Richard and Shirley Robison were excited to spend the summer with their children at their vacation home near Good Hart park. The simple log cabin was located in the north woods on the shore of Lake Michigan. Secluded among dense forest, the cabin was nearly impossible to see from the road – which may or may not already sound like the beginning of a horror movie.
Richard Robison was a 42-year-old successful man working as an advertising executive who owned a magazine called Impersario. His wife, 40-year-old Shirley, was a homemaker. They had four kids: 19-year-old Richie, 16-year-old Gary, 12-year-old Randal, and 7-year-old Susan. Let me prepare you: they all die in this story.
On the surface, The Robisons looked like the ideal American family. Richard Robison was an ordinary businessman, taking work trips and holding meetings with potential investors. At least, that was what was going on in the time leading up to the summer of 1968. That June, the family headed out to their vacation cottage.
There is an ongoing debate on whether or not there was more to Richard’s business dealings than what meets the eye. It is also unclear if he left his work at home. Reportedly, he told some neighbors that he had a business trip on June 26th to Florida. But that trip would never happen.
Just one week into their vacation, a window in the family’s cabin was shattered by a bullet. Four more shots were fired and appeared to be aimed at Richard. With the father dead, the killer walked into the cabin and murdered the rest of the family – each with a bullet to the head.
Two different guns were used in this heinous crime, and Richard and his youngest daughter Susan were beaten with a hammer as well. (Because what kind of murder spree doesn’t contain a little overkill?)
On the day of the murder, Richard went to visit Chauncey Bliss to pay his respects after his son recently died in a motorcycle accident. Bliss was the caretaker of the Robison cabin and built it back in 1956. In an article in the Petoskey News-Review, Bliss revealed that Robison left $20 for flowers and also went to see Bliss’ parents to share his condolences.
Apparently, Richard indicated that around that time, the family would be taking a trip to Florida and Kentucky to see a property. A note, which was found on the Robison cabin door, said the family wouldn’t return until July.
The last person to see the Robisons alive was likely Russel Figg, the gardener of the Blisswood complex of cottages. About a month after the murders, he contacted the police telling them that something has been bothering him since he heard the news of the murders.
He had been working on the Robisons’ garden all day on June 25th, and at the end of the day, Richard paid him. He said that he saw Richard’s older sons, but not the younger one, nor his wife Shirley. Something felt off, though, which seems strange considering what would happen later that night.
Reportedly, he was worried and felt uneasy. Was there a reason he had an unsettling feeling? Was there something going on in that cottage? Or was Figg simply suffering from hindsight bias? So many questions!
It was concluded that the family was attacked that evening, on the night of June 25th, 1968. But did the events build up throughout the day? Why would the gardener suspect that Shirley was being held hostage? Whatever the reason was, it was never investigated. As we’ll see, a lot of the leads in this case weren’t looked into.
The day after the murder, Figg returned to the cottage with his assistant to finish their work. They didn’t see the family, but they didn’t think much of it; they assumed they were on their way to Florida. Other residents were also aware that the family was leaving, and that Richard planned to hire a small plane to take them there.
That explains why both cars were still in the driveway. But something still wasn’t quite right. Both gardeners noticed what looked like bullet holes in one of the windows, but the holes were covered by a piece of cardboard. There was also a note taped to the wall which read: “Will be back 7-10, Robinson.”
Six Bodies were lying, scattered in their summer cabin for a month before they were found! A whole month! Caretaker Chauncey Bliss was called to the residence on July 22nd, by a neighbor complaining about a horrific smell coming from the cabin.
The doors were locked, but since Bliss had a key, he entered the house. He came across a body on the living room floor, covered by a blanket. At about 3 pm, Bliss left the cabin and called Emmet deputy Ken Heise and prosecuting attorney W. Richard Smith to tell them about the bodies.
The bodies were all in different rooms. Shirley was the one found in the living room covered by a blanket; three bodies in the hallway; and two more in the bedroom. They were so badly decomposed by the time they were found.
The way 7-year-old Shirley’s body was posed initially led police to believe the murders were part of a sexual attack. They concluded that the crime was committed by one person because of the bloody footprints on the floor. From the conditions of the body, pathologists were able to estimate that they were killed about four weeks before they were found, marking the date June 25th, 1968.
With limited forensic evidence, the detectives’ first mission was to find a motive. Why was the Robison family targeted? Would anyone associated with the family want them dead? Investigators always believed that the target of the murder was the family patriarch, Richard Robison.
