On July 22, 1968, Mrs. Moore hosted a bridge party that was interrupted by an awful smell wafting through the breeze that day. She decided to call Chauncey Bliss, the owner of Blisswood Cabins in Harbor Springs, MI to investigate the source of the smell. The stench was tracked down to a neighboring cabin over a half mile away, housed by the Robison family of six from Detroit. Chauncey assumed that an animal likely died in the crawlspace under the cabin. As he approached the cabin, Chauncey found the drapes closed & plenty of flies buzzing about. Finding nothing in the crawlspace, Chauncey guessed an animal must have fallen down the chimney & died in the cabin. There was no answer when he knocked on the door so he decided to jimmy the lock with a file, slipping the latch & pulling the door open. As the door swung open, a horrific stench punched him straight in the face. As he held his nose & peer into the cabin he was completely stunned by what he saw.
Amongst the swarming flies, Chauncey could see the feet of a person under a plaid blanket. In the hallway beyond, a large lump could be seen on the floor, possibly another body. This is when Chauncey Bliss called the police.
As the police arrived from the Emmet County sheriff’s office, they were not prepared for what they found. The lump that Chauncey had seen was not one body, but three, piled on top of each other; a man, a boy & a little girl. In the doorway of a back bedroom, a fifth body was found; a teenage boy, crumpled on the floor, clutching playing cards in his hands. Farther into the same room, a sixth & final body was found; another teenage boy, laying flat on his stomach, arm outstretched. There were 15 shell casings found; 11 from a .22 caliber rifle & 4 from a .25 caliber handgun. An expensive ring & some cash was missing but most valuables had been left behind. Each family member had been shot by a gun, the little girl & the father had also been struck by a hammer. The bodies were so badly decomposed that investigators had to wear gas masks when entering the cabin. The family was dressed as if they were going on a trip & a partially packed suitcase sat open on the bed. Because of the state of decomposition, the hospital refused to accept them & the autopsies were done inside a chicken coop at the local fairgrounds. A second round of autopsies were later done in November of 1968 after the bodies were exhumed from Southfield Cemetery to check for more evidence.
Where the story begins
On Sunday, June 16, 1968 the Robison family was looking forward to a summer getaway at their vacation cottage/cabin on Lake Michigan, just north of Good Hart, Michigan. The family lived near Detroit in Lathrup Village, MI but owned their vacation cottage for ten years at this point & each summer they would head to Blisswood Cabins, a private resort of log & stone summer cabins developed by the Bliss Family. They arrived on June 16th that year. They called their cabin Summerset & it stood at the end of a private drive, secluded by a dense forest & nearly impossible to see from the road. Their backyard was lake Michigan.
Richard/Dick Robison, the father, was 42-years-old & operated an advertising agency, R.C. Robison & Associates & published a bi-monthly arts magazine for the Detroit area called Impresario out of his one-story office building. His wife, 40-year-old Shirley was a homemaker. The couple was married for 20 years & had 4 children; 19 year old Richie who attended Eastern Michigan University & was bright & had good manners, 17 year old Gary attended Southfield-Lathrup High School & played in a garage band, 12 year old Randal’s friend Tom would say, “we did normal things together; ride bikes & work on our stamp collection” & 7 year old Susan was a quiet little girl with blue eyes & dreamed of having a pony. The couple enjoyed the theater & Dick enjoyed painting watercolor & flying his private plane. They did not drink, smoke or gamble, they attended church regularly & had no known enemies. They were a very typical suburban family & seemed very wholesome.
Before heading out on the summer-long vacation, Dick had hinted about a “big deal” that was going to make him a “tycoon.” It supposedly involved a mysterious “Mr Roeberts” that was going to fly to Pellston on his personal Learjet, spend time at the family’s cottage & take them on a trip heading south on June 26th. Dick planned to buy a horse farm in Kentucky & a beachfront condo in Florida.
