Labyrinth: The Perplexing Maze of the Robison Family Murders in Good Hart, Michigan
The smell was something awful. It wafted in on the breeze, making the members of Mrs. Moore’s bridge party curl up their lips and comment on it. Mrs. Moore phoned Monnie Bliss, the owner of Blisswood Cabins and asked him to check into it. Monnie tracked down the smell. It was coming from a neighboring cabin, the one rented by the Robison family, a clean-cut family of six from the suburbs of Detroit. He rapped on the door. No answer. He looked in at the window. The drapes were closed. A fly was buzzing around his head. He swatted it away. Then there was another. And another. A lot of flies.
He got a file and jimmied the door away the frame, and then slipped the latch and pulled it open. The stench struck him like a fist. He held his nose and peered in. What he saw made his blood run cold. A cloud of droning flies, and behind it the body of a woman lying face down on the floor, her dress pulled up around her waist, her underwear pulled down around her ankles, a blanket arranged neatly over her head. In the hallway beyond, a large lump on the floor, possibly another body. Monnie Bliss called the police.
When police officers from the Emmet County sheriff’s office arrived, they were shocked at what they found. The lump was not one body, but three, piled on top of each other, a man, a boy, and a little girl. In the doorway to a back room a fifth body was found, a teenage boy, crumpled on the floor, holding a handful of playing cards. And in the room beyond that, the sixth and final victim, another teenage boy, lying flat on his stomach, his arm outstretched. The six members of the Robison family had each been slain by gunshot wounds to the head. The little girl had also been struck by a hammer. It was then, and remains today, the largest mass murder in Michigan history. Who could’ve done such a terrible thing to such a nice, respectable family?
The Robisons were regular churchgoers. The father, Dick Robison, was a reputable businessman. He didn’t drink or gamble. He painted watercolors and supported the opera. Shirley Robison was a homemaker, a loyal wife and devoted mother. The four children were all polite and well mannered. They got good grades and never got into trouble.
Each summer the family vacationed at Blisswood Cabins, a private resort of pine log and birch bark summer cabins beside Lake Michigan in the tiny hamlet of Good Hart, Michigan, ninety miles north of Traverse City. This year, 1968, they had arrived on June 16th. They had been murdered on June 25th. Their bodies had lain undisturbed in the cabin for almost a month. The flies had been having a feast.
Dick Robison, the Father
The detectives assigned to the investigation worked for the Michigan State Police. When all was said and done, however, detectives Lloyd Stearns and John Fils would ultimately have to answer to Emmet County Prosecutor Donald G. Noggle.
Emmet County was not accustomed to murder. The last homicide had occurred a decade earlier. It had been an open-and-shut case. The Robison family murders by comparison would turn out to be a labyrinth, a perplexing maze that would lead investigators down a number of blind alleys. Weird got layered on top of weird.
For starters Dick Robison, the murdered father, was an enigma. His Lutheran minister said he had a split personality. Some knew him to be kind and generous. Others called him a tyrant, labeling him paranoid and secretive, an opinion particularly prevalent among those who worked for him. Dick Robison harbored grandiose ideas and believed he was on the verge of a breakthrough that would make him fabulously wealthy.
The Mysterious Mr. Roeberts
These ideas had been planted in his head by a mysterious individual named Mr. Roeberts. The detectives found a letter between Dick Robison and Mr. Roeberts that was bizarre, to say the least. In the letter Dick Robison referred to Mr. Roeberts as “my father”, and ended with the words, “I’m looking forward with great anticipation and love to the day when we finally meet—soon I hope. Always—your son Richard.”
In the same letter Dick Robison referred to “Steamboat Joe” who had given him a message, which he had put “where we decided”. Robison reported that he had “instructed Joe not to allow me to ‘drop my wallet’.” And should anything happen to him “to take the entire wallet and pass it up to where the Moter [sic] people would know what to do with it.”
Steamboat Joe was apparently a reference to Joe Scolara, Dick Robison’s right-hand man and chief salesperson. Dick Robison owned R.C. Robison and Associates, the publisher of Impresario magazine, a local Detroit arts magazine. Joe Scolara sold ads for the magazine and was responsible for landing the company’s first major account, Delta Faucet. If Dick Robison was a paranoid tyrant, Joe Scolara was a first rate swindler.
An admitted liar and cheat, Joe Scolara had been playing fast and loose with the company’s finances for some time. Detectives Stearns and Fils learned that Joe Scolara had swindled Delta Faucet out of more than $50,000 in ad money the previous year. Worse yet, it appeared he’d had a role in the disappearance of a bank deposit worth $200,000. On the morning of the murders Dick Robison had called his banker to ask about the funds, which had never reached his account. Subsequently, on that same day, phone records indicated that seventeen calls passed between Dick Robison and Joe Scolara, no doubt to discuss the missing funds.