But if getting rid of Richard was the main objective, why kill the entire family? According to journalist and former police reporter Mardi Link, “Financial gain doesn’t seem like it could possibly be the only motive for such a horrific display of violence against an entire family.”
Joseph Scolaro was a 30-year-old man who worked with Richard. He was an employee at the magazine that Richard owned and was put in charge of Robison’s business affairs while he was away on summer vacation.
Police discovered that when he was left in charge, Scolaro embezzled $60,000 from his boss (if you calculate inflation, that would be $435,000 today). With not much else to go on, Scolaro’s sketchy business dealings were the only lead, and provided the police with a possible motive.
The police discovered multiple phone calls going back and forth between Scolaro and Robinson on the morning of the vicious murders. The police’s theory was as follows: Scolaro planned to drive out to the cabin and kill the family before Robison could do anything about the embezzlement.
Police believe that from the time the last phone call ended, Scolaro had enough time to drive from Detroit to Good Hart. Plus, Scolaro was not able to provide a solid alibi to account for his movements.
According to Mardi Link, Scolaro claimed he was at a plumbing convention and spoke with several clients on that day. However, no one remembers seeing him. He complied with police, who conducted a polygraph test – Scolaro failed twice, and the third one came back inconclusive.
Police also noted that he tried to deceive that lie detector test in his pre-test interviews. Unfortunately, polygraph tests are not a reliable source of information, which is why in most cases, they can’t be used in court.
A huge part of the case against Scolaro was based on circumstantial evidence: he took a morning call from Robison and then traveled 275 miles to Good Hart, where he killed the family. He left at approximately 10:30 am, and his (now-ex) wife told police that he was home by 11 pm that night.
It was just enough time for the 10-hour round-trip that police estimated with contemporary road conditions. Even now, Google Maps will show you that the journey takes about 4.5 hours each way. Seems pretty suspicious to me…
Scolaro was having none of that and maintained his innocence. He told investigators in one of his 12 interviews that he left the office at 10:30 am and went to that plumbing convection where he was until 5 pm.
He said that on his way home, he stopped at the Robison house since it was raining all day. Sure enough, he claimed that he found a leak, so he was there sorting it out for a couple of hours before heading home. How convenient. Unfortunately, there was no way to corroborate his whereabouts.
Police went ahead and tracked down a bunch of folks who did, in fact, attend that convention, but they got mixed messages about whether Scolaro was there or not. One witness said he was with him at the event but insists that it was a sunny day. For the record, June 25th that year was extremely rainy.
Another individual confirmed that the rain was so heavy that day that most of the guests didn’t even show up to the convention. In fact, the people who were in attendance packed up early because of the weather. It’s highly unlikely that Scolaro was there until 5 pm.
The case against Scolaro seemed to be the only possibility… until the first real crack in the theory came out. There was a little problem with timing if Joseph Scolaro’s ex-wife said he was home at 11 pm.
Blisswood neighbors claimed they heard gunshots around 9 pm that evening. That would give the killer no more than 2 hours to travel 275 miles – approximately 138 miles per hour – a non-stop trip back to Detroit… which is impossible. Detectives were convinced Scolaro’s ex-wife was telling the truth, especially since she was his ex-wife, not his current one.
When faced with something that was physically impossible, police had to accept that there was something wrong with their theory. It is widely believed that Joseph Scolaro was the man responsible and that the statement from the neighbors, Mr. & Mrs. Freeman, placed the murders at about 9 pm.
But there is no situation in which both of these things can be true. As a matter of fact, when the Freemans’ statements were further investigated, it contradicts the accepted narrative. According to the police report, Mrs. Freedman stated that “after the shooting, she heard the voice of a woman and that of men and they were excited, and this too made her think of target practice.”
If the timeline is correct, Shirley would have been the second to get shot, so the woman Mrs. Freeman heard couldn’t have been her. This leaves other possibilities: the killer either had a female accomplice at the crime scene, or the noises weren’t even linked to the Robison family murders at all.
Let’s turn our focus back to Scolaro. For him to be home by 11 pm on the night in question, he would have had to commit the crime and leave Good Hart at around 6:30 pm. As it turned out, there was another witness statement from a resident of Harbor Springs that may provide the missing clue.
Dale Haven, the Harbor Springs resident, may have heard gunshot sounds travel from the Summerset cottage. I don’t know if four miles is too far to hear gunshot sounds, but his information could give an alternative timeline – one that would, in fact, allow Scolaro to be the killer.