On Tuesday, June 25, 1968, Dick called his bank to check if a 200k deposit had been made in the agency’s account. A bank official said that not only had the deposit not been made but the account had a surprisingly low balance. The only other person that had access to the account was 30 year old Joe Scolaro, Dick’s employee who was running the business while the Robison family was away. Several phone calls had been made between the cottage & the office. The receptionist would later testify that Dick sounded angry during these calls.
The Robison family was last seen alive between 4:30-5pm on June 25th by Russell Figg who was doing yard work on the Robison’s property. Dick paid Russell $170 by check & told him he wouldn’t be there the next day as he was going on a trip. Russell said that he saw Dick & his older two sons that day but not Shirley or the two younger kids. The next day Russell & his assistant returned to the cabin to finish their work; both of the Robison’s cars were in the driveway though no suspicion arose as Dick planned to hire a small plane for the journey. They did notice what looked like bullet holes in one of the windows & over the holes was a piece of cardboard that read “Be back 7-10, Robison.” One of the gardeners moved the note aside & peered through the window but wasn’t able to make out anything inside. They did notice a light on that was later found off sometime in July; did someone return to the scene of the crime or did the lightbulb just burn out? The family had laid dead in their cabin for 27 before being discovered.
Forensic experts believed the killer came out of the woods at twilight, approaching a window by the front door, firing multiple shots from a .22 caliber rifle into the living room, striking Dick Robison in the chest as he sat in his easy chair. Shocked family members were likely not able to process what was happening before the killer burst through the front door, shooting Shirley in the head, followed by the younger kids, Randy & Susie. The two oldest boys, Richie & Gary were playing cards at the table & were believed to run toward the back bedroom to grab a rifle that was stored in the closet though shot down before making it, getting shot multiple times in the head. Gary was found only inches from the closet with the rifle. The killer then came back to Susie, then Dick, striking them in the head with a claw hammer & then shooting each victim in the head. They pulled Shirley’s dress up & her underwear down & cut it, so that it hung from only one leg. Later it would show that Shirley hadn’t been sexually assaulted, just posed to look like she may have been. Before leaving, the killer threw a plaid blanket over Shirley & dragged Dick, Susie & Randy into the hallway, drew the curtains, turned up the heat & locked the cabin door as they left.
The investigators assigned to the case worked for the Michigan State Police though ultimately detectives Lloyd Stearns & John Fils would have to answer to Emmet County Prosecutor Donald G Noggle. Emmet County Michigan was was not used to murder & this was the largest mass murder in Michigan history to date. The last murder the county saw was a decade early & was an open & shut case. The Robison murders were anything but & had been described as weird getting layered on top of weird.
The hammer used to bludgeon Dick & Susie was found discarded at the scene but no fingerprints could be lifted as a police officer held it with a handkerchief to display it for press photographers. A single bloody footprint was found, leading investigators to believe the murders were committed by a single killer. It was likely the first shots through the window were fired from a .22 Armalite AR-7 survival rifle. The killer then switched to a .25 Beretta JetFire semi-automatic pistol as he entered the cabin. The brand of ammo was a rare Finnish type by the name of Sako that had only been sold during a two-week period in late January/early February of 1968. Some finger & palm prints were found that did not match the family’s. No matches were ever linked to these.
The killer could be one of three possibilities: A Blisswood resident, a random person or someone from the Detroit area. The first two were very unlikely though a particular suspect quickly emerged.
