What is not known is who committed the murders, or why. The uncertainty has haunted family members, vexed law enforcement, and intrigued the curious for 40 years.
Several authors are among those transfixed by the unsolved murders of the Richard Robison family at their Summerset cottage in the rustic Blisswood resort community. Traverse City area author Mardi Link has waded through what is known, what is suspected, and what is still a mystery for her new book When Evil Came to Good Hart.
Published by the University of Michigan Press, Links book is the first non-fiction examination of the family, the crime, and the suspects who were investigated by police both in the aftermath of the murders, and for years afterwards.
STENCH OF DEATH
What is established is that Richard Robison, his wife Shirley, their sons Ritchie, Gary, and Randy, and their daughter Susan were all murdered, most likely on the afternoon of June 25, 1968. The last person to see any of the Robisons alive was a local tree trimmer.
Link begins with the crime; the discovery of the bodies after the Robisons neighbors complained to the cottage associations caretaker about the foul odor leaching from the cottage; how the caretaker and his helper first opened the cottage door to a wave of flies and the stench of death; how police arrived to process the scene, and ultimately how law enforcement was unable to indict their chief suspect.
From here she ranges as far and wide as the case has taken investigators, begun in the immediate aftermath of the gruesome discovery, and continuing -- in fits and starts -- up to the present. State police and local sheriffs deputies have screened myriad leads from Michigan, as well as Ohio, Florida, Kansas, and elsewhere. The only theme linking the leads is that none has led to an arrest or a conviction.
Link paints Good Hart, then and now, as a land of fairy tales: dark woods, warm cabins with smoke curling from their chimneys, worn footpaths down ancient routes, watery blue-grey horizons, a church, a graveyard, and a little store. Robison, and his associates, however, were not fairy tale fodder.
Hidden among the fairy tale outline, Link details a suspicious cast of characters, from caretaker Monnie Bliss, to Robison associate Joe Scolaro, and others. The list of tips and suspects detectives followed included everything from, Medicine doctors, strange Greek god-sounding names, a queen, and a pool-shooting bomb maker.
JEKYLL & HYDE?
What investigators uncovered was that Richard Robison might have been a Jekyll and Hyde type of man. He founded advertising firm, R.C. Robison and Associates, and published Impresario magazine, an arts and culture publication covering the metro area. And while Robison looked clean on the surface, detectives found a man who inspired corruption and loyalty in almost equal measure. Robison also had a penchant for pretty secretaries and awkward sexual peccadilloes.
State police investigators Lloyd Stearns and John Fils were assigned to the case. Early on the two decided the murders were either a meaningless rampage by a crazed killer or that the initial target of the murderer was Dick Robison, with the others tragic collateral damage.
This is not the first time the Robison case has engaged the imagination of writers. In 2004 Judith Guest, most widely known for Ordinary People, used the case to frame her novel The Tarnished Eye. In her version, Guest plays up the link between the Robisons and convicted co-ed murderer John Norman Collins, who terrorized the Ypsilanti-Ann Arbor area in the period preceding the Robison murders. Collins and Ritchie Robison were possible acquaintances at Eastern Michigan University.
More recently, Lansing area author James Pecora has fictionalized the tale in his novel DEADEND. Pecoras version casts guilt squarely on the shoulders of the resorts caretaker, a character who suggests Chauncey A. Monnie Bliss, whose own son, coincidentally or purposely, had been killed on June 24, 1968 in a motorcycle accident not far from Blisswood.
Link, who has contracted with U-M Press for a second true crime book (and has also written for Northern Express), believes State Police detective Lloyd Stearns is the true hero of the story, because of his determination to solve the case. And while an indictment and a conviction were never achieved, Link does believe Stearns and his partner put together a credible explanation for who targeted Robison and why.
Mardi Link will speak about When Evil Came to Good Hart on July 24 at Horizon Books in Traverse City, and on September 24 at the Traverse Area District Library.