It was kind of brushed off because of the distance. What’s frustrating is that the police didn’t follow up on the lead or perform more tests to see if the gunshot noise could travel that far. If what Haven heard was indeed a gunshot, it could have helped crack the case or at least get a better sense of the timeline.
Police found shell casings at the crime scene, as well as a bloody footprint left by the killer. As it turned out, shoes found in Scolaro’s possession matched the shoe print at the cabin. However, police couldn’t conclusively prove that it was, in fact, Scolaro who wore the shoes when the murders took place. Still, that’s some alarming circumstantial evidence.
Joe Scolaro also owned a gun similar to the one police believe was used during the murders. But when they found his gun, they realized it wasn’t an exact match.
Upon further investigation, detectives located the shooting range Scolaro frequently went to and found that the shell casings from the range were a match to the casings at the crime scene. It was just more evidence linking Scolaro to the Robison family murders.
The police went ahead and presented their case on December 17, 1969, to the jurisdictional prosecution. Emmet County prosecutor Donald C. Noggle decided not to charge Scolaro because of the two missing murder weapons and since his fingerprints were not found at the crime scene.
With no leads, no additional evidence, and no witnesses, the case eventually went cold. Four years later, L. Brooks Patterson, a newly elected chief prosecutor, reopened the case with the intention of having Scolaro arrested.
He found out about the charges and his arrest, and on March 8th, 1973, police were called into Scolaro’s office where his body was found… dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. A typed-up suicide note was found next to his body. The letter read: “I’m a lier [sic] – a cheat – and a phony.”
He added a list of people he deceived in multiple business schemes. He also included a handwritten letter to his mother saying: “I had nothing to do with the Robinsons – I’m a liar but not a murderer – I’m sick and scared – God and everyone, please forgive me.”
But Michigan law does not allow an open murder case to be officially closed without making an arrest. The suicide of the prime suspect put the case into “inactive” status. Many years have passed, and many theories have surfaced since. However, none were able to be verified.
Although Joe Scolaro was the prime suspect, a few other suspects were considered. They briefly looked at the caretaker Chauncey Bliss. After all, he was the one who found the bodies, he knew the family was staying at the cabin, and he knows the layout and surrounding area, considering he was the man who built the cabin. But there wasn’t really a motive.
Bliss had recently lost his son in a motorcycle accident. Some people suggested that Bliss was mad at Robison because of how he reacted to the death of his son. However, this information couldn’t be confirmed. Plus, there is no evidence that Bliss and Richard were that close and that Richard should have done anything other than visit the family and express his condolences.
Another name that was tossed around was John Norman Collins. He was suspected of a series of murders in Southeastern Michigan between 1967 and 1969. His victims were all teenage girls who were kidnapped, beaten, raped, and then murdered. But what would he have to do with the Robison murders? Murdering an entire family in cold blood doesn’t match his M.O.
Plus, Collins was only convicted of one murder in 1970, but it’s believed that he is responsible for all the Michigan murders. His link to the Robison family was his connection to the eldest son Richie. They both went to the same University and possibly knew each other. But still, there was no motive, so Collins was discarded as the murderer in this case.
The more you read about the case, the more you get the impression that Richard Robison wasn’t the innocent family man he appeared to be. It didn’t seem like he was playing by the books. One of his former employees claimed in an interview that there were two or three people connected with the business that had strong motives to murder Robison.
However, these names and details are unclear. This lead wasn’t followed up on either. I don’t know if police protocol was different at the time, but it seems to me that if the police did a thorough investigation and followed up on all leads, they might have gotten closer to the truth.
Furthermore, associations with the Mafia appear more than once. Richie Robison’s college friends told investigators that he once heard Ritchie talking about how his dad worked with the Mafia. As we know, that would automatically put him in danger and give a clue as to who did this.
A police informant told detectives: “He owed (the Mafia) $12,000 a month. If he hadn’t held back on us like he did, we wouldn’t have wiped out the whole family.” Yikes. But once again, there is nothing in the police reports showing that they investigated this lead any further.
According to police reports, those who knew Mr. Robison said that they never knew a better family man, friend, or business partner. In their minds, they believe Scolaro is responsible, period, case closed. However, the case was never officially closed.
While many believe they know who the murderer is, justice for the family will probably never come. The person responsible has gotten away with murder, to say the least. The hammer was what really got to me. Shooting someone in cold blood is pure evil but bashing their heads with a hammer showed personal rage and hatred.
So, who do you think killed the Robisons?