Joseph/Joe Scolara had spent 3 years in the Army & a year at Harvard before joining Dick’s firm in 1965. He had a stocky build & stood about 6’ tall, he was smart with a high IQ & was interested in guns; a competitive trap shooter used to hitting fast moving targets. He had four guns registered in his name; two .22 AR-7 rifles & two Beretta .25 JetFires. He said he gave one Beretta to Dick & kept one for himself, he said he gave one AR-7 to his brother-in-law who was a part-time gun dealer & the other to a friend. When Joe’s BIL was questioned, he indicated that records showed the gun had not been returned. He did say that he could take authorities to the family shooting range where he & his FIL had witnessed the gun being fired by Joe. Using a metal detector, Michigan State Police recovered several spent .22 caliber shells. Ballistic testing results indicated, In my opinion, at least five of the above listed shells were fired from the same weapon as the four .22 caliber shells from the crime scene. The second AR-7 given to his friend was not a match. Joe’s Beretta came back as a negative match to the crime scene weapon but was loaded with the same rare Sako ammo. The other Beretta was never found & many suspected was the murder weapon.
A forensic accountant poured through the Robison business records after the murders & found glariing discrepancies from January 1966-July 1968, with the issues only getting worse as the months & years went by. No issues were found in the books between 1960-1966. Detective Stearns & Fils found that Joe had swindled client Delta Faucet out of about 60k (equivalent to about 400k today) in ad money the previous year. It wasn’t clear how much Dick knew about what was happening. Certain clients were overcharged by multiple thousands of dollars. Joe also appeared to have a role in the missing 200k that Dick had waited to be deposited. On the day Dick anticipated the deposit, it was found that he & Joe had called each other 17 times, likely to discuss the missing funds. After a conversation between Dick & Joe that morning, at approximately 10:33 a.m. Joe Scolaro left the office & didn’t return home until after the 11pm news that night per Joe’s wife’s (later ex) account. His own wife also said that in their 6 years of marriage it was the first time Joe did not come home or at least call to say he wouldn’t be home. Joe’s brother-in-law (wife’s brother) told investigators that Joe was a pathological liar & the family was wondering where his excess of money was coming from prior to the Robison family murders.
Another article I read indicated that Joe had convinced Dick to take out a 200k insurance policy prior to his death. It’s a policy known as a “Key Man business policy” that would pay into the business the amount insured if anything happened to the key-man Mr Robison. What Joe didn’t realize was that Dick failed to complete his scheduled medical exams so the policy hadn’t gone into effect.
Joe Scolara was a prime suspect from the beginning. He was grilled by Stearns & Fils for months & acted cagey & evasive. Stearns had said of Joe, from the 12 interviews they held with him, “not once did we walk away ever thinking this guy is innocent.” His albi was very inconsistent & seemed to often mislead detectives. He said he was at a plumbing convention & spoke with several clients while there though no one remembers seeing him other than one person who also recalled that the weather was “real nice and the sun was bright” which was definitely not the case. It was a 3 day conference so it’s possible that he was there & seen on another day. He claimed to have left the convention at 5pm & stopped at the Robison house on his way home since it was raining all day & he wanted to check on a leak. Another convention attendee claimed that because the weather was so bad that day, most guests didn’t even show up to the convention & vendors packed up early so it was unlikely Joe was there until 5 as he claimed.
Blisswood cabin residents claimed they heard gunshots at 9pm the night of the murders; Joe would have had to travel the 4.5 hours/275 miles at 138 MPH back to Detroit in order to be home at 11pm, which just wasn’t possible. The neighbor said she heard one shot & then about two or three seconds later heard four or five more in rapid succession & assumed it was related to target practice. After the shooting she heard the voice of a man & a woman that sounded excited, reinforcing her idea about the target practice. The neighbor’s sister who lived just north from her heard the same thing but thought she heard eight shots.. In order for Joe to have been home by 11pm, he would have to have left the cabins at 6:30pm. Another resident made a statement saying: At 6:30pm on June 25th, he was changing storm windows on a cabin when he heard a lot of shooting to the north. He wasn’t sure how far north but the Robison cabin was four miles north of where this witness was.
Over a year after the murders, Joe’s next door neighbor, Karl Obrich said that in June of 1968, Joe had offered to pay him $10 to make a phone call, pretending to be someone else. Joe wrote down what he wanted Karl to say but because of Karl’s German accent, a third man named Timothy Duff ended up making the call. The person they called was Dick & they recalled saying, “I’m calling in regards to the deal we have been working on with Mr Scolara & my client has informed me that he will go as much as five but no more.” They remember Dick being excited by the news though still wasn’t enough to arrest Joe.
