True Crime Tuesday: The Robison Family Murders

1968. Summer.

The worst mass murder in Michigan’s history is about to take place in the quiet lakeside community of Good Hart.

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The Robisons, Richard and Shirley, were planning on spending their entire summer with their four children at their seasonal home. The simple log cabin sat on the shore of Lake Michigan in the north woods. Secluded among tall pines and dense woods, the cabin was nearly impossible to see from the road.

At 42 years old, Richard Robison was a successful man. He was an advertising executive who owned a magazine called ‘Impesario’. His wife, 40-year-old Shirley Robison, was a housewife. Their children, 19-year-old Richie, 16-year-old Gary, 12-year-old Randall and 7-year-old Susan had enjoyed a stable and fortunate upbringing.

Only weeks into their family holiday, a bullet shattered the glass of a window in the cabin. Four more shots were fired, seemingly aimed at Richard Robison. With the patriarch dead, the killer entered the cabin through an unlocked door and killed the remaining family members, each getting a bullet to the head. Two different guns had been used. And two family members, Richard Robison and his young daughter Susan, had been beaten with a hammer.

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Author Mardi Link wrote in his book When Evil Came to Good Hart: “It looked like someone shot at the family while they were in the cabin from across the road through the window and they came around and came in through the lakeside door with a handgun and finished them off.”

The seclusion of the location was a gift to the killer, as they slipped away from the massacre, unseen.

The bodies of the Robison family lay dead for almost a month before they were discovered, leaving police with little in the way of forensic evidence due to decomposition. Combined with the state of forensic tools in 1968, there was little the police could learn about the crimes without witnesses.

The gruesome murder scene inside the handcrafted cabin in Good Hart was only discovered when people in a neighbouring cabin began to detect a foul odour. They called on caretaker, Chauncey Bliss, the man who had built the cabins in the area, and asked him to sort out the awful smell. Bliss expected to find a dead animal, instead he walked into a slaughter house – six decaying bodies before him.

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Shirley Robison’s body was intentionally posed to lead the police to assume that the crime was part of a sexual attack. Bloody footprints on the floor led investigators to conclude that one person committed the murders. Pathologists were able to estimate, from the condition of the bodies, that they had been killed four weeks prior to their discovery. Placing the date the Robison family was murdered on June 25, 1968.

With forensic evidence limited, the police’s first task was to look for motive. Why had the Robison family been targeted? Would anyone associated with them have had a reason to want the family dead? Police have always believed the main target of the murder was the patriarch, Richard Robison, which begs the question, if he was the target why did the murderer go on to kill the entire family?

“Financial gain just doesn’t seem like it could possibly be the only motive for such a horrific display of violence against an entire family.” – Mardi Link

The Prime Suspect

30-year-old Joseph Scolaro worked with Richard Robison. He was a staff member at the magazine, one who had been placed in charge of Robison’s business affairs while he was on his summer holiday. While in charge, police discovered he embezzled around $60,000 from his absent boss. In today’s terms that’s about $435k.

With little other to go on as to why this family may have been murdered, Scolaro shady business dealings were the only lead, and possible motive, that the police had.

On the morning of the murders, police discovered multiple phone calls going back and forth between Robison and Scolaro. Their theory was that Scolaro had a plan to drive out to the cabin and killed the family before Robison could take action on the embezzlement. From the end of the last phone call, police believe that Scolaro had enough time to drive from Detroit to Good Hart. Scolaro could never provide a solid alibi for that time period to account for his movements.

According to Mardi Link, Scolaro said he was at a plumbing convention and spoke with a number of clients on that day, but no one remembers seeing him. And when complying with a police conducted lie detector test, he failed twice and received inconclusive results on a third test. It was also noted in police records that he tried to deceive the polygraph interviewers in his pre-test interviews.

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At the scene, police had found shell casings and a bloody footprint that they were sure had been left by the killer. A pair of shoes, found in Joe Scolaro’s possession, matched the shoe print left at the scene. However, despite the match, the police could not conclusively prove that it was Joe Scolaro who had been wearing the shoes during the murders.

A gun owned by Joe Scolaro, similar to one the police believed had been used in the murders, was found but the gun itself was not an exact match. Upon further investigation, police located a shooting range regularly used by Scolaro and found that the shell casings from the range did indeed match the casing from the crime scene. It was more evidence linking Joe Scolaro to the Robison family murders, but on December 17, 1969 the police presented their case, Evidence Case Report CR 4114-08-785-66, to the jurisdictional prosecution. Emmet County prosecutor Donald C. Noggle decided not to bring charges against Scolaro, citing the two missing murder weapons and the absence of his fingerprints from the crime scene

With no leads, no other evidence and no witnesses, the case grew cold. Four years later, a newly elected chief prosecutor, L. Brooks Patterson, reopened the prosecution and intended to have Scolaro arrested. Scolaro learned of the impending charges and arrest. And on March 8th, 1973, police were called to his office, where his body was found, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Next to his body was a typewritten suicide note. In it he wrote “I am a lier [sic] – a cheat- and a phony.” He included a list of people he had swindled in multiple business schemes.

He then added a handwritten note addresses to his mother: “I had nothing to do with the Robisons—I’m a liar but not a murderer—I’m sick and scared—God and everyone please forgive me.

Since Michigan law does not permit an open murder case to be officially closed without an arrest, the suicide of the prime suspect placed the case in the inactive file. Thus, many questions remained unanswered.

Over the many years that have passed, other crime theories have surfaced but to date none has ever been substantiated.

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Other Suspects

The caretaker, Chauncey Bliss, was briefly looked at. He had found the bodies, he knew the family was at the cabin, and being the man who built the cabin, he knew the layout and the surrounding area well. But coming up with a motive never produced likely answers.  Bliss had lost a son in a motorbike accident before the Robison’s were murdered. Some have suggested Bliss was angry with Richard Robison over his response to his son’s death.

Another name to surface is John Norman Collins, a man believed to be responsible for a series of murders between 1967 and 1969 in Southeastern Michigan. His victims were all teenage girls who were abducted, beaten, raped and murdered. Collins was only convicted of one murder in 1970; however, he is believed to be responsible for all murders linked to the Michigan Murderer. Collins was suggested as a suspect in the Robison family murders due to a connection with the family’s eldest son Richie. Both attended the same University in Eastern Michigan and it is possible they knew each other. But without motive, and without a fit to his known M.O., Collins was discarded as a viable suspect in this case.

Those who personally knew Mr. Robison were quoted in police reports as saying they had never known a better family man, friend, or business partner. And i their minds, the case was and is closed.

So, while many believe the killer has been identified, justice for this family will likely never come, and the individual who took six lives has gotten away with murder.

 

Next Tuesday: we’ll go over the Michigan Murderer – how’s that for a segue?

 

Sources: Sword and Scale and Wikipedia

 

Until next time, Booknerds…
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