If that wasn’t enough to cast suspicion on Joe Scolara, the detectives soon learned that Scolara had purchased two semiautomatic .25 caliber Berettas, one of which he had given to Dick Robison, and one of which he had kept for himself. Although Robison had been an outspoken critic of gun ownership, and had even written an editorial expressing his views, he had, according to Scolara, been rattled by the riots in Detroit that summer and changed his mind. As it happened, ballistics had already determined that one of the weapons used in the murders was a .25 caliber Beretta. The other was a .22 caliber rifle. It appeared the murders had been perpetrated by two people.
Before long, the police got hold of Joe Scolara’s Beretta and ruled it out as the murder weapon. But where was Dick Robison’s gun? And what about the rifle? While police were trying to track them down, there was another wrinkle in the case.
Apparently Dick Robison was not the devoted family man he appeared to be. Under questioning, more than one of Robison’s former secretaries told detectives he had harassed them sexually. One of them, Glenda Sutherland, was twenty-two-years-old when she worked for him. He called her into his office and locked the door. He told her to hike up her dress so he could look at her legs. He stared at them for a long time. Then he ran his hands over them. It never went any further than that, but it went on for months. It was not lost on detectives that Dick’s wife Shirley Robison had been found with her dress hiked up around her waist.
Yet, as bad as it looked, there was never any evidence that Shirley Robison had been raped. No semen had been found on her body, and forensic rape kits didn’t exist in 1968. Decades later, when modern forensic experts reexamined the evidence, two mysterious pubic hairs found on Shirley’s legs were analyzed and discovered to be her own. It looked very much like Shirley Robison had been posed to look like she had been raped, but had not been.
Glenda Sutherland provided police with a list of other women who had experienced the lecherous nature of Dick Robison. One of them, a Wanda Hensley, was rumored to have been having an affair with him. Detectives Stearns and Fils tracked her down in Palm Beach, Florida. By then she was married to a wealthy industrialist thirty-five years her senior, a man said to be intensely jealous of anyone who paid attention to her. Wanda denied having an affair with Dick Robison, but it later came to light that at some point in the weeks prior to the murders she had suffered a miscarriage. Detectives did not question the paternity of the lost fetus, but instead turned their attention to the findings of a Dr. Alexander Dukay of the Ypsilanti State Hospital as to the mental health of Dick Robison.
The Mentally Disturbed
Early in their investigation Stearns and Fils had gotten wind of a rumor that Dick Robison had been treated at the Oakwood Hospital in Dearborn by a member of the psychiatric staff and found to be mentally ill. Recommendations were supposedly made that he be committed. The rumor could not be substantiated, but there was enough of a ring of truth to it that the detectives followed up with Dr. Dukay of Ypsilanti State Mental Hospital to get his assessment. After looking over the letters and other materials the detectives found, Dr. Dukay concluded that Dick Robison was “mentally disturbed”. Others had gone further, calling him schizophrenic.
Certainly, his obsession with the mysterious Mr. Roeberts hinted as much. No one other than Dick Robison had ever met the man. But Dick was convinced he was a real person and held the key to his future. It appeared Mr. Roeberts had offered to provide business financing for an idea Dick had come up with to build an extensive business and cultural complex around the New Hudson Regional Airport in Oakland County outside Detroit.
The airport was to be the centerpiece of a sprawling business and cultural complex that would include luxury hotels, townhomes, an art’s center, and a dedicated artist’s community. Together with Joe Scolara, Dick had approached the managers of the airport and pitched the idea on June 6th, three weeks before the murders. Dick told the airport’s managers that a wealthy financier named Mr. Roeberts was behind the deal and would be contacting them to provide details. As it happened, Mr. Roeberts did contact the airport’s managers. But he was not what they expected.
The Man with the Robot Voice
The caller seemed to be an elderly man with a low monotone voice. He spoke haltingly. One of the managers got the feeling they were talking to a robot. As soon as the managers hung up with Mr. Roeberts, Dick Robison called, wanting to know how the call had gone. Nothing definite had been decided, but Dick was excited. He told them he was heading up to his cabin in Good Hart and if they needed anything in the meantime they should contact Joe Scolara. Later, the detectives asked Joe Scolara directly, “Who is Mr. Roeberts?”
“Beats the hell out of me,” said Joe.
