administrative dean at UVa Law School, completed the posse.

Still, Lucy Emery said her father led the charge.

“He ran out fearlessly when we all were wondering what was happening,” she said.

As the community breathed a sigh a relief at the suspect’s arrest, Robert Emery was sought out by multiple news outlets. And fellow UVa psychology professor Eric Turkheimer remembers watching his colleague giving an emotional interview on local television.

“I have three daughters, a wife, a granddaughter, and I have 10,000 women at UVa I consider family,” Robert Emery tearfully told a reporter with CBS19.

“That wasn’t for the camera,” Turkheimer told The Daily Progress. “He really is that way.”

Emery has a reputation for looking out for students. Seven years ago, he won the Cavaliers’ Distinguished Teaching Professorship, UVa’s highest award for educating undergraduates.

Noting Emery’s “legendary teaching and mentorship,” the 2017 announcement of the award called his selection “no surprise.”

“He has a wonderful way of taking some of the scientifically weaker students under his wing,” said Turkheimer. “There were people I was basically ready to give up on, and they’ve gone on to successful careers.”

Although Robert Emery is now 71 and may seem professorial in appearance, Turkheimer said that he was a star athlete in high school, plays basketball and remains an avid skier and tennis player. In other words, a man ready to thwart crime.

“It was physically courageous,” said Turkheimer. “He has always been a physical person.”

He also has a reputation for selflessness. Back in the early 2000s, while promoting his book “The Truth About Children and Divorce,” Robert Emery told a story from his own divorce. Amid the split, he said, one of his children had a particular need to live with her mother and not him. Rather than shouldering the child with such a gut-wrenching choice, he declared the decision his own. Lucy Emery said that action spoke, and still speaks, volumes.

“He’s just the type of guy who puts everyone above himself no matter the situation,” she said. “He is the most generous and selfless person that I know.”


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