On December 17, 1969, a year & a half after the murders, Detective Fils & Stearns delivered their “Case Evidence Book” & summary to Emmet County Prosecutor, Donald Noggle. On January 14, 1970 Noggle issued his decision; without the 2 missing firearm weapons & without fingerprints of the suspect being found at the crime scene, he would not issue a warrant for arrest. The Emmet County Sheriff’s Department & the Michigan State Police were shocked. In May of 1970 they tried again & were denied.
Four years after Donald Noggle denied Joe’s arrest, a new prosecutor was elected, L. Brooks Patterson, who gave permission to go after Joe Scolara. By March of 1973, the arrest warrant was about to be issued & delivered by Detective Stearns but on Thursday, March 8, 1973 at approximately 3pm Joe Scolara put a Beretta .25 caliber pistol in his mouth & pulled the trigger. Their prime suspect was now dead by suicide with the same type of pistol that was used to kill the Robison family. Joe pinned a note to the door, warning his mother not to enter; “Mother, don’t you come in, I will already be dead! Please have someone else come in and you call the police or whatever. -Joe.” A note was left on the desk where he shot himself; the letter was partially typed & partially handwritten. It included: I am a liar – a cheat – a phony. With this, Joe left a list of people he had stolen from in various business schemes. He also wrote, PS, I had nothing to do with the Robisons – I am a liar but not a murderer – I’m sick & scared – God and everyone else, please forgive me.
A search of Dick’s home found a bizarre letter titled Superior Table & listed a chain of power as decided by Mr Roeberts, chairman & director of the superior table. The investigators thought that the letter could be linked to Rosicrucian, which is a spiritual & cultural movement, a worldwide brotherhood claiming to possess wisdom handed down from ancient times. The letter listed a list of names but investigations of these names led to nothing. Mr Roeberts was heavily investigated though never found. Dick referred to Mr Roeberts as “my father” & ended the letter by writing, “I’m looking forward with great anticipation and love to the day we finally meet – soon I hope. Always – your son Richard.”
In this same letter, Dick referred to “Steamboat Joe” who had given him a message which he had put “where we decided.” Dick indicated that he had “instructed Joe not to allow me to ‘drop my wallet.’” And if anything should happen to him, “to take the entire wallet & pass it up to where Motor people would know what to do with it.” Steamboat Joe was apparently Dick’s partner Joe Scolara.
Detective Stearns & Fils heard rumors that Dick had been treated at Oakwood Hospital in Dearborn & was found to be mentally ill. When records were assessed, it was concluded that Dick was found to be “mentally disturbed.” Others called him a schizophrenic. This made detectives think about letters to Mr Roeberts; no one other than Dick had met this person. Apparently Mr Roeberts offered financing to build an extensive business & cultural complex around the New Hudson Regional Airport in Oakland County outside of Detroit. On June 6th, three weeks before the murders, Dick had pitched his idea to managers of the airport, telling them that a wealthy financier named Mr Roeberts was behind the deal & would be contacting them.
The airport managers received a call from Mr Roeberts. He seemed to be elderly, had a monotone voice & spoke in a halting manner. One of the managers got the impression they were talking to a robot. Immediately after the call, Dick called to see how the talk had gone. He told managers that he was excited & heading up to his cabin in Good Hart & if they needed anything they should contact Joe Scolara.
When airport managers spoke to Joe about Mr Roeberts, Joe said, “beats the hell out of me.” On the night of the murders, Shirley told her best friend that a man would be coming to stay with them in Good Hart for a few days & then the plan was for the family to travel south with him to look at property in Kentucky & FL. Investigators did find a note on the door of the cabin that read, “Will be back by 7-10. Robison.” Next to the note were bullet holes.