But it seemed Dick Robison had been expecting Mr. Roeberts on the night of the murders. Shirley had told her best friend that a man would be coming to stay with them in Good Hart for a few days, and that the family would travel south with him to look at property in Kentucky and Florida. Indeed, investigators had found a note on the door of the cabin with the words, “Will be back 7-10. Robison.” Next to the note were bullet holes.
From the beginning, Joe Scolara was the detectives’ prime suspect. Stearns and Fils grilled him for months and found him cagey and evasive. He provided an alibi that was shot through with inconsistencies. His attempts at prevarication were clumsy and self-defeating. He would try to mislead them and then suddenly reveal something important. More than a year after the murders, he casually let drop that he had bought two ArmaLite AR-7 survival rifles sometime in the mid-1960’s. He couldn’t produce them, however, because he had given them away. Now it became clear that Scolara had once been in possession of both types of guns used in the murders, but neither gun could be located. Without the guns, the detectives couldn’t arrest him. Time dragged on.
More than a year later the detectives received a call from Joe Scolara’s next door neighbor, a man named Karl Obrich. He had something interesting to tell them. In June of 1968 Joe offered to pay him ten dollars to make a phone call pretending to be someone else. Joe wrote down what he wanted Karl to say and had him rehearse it, but Karl had a German accent, so they brought in a third man named Timothy Duff who came over and made the call for Joe.
Both Duffy and Olbrich remembered that the person they called on the phone was Dick Robison. They remembered saying something along the lines of “I’m calling in regards to the deal we have been working on with Mr. Scolara and my client has informed me that he will go as much as five but no more.” They remembered Dick Robison being excited by the news. It was damning evidence of Joe Scolara’s duplicity. Still, it wasn’t enough to arrest him. Then the detectives finally got the break they had been looking for.
Joe Scolara told the detectives he had given one of the missing rifles to his brother-in-law, the same man he claimed had sold him the gun in the first place. When the detectives questioned the brother-in-law, he denied ever having received the gun back from Joe but did let it slip that he and Joe had driven up to his father-in-law’s place near Union Lake to test fire it after the original purchase .
The detectives searched the location and found the shell casings from the gun. Then they compared them to the shell casings taken from the crime scene. They matched. Around the same time, Joe Scolara took a polygraph test and was asked directly if he had been at cabin on the night of the murders. He denied it. According to the polygraph examiner, his responses indicated deception.
With a mounting pile of evidence tying Joe to the murders and at least one piece of physical evidence putting him at the crime scene, Stearns and Fils sent their report into the Emmet County Prosecutor Donald G. Noggle. They expected the green light to go-ahead and make an arrest. They got a surprise instead.
The prosecutor refused to issue a warrant for Joe’s arrest. In his opinion, the evidence putting Joe’s rifle at the crime scene was not sufficient to prove Joe himself had been there. If the detectives wanted Joe Scolara prosecuted for the murders, they would have to do a better job of proving he had been in Good Hart when the crimes had occurred. Oh, and one other thing, Prosecutor Noggle had his own theory about who had committed the murders.
Prosecutor Noggle subscribed to a theory advanced by John “Bob” Clock, a reporter who had been covering the case for the Petoskey News-Review. Clock believed Monnie Bliss was behind the murders. Monnie Bliss was the owner of Blisswood, the person who had discovered the bodies. According to Clock, a deep enmity existed between Monnie Bliss and Dick Robison that could be traced to Robison’s knowledge of the truth behind the death of Monnie’s son, Norman Bliss. Clock believed that Monnie had murdered his son to keep him from inheriting the Bliss family fortune and that Dick Robison knew about it.
This was completely out of left field. No evidence existed to support the idea that Monnie Bliss had murdered his own son, who had died when his motorcycle struck a tree after a night of drinking. Interviews with people who knew both men uncovered no reports of enmity between Bliss and Robison. And Clock himself admitted he had no hard evidence, only an acute knowledge of human nature honed over years of reporting. But it was enough of a distraction to keep investigators spinning their wheels. Time dragged on.
Then, after six years of being hounded by investigators Joe Scolara put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Just like that, the detectives’ prime suspect was gone. But in a case with so many twists and turns Stearns and Fils weren’t out of the labyrinth just yet.
The Letter Writer
In 1974, six years after the murders, a car found abandoned on the side of the road in southern Michigan was searched by state troopers. In the glove compartment troopers found a luggage tag bearing the name of Shirley Robison. The car was traced to Toledo where it was had been sold off the lot in 1966. This raised the eyebrows of investigators.
