A Web of Intrigue
Forty years ago this month, six vacationing members of the Robison family were murdered at their secluded cottage in the northern Michigan village of Good Hart. Although theories and suspects continue to be discussed, no one was ever charged in the crime. To add to the mystery, the father's business dealings turned out to be as dark and inscrutable as the woods surrounding the town
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An adopted child of Michigan’s north country, Carolyn Sutherland talks freely about Good Hart in the dead of winter. How the interminable snow is always whiter than the stuff downstate. How there’s no salt on the roads and no dampness in the air. How the only really bad time is mud season, those ugly months of November and April when Old Man Winter can’t decide whether he’s coming or going.
“That’s when I head for Florida,” says the saucy sexagenarian, who grew up in Huntington Woods. “I have my drinks poolside.”
What sets the proprietor of the village’s general-goods store apart from other locals is that she’s equally glib about the dead of summer in Good Hart — the dead of the summer of 1968, to be precise. “People come into the store and they all want to know about the murders. I’m a walking encyclopedia, so I tell ’em.”
It was a crime that gripped the state and focused an unwelcome microscope on this stretch of wooded bluffs hugging the Lake Michigan shore.
On July 22, 1968, a caretaker investigating complaints of an overpowering stench pried open the door of an isolated cottage just two miles up the road from the Good Hart General Store. He walked into a wall of flies. Inside were the badly decomposed bodies of six members of a vacationing Lathrup Village family: advertising executive Richard Robison, his wife, Shirley, and their four children. Shirley had evidently been raped; the youngest child, 7-year-old Susie, had been bludgeoned with a hammer. All had been shot. They had been dead a month.
“The sheer mad violence of those killings burned into my mind,” recalls Tom DeLisle, then a young reporter for the Detroit Free Press. “It’s disturbing to this day.”
Some thought the slayings were entirely random — perhaps a drifter, a cult, or a motorcycle gang had stumbled across the cottage. Many longtime residents still believe it was revenge by an unhinged local builder over an imagined slight. DeLisle chased down rumors connecting the murders to the infamous “Co-ed Killer,” John Norman Collins. Ultimately, detectives closest to the case came to the conclusion that Robison’s business partner was the probable killer — a determination that doesn’t sit well with everyone.
“I don’t think you can tie it up into a nice package and put a ribbon on it,” says a former neighbor, pointing out that the case remains officially unresolved. “You have to keep an open mind.”
There is an intemporal quality to Good Hart, the kind found in ancient rocks, mature mixed forests, enduring Ottawa legends, and the turquoise waters of Little Traverse Bay. The unincorporated village in lightly populated Emmet County is intersected by Lake Shore Drive (M-119), the famously picturesque “tunnel of trees” that connects the wealthy resort town of Harbor Springs 13 miles to the south with Cross Village, eight miles to the north.
The Robisons called their secluded waterfront cottage Summerset. It stood at the end of a private drive nestled in the lower reaches of the Blisswood Resort. The subdivision of widely scattered log-and-stone cabins was developed by the Bliss family, which also maintained the thickly wooded property.
The Robisons could have stepped right out of The Donna Reed Show. Richard C. “Dick” Robison was the handsome, cultured 42-year-old breadwinner. He operated a small ad agency, R.C. Robison & Associates, and published an arts magazine called Impresario out of his one-story office building at 28081 Southfield Rd., in Southfield. He enjoyed attending the theater with Shirley, his stylish and pretty wife of 20 years, painting the occasional watercolor, and flying his private plane. The churchgoing couple didn’t smoke, drink, or gamble, and had no known enemies.
The children were bright and mannerly. Richie was a 19-year-old student at Eastern Michigan University. Gary, 17, attended Southfield-Lathrup High School and played in a garage band. Randy, 12, was friends with Tom Mair, who lived a couple of doors down from the Robisons’ brick ranch. “We did normal things together — ride bikes, work on our stamp collections,” says Mair, today a movie-house manager in Traverse City. “They were just a typical suburban family.” Susie, a quiet little girl with big blue eyes, dreamed of having a pony.
Before the family left for a summer-long vacation on Sunday, June 16, 1968, Robison had dropped hints about a “big deal” that was going to make him a “tycoon.” It apparently involved a certain “Mr. Roberts” who was to fly into Pellston on his personal Lear jet, spend a little time at the cottage, and then take the family on a trip south. Robison was looking to buy a horse farm in Kentucky and a beachfront condo in Florida.
Based on phone records and the recollections of tree trimmers working around the cottage, police determined the murders occurred on the evening of Tuesday, June 25. Earlier that day, Robison had called his bank to see if an expected $200,000 deposit had been made in the agency’s account. A bank official said it hadn’t, then inquired about the surprisingly low balance.
The only other person with access to the account was Robison’s partner, Joe Scolaro, who had been running the business the last three months while Robison traveled around the country, working on his secret venture. Several calls were made between the cottage and the Southfield office. The receptionist later testified that Robison sounded angry. At 10:30 a.m., Scolaro left the office and didn’t return. The family was last seen alive at 4 p.m., when the tree trimmers quit for the day.
Forensics experts reconstructed what happened a few hours later. The killer came out of the woods at twilight, approaching a window near the front door, and fired several shots from a .22-caliber rifle into the living room. Dick Robison was struck in the chest as he relaxed in an easy chair. Stunned family members had only moments to grasp what had happened before the assailant burst through the door, gunning down Randy and Shirley and then shooting Susie as she tried to run for cover. The two oldest boys were playing cards at a table. As Richie and Gary raced for the rear bedroom, trying to reach a rifle stored in the closet, the assailant shot down each in turn. The killer returned to Susie, striking her in the head with a claw hammer. As a coup de grace, each victim was shot in the head.
Such commotion might ordinarily have alerted neighbors, but owners of the nearest cabin 100 yards away were not home. A couple living a quarter-mile away later testified they heard some gunfire and the shouts of two men and a woman coming from the direction of the Robisons’ cottage, but decided against going to see if anything was amiss. “We just heard a series of shots … one with a little short pause … and then three or four others after that,” one recalled. “It was still light out, so we thought that somebody was shooting gulls on the beach.”
Before leaving, the killer threw a blanket over Shirley, dragged Dick, Susie, and Randy into a hallway, drew the curtains, turned up the heat, and locked the cottage. Cardboard was placed over the shattered windowpane. Taped to it was a note: “WILL BE BACK — ROBISON.”