Marvin Fulton, Shirley Robison’s brother, was investigated. A red VW car was scene at the Robison cabin on July 4th; 9 days after the murders. Marvin drove a red Opal sports car which was said to have a striking resemblance of a VW. This same car was seen by this witness at the cabin again in late July after the Robison family had been found. Marvin had been given permission by police to go to the cabin to collect his canoe. It’s also possible that Marvin owned weapons that matched what was used in the murders.
Dick’s secretaries had been questioned during the investigation. 22 year old Glenda Sutherland said that when she worked for Dick, he called her into his office, locked the door & asked her to hike her dress up so he could look at her legs. He stared at them for a long time & ran his hands over them; it never went farther than this but this went on for months. This story made detectives think of
Secretary Glenda provided detectives with a list of other women that had been harassed by Dick. Wanda Hensley was tracked down in Palm Beach, FL & denied having an affair with Dick.
6 years after the murders in 1974, an abandoned car was found on the side of the road in southern MI. When searched, a luggage tag with Shirley Robison’s name on it was found. The car was traced to Toledo where it was sold in 1966. This brought a previously dead end theory back to life from 1970. At that time, a convict from Leavenworth prison named Alexander Bloxom wrote a letter to MI State Police claiming to know who killed the Robison family. He said he met a fellow ex-con named Mark Warren Brock at a halfway house in 1968. Brock had been hired to do a job that would pay well & offered to take Bloxom as his accomplice. They traveled to Flint to meet the man that hired them; a white man about 6’0”, 51 years old & about 200#. The 2 ex-cons then traveled to Toledo to buy a car. Brock then went up north to do the job without Bloxom because “there weren’t no colored men up in Good Hart.” Brock came back from the job with a briefcase with gold initials in the upper right hand corner. The briefcase contained investment bonds, canceled checks, audiotapes & a photo of a man & a woman with four children standing on a boat. The ex cons cut the briefcase into pieces & burned the leather in an alley behind the halfway house.
According to Bloxom, Brock said that he & accomplice Robert Matthews knocked on the door of Robison’s cabin, Brock faked a heart attack & Mrs Robison let them in. While Brock laid on the floor, Shirley Robison assisting, Matthews started shooting, killing Shirley first.
When Stearns & Fils showed Bloxom photos of who hired them, he indicated a photo of Joe Scolara then quickly changed his mind, saying he couldn’t be sure. When Brock was questioned, he wasn’t cooperative & Robert Matthews denied having anything to do with the murders. Dick Robison owned a briefcase just as Bloxom described, the timing & details lined up as did the car. But by the time the car was found Joe was dead & Brock & Bluxom were back in prison after robbing a bank.
The Serial Killer
While attending Eastern Michigan University in 1967, Richie Robison, the oldest of the kids briefly shared a room with John Norman Collins, the prime suspect of the Michigan Co-Ed murders where between July 1967 & July 1969, 7 young women were murdered in Washtenaw County, Michigan. John Norman Collins was eventually convicted for murdering Karen Sue Beineman, one of the victims. This killing spree happened right in the midst of Collins’ alleged killing spree. Stearns & Fils investigated the possibility that it could be Collins though this idea was rejected because of the lack of similarities between the murders.
In March of 1969 the Robison cabin ended up being torn down because of the extent of the decomposition. The topsoil beneath also had to be removed because of the stench. The case evidence file sits on the shelves of the Michigan State Police “inactive section” & since 1973, no additions have been made to the file.
- A Web of Intrigue – Hour Detroit Magazine
- The Robison Family Murders; My American Odyssey
- History By Day: The Unsolved & Unexplainable Case Of the Robison family
- A Web of Intrigue – Hour Detroit Magazine
- Mackinac Journal – Case Closed
- The Good Hart Murders – History & Other Things
- Dark Ideas: The Robison Family Murder – A Holiday Home Invasion
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