The sudden appearance of the car lined up nicely with a dead end theory investigators had dismissed back in 1970. At that time a convict in Leavenworth prison wrote a letter to Michigan state police claiming he knew the identity of the Robison family killers. According to his story he had met a fellow ex-con by the name of Mark Warren Brock at a halfway house in June of 1968. Brock had been hired to pull a job that promised to pay handsomely. He invited the writer of the letter, a man named Alexander Bloxom, to become an accomplice. Together they traveled to Flint to meet the man who had hired them, a white man, about fifty-years-old, six foot tall, maybe two hundred, as Bloxom described him.
After that, the two ex-cons traveled to Toledo to buy a car. Then Brock went up north to do the job, leaving Bloxom behind because “there weren’t no colored men up in Good Hart.” When Brock came back, he was carrying a briefcase made of smooth brown leather with a zipper running all the way around it. There were gold initials in the upper right-hand corner. Inside the briefcase were investment bonds, cancelled checks, audio tapes, and a photograph of a man, a woman, and four children standing on a boat. The ex-cons cut the briefcase to pieces and burned the leather in the alley behind the halfway house.
Later, according to Bloxom, Brock described what had happened. After enlisting the aid of an accomplice named Robert Matthew, they knocked on the door of the Robison’s cabin. Brock faked a heart attack, and Mrs. Robison let them in. While Brock was lying on the floor with Mrs. Robison trying to help him, Matthews started shooting. Mrs. Robison died first. Then one of the sons bolted for the back bedroom, and he was shot. Then Brock got to his feet and gunned down the others. It was a grisly story of ruthless murder. But who was the mysterious man who hired the killers?
Stearns and Fils showed Bloxom some photographs and asked him if he could identify the man they had met in Flint. Bloxom indicated a photograph of Joe Scolara, and then quickly changed his mind and said he couldn’t be sure if it was the same man. When investigators questioned Mark Warren Brock, he refused to cooperate. Robert Matthews flatly denied having anything to do with the murders, and when Alexander Bloxom took a polygraph test, he failed. It wasn’t looking so good for the letter writer.
Generally, investigators take jail house confessions with a dose of skepticism for obvious reasons, but a few things about Bloxom’s story rang true. Dick Robison had owned a briefcase exactly like the one Bloxom described. The timing and details of the murder lined up. And there was the car. Brock had told Bloxom to get rid of it, but before Bloxom had set off he had given him something else he wanted to make disappear, a suitcase he had taken from the crime scene. Bloxom did what Brock told him to, but he couldn’t provide police any details about where he had abandoned the car. It was another dead end. The whole thing got filed away under wild goose chase and forgotten. Then the car turned up.
But it was too late. By then Joe Scolara was dead by his own hand, and Brock and Bloxom were back in jail for robbing a bank. Stearns and Fils had been wandering around in a labyrinth for the better part of six years. Understandably, they were tired and discouraged. Every time they got close to the truth a new avenue of inquiry opened up, taking them off on a different tangent. Now with the prime suspect gone and interest in the murders waning, a jail house confessional from a proven liar pointing the finger at someone who was already incarcerated wasn’t enough to breathe life back into the investigation. It was nearly over. Yet there was one more twist in the labyrinth.
The Serial Killer
Serial killers are extremely rare. They comprise less than 1 percent of all homicides, less than 150 murders per year, committed by maybe 25-50 people in a population of more than 330 million. The possibility that one of the victims of the largest mass murder in Michigan history would have been acquainted with one of its most prolific serial killers is vanishingly rare. But that’s exactly what happened in the case of Richard Craig Robison, the oldest son of the Robison’s three boys.
While attending Eastern Michigan University in 1967, Robison met and briefly roomed with John Norman Collins, the prime suspect in what came to be known as the Michigan Co-Ed Murders. For two years, from July 1967 to July 1969, seven young women were murdered in Washtenaw County, Michigan. John Norman Collins was eventually arrested and convicted of murdering Karen Sue Beineman, one of the victims. The Robison family murders occurred right in the middle of Collins’ alleged killing spree.
Stearns and Fils looked into the possibility of Collins’ involvement and rejected it, pointing to a lack of similarity between the Robison murders and the murders perpetrated by Collins. But that hasn’t stopped a raft of amateur sleuths from championing the possibility in articles, stories and chat rooms. After years of reaching dead ends, investigators eventually turned their attention elsewhere, and the amateurs took over. The theory has never really gone out of style.
Unpacking the Robison Family Murders
So what really happened in Good Hart, Michigan in June of 1968? While police were never able to get enough evidence to make a solid case, enough evidence exists to piece together a likely scenario.
Dick Robison was mentally ill and prone to delusions of grandeur. That made him putty in the hands of a ruthless con-artist like Joe Scolara. By feeding Robison’s delusions with fake phone calls from shadowy investors like the elusive Mr. Roeberts, Scolara got Robison to sign over large sums of money in preparation for a pie-in-the-sky project that was never going to happen. If, as was alleged, Dick Robison had a split-personality, one part of him may have believed Scolara’s lies, while the other half may have suspected he was being had.
Perhaps it was this other half that discovered the missing $200,000 bank deposit and called Joe Scolara repeatedly on June 25th to demand an explanation. Scolara may have recognized that the jig was up and set in motion a plan he had laid out weeks before in anticipation of just such a possibility. In all likelihood, Scolara did hire the ex-con Mark Warren Brock, just as Alexander Bloxom described, and provided the guns as a way to insulate the killers from suspicion. It is entirely plausible that the murders occurred just as Brock described them, the only unexplained part being the arrangement of Shirley Robison’s body.
As for that, it doesn’t strain credulity to speculate that Joe Scolara knew of Dick Robison’s lecherous treatment of his secretaries and resented it. Perhaps he instructed the killers to molest Shirley Robison in the same manner as a way to taunt Dick Robison before killing him. We shall never know.
Had Detectives Stearns and Fils been permitted to arrest Joe Scolara they would probably have brought all this to light. Even if Scolara was the mastermind, in this scenario he would not have pulled the trigger, so he would’ve been able to bargain a lighter sentence by giving up Brock, and would undoubtedly have done so. But the Emmet County District Attorney, unaccustomed to trying homicides, refused to allow the arrest. Why?
It’s worth noting that Donald G. Noggle was sixty-seven years old at the time of the murders and nearing retirement, a prosecution of this magnitude would have been far and away the most complicated and time-consuming of his career, particularly if it was not airtight. Maybe he didn’t want to set in motion something that would be such a strain on him and his office, or maybe he just wanted to make sure that the final prosecution of his career didn’t end in embarrassment. Whatever the case may be, his obstruction prevented the truth from emerging, and, as a result, the Robison family murders remain unsolved to this day.
The Place Where it Happened: Good Hart, Michigan
Harbor Springs, Michigan is picturesque on a summer’s day. Take the drive north along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan and you enter the Tunnel of Trees, a twenty-mile drive through a dense woodland of hardwoods and evergreens that knit together over the roadway. As you drive along you see glimpses of the great inland sea through the trees, stretching blue and placid to the horizon.
At the end of the Tunnel of Trees you enter Good Hart, a quaint little town with a population of just 600. There’s a general store with a red and white striped awning. There’s a white steepled church. There’s a little strip of golden sand by the water’s edge. Scattered here and there are cabins, cabins built by the Bliss family in the 1930’s and 40’s, charming little structures with hand-built stone fireplaces and porches facing the lake.
In a cabin just like these back in 1968 a family was slaughtered, a clean-cut, churchgoing family by all outward appearances. But the Robisons were not what they appeared to be. Like Good Hart itself, that which appeared harmless and innocent was hiding a secret, something so outlandish and disturbing that no one likes to talk about it, and for good reason. For to inquire too deeply leads you into a labyrinth — and ultimately leads you nowhere.
Previous Stop on the Odyssey: Flint, MI
Next Stop on the Odyssey: Sault Ste Marie, MI
My American Odyssey Route Map
Link, Mardi. When Evil Came to Good Hart, The University of Michigan Press, 2008.
Labyrinth, Dan Asaki
Investigators working the crime scene, YouTube
Robison family portrait, NY Daily News / Bettman Archives
Blisswood cabins today, Malcolm Logan
Robison family murder investigation, Associate Press
Investigating officer in gas mask holds the hammer at the murder scene, NY Daily News / Anonymous AP photo
Joe Scolara, Newspapers.com
.25 caliber Beretta handgun, Genitron
Woman in an office, Joe Lee
Diagram showing the positions of the bodies, HistorybyDay
Oakwood Hospital, Dearborn Historical Society
New Hudson Regional Airport, Dwight Burdette
Note left on the door, DarkIdeas.net
Police officer inspecting the bullet holes, YouTube
Joe Scolara caught by surprise, HistoryByDay.com
Man dialing the phone, AT&T archives and history center
Armalite AR-7 rifle, CynicalMe
Shell casing in the grass, Flashfix
Abandoned car, Dave Hoefler
Knocking on the door, Westminster.gov.uk
Police interrogation, QuinnanLaw
Failed Polygraph test, SpiggleLaw
Police investigating murder, Associated Press
John Norman Collins, Murderpedia.org
Robison family home, Malcolm Logan
Graveyard of church, Malcolm Logan
Lake Michigan at Good Hart video, Malcolm Logan
The Tunnel of Trees, Malcolm Logan