July 23, 2018

The Good Hart Murders: Case Closed

On a crusade to put northern Michigan’s most notorious “unsolved” mystery to rest.
By Patrick Sullivan | July 7, 2018

Northern Michigan’s most notorious cold case, the horrific 1968 murder of six members of the Robison family in Good Hart, has seemingly languished unsolved for five decades, a festering open wound amid an otherwise idyllic setting.

For the past decade, retired high school history teacher and self-proclaimed “myth-buster” Richard Wiles has been on a crusade to debunk that notion. The case was not only solved, he argues, but it was almost as open-and-shut as a case could be, and the only reason people persist in believing the murders are a mystery is because an Emmet County prosecutor refused to bring charges.

“There was never a mystery of solving it,” Wiles said. “There was a mystery of why it was never prosecuted.”

Just days after the 50th anniversary of the slaughter, Wiles joined some of the few original investigators who are still alive at a forum in Petoskey. More than 300 people packed the Crooked Tree Arts Center’s Ross Stoakes Theater, with every seat full and 50 or so standing in the back.

The three stars of the evening — Ronald Covault, a former Oakland County assistant prosecutor who tried to bring charges in the case in 1973; Dick Smith, the Emmet County prosecutor at the time of the murders, who later became a judge; and Lloyd Stearns, the state police detective who investigated the case along with the late Det. John Flis — had a clear message: One man, Joseph Scolaro, was responsible for the Robison family murders, and he’s long dead.

“They were 100 percent, right down the line — Scolaro, Scolaro, Scolaro,” Wiles said. “No one equivocated whatsoever.”

A TERRIBLE DISCOVERY
When the bodies were found on July 22, 1968, 27 days after the family had been shot down in cold blood, the news was an unprecedented shock in northern Michigan.

The scene was so gruesome that the cabin had to be demolished after the investigation because the blood and stench could not be washed away. The remains of Richard, 42; his wife Shirley, 40; and their children, Susan, 8; Randy, 12; Gary, 16; and Richie, 19, were discovered by a caretaker sent to the family’s log cabin on Lake Michigan to investigate the stink.

Wiles said the state police detectives quickly zeroed in on Scolaro, an employee of Richard Robison’s who had been running Robison’s Detroit area ad agency that summer while Robison travelled and spent time with his family Up North.

On the morning the killings occurred, Robison had talked to his banker and learned that a lot of money was missing from his account. He called his office, and according to a receptionist interviewed later by investigators, Robison was furious. He demanded to speak to Scolaro — apparently looking for an explanation for the missing funds.

After some shouting, Scolaro left the Southfield office at 10:30am. He was never able to account for his whereabouts between then and 11pm, when he returned to his Birmingham home. His wife told detectives that was the first time in six years of marriage that Scolaro had not called or turned up in time for dinner. That meant Scolaro had no alibi for over 12 hours on June 25, 1967, the day the Robison family was murdered, and he had more than enough time to drive to Good Hart and back.

On top of that, two of the four firearms that investigators determined were used in the murders were almost immediately tied to Scolaro, though he told detectives that he’d given Robison one of the two .25-caliber Beretta pistols and some rare SAKO ammunition, which matched what investigators believed had been used in the crime. Later, the investigators matched shell casings found at the crime scene with shell casings found at a firing range where witnesses had seen Scolaro shoot an AR-7 rifle that looked like the other weapon used in the crime, a rifle which had disappeared.

Scolaro was also one of the few people in the world who could find the Robison’s remote and hidden cabin. He’d been there before.

Scolaro could not provide investigators with an adequate explanation for any of the mounting evidence.

That was not all: Scolaro also believed a $200,000 “key man” life insurance policy had recently been taken out on his boss (the policy had not gone into effect; Richard Robison had not yet taken the required physical). A forensic audit of Robison’s companies found that money had started draining from the businesses only after Scolaro was hired on.

Wiles believes the murders were a case of “fraud detection homicide,” violence spurred by a perpetrator getting caught and feeling trapped, causing an otherwise nonviolent person to become overwhelmingly deadly.

A PROSECUTION DEFERRED
Despite all of the evidence, the Emmet County Prosecutor at the time refused to bring charges.

Donald Noggle, a retired Harbor Springs attorney, is said to have only reluctantly threw his name in [for the county’s prosecutor position or this particular case?]; and won by a write-in vote in 1968. No one else wanted the job.

“You had a six-count murder case going on and nobody wanted to touch it,” Wiles said. “This would just be a consuming, six-month trial.”

But it wasn’t as if Noggle was the lone holdout, and everyone else wanted him to try the case. The Emmet County Board of Commissioners (and probably a lot of county residents) didn’t want Noggle to take the case either; they simply didn’t want the county saddled with the expense.

“The damn commissioners back then were so frugal they didn’t want to pay for the autopsies,” Wiles said. “We don’t mind taking summer money, but we ain’t paying any money for those people.”

On top of that, Noggle didn’t have experience with murder cases.

“This case came in and would have completely overwhelmed his office,” said Stuart Fenton, who is today the chief assistant prosecutor for Emmet County. “I think he was very conservative in his review of the case and focused on the negatives, like there were no witnesses. … I think there was pressure form the country commissioners at that time because it was a downstate matter. All the parties were from downstate.”

Noggle died in 1978.

Wiles attempted to talk to Noggle’s son, but the son had no interest in revisiting this chapter of his father’s past.

“His son has all his papers, and his son refuses to give them to us for posterity’s sake,” Wiles said.

In the end, Covault brought charges against Scolaro through then-Oakland County Prosecutor L. Brooks Patterson’s office. Word of the charges reached Scolaro, however, and he took his own life on March 8, 1973.

FIFTY YEARS LATER
Covault said he is shocked he’s still talking about this case 50 years later, but he said it was such an upsetting and horrific crime that it made that kind of impression.

This isn't the first time that some of those who were most intimately involved with the case have made public pronouncements that the case is solved; they’ve made them for years.

Covault said he believed upon Scolaro’s death that the investigators had solved the case and people would move on. He is disturbed that all of these years later, conspiracy theories persist.

“I thought that the evidence against Mr. Scolaro was convincing enough that people would eventually say, ‘Yeah, this matter’s been solved,’ and go on to other things, but that’s not the case,” said Covault, who today spends summers in Charlevoix County.

Covault spent 30 years as a prosecutor downstate and prosecuted murder case after murder case, but this one stands out because it’s the only one people want to talk about decades later.

“None of them seem to resurrect themselves like this one does every 10 years,” Covault said. “But those other cases were actually resolved in court, and this never got there.”

Covault said he believes that over the years that Emmet County prosecutors have been reluctant to close the case out of concern over the remote possibility that Scolaro had an accomplice.

At the forum, Stearns, the retired detective, repeatedly counteracted that suspicion, noting that while, yes, there were footprints found in the blood at the crime scene, there was only one set of footprints. There was no evidence of a second person involved.

Fenton, the current assistant Emmet County prosecutor, also took part in the forum. He was amazed by the attendance and interest the case still holds.

“They were turning people away, and people were standing at the back,” Fenton said.

Fenton said it’s not his call to decide to close the case for good, but he believes the case is solved.

“Detectives Fils and Stearns solved this case many, many years ago,” Fenton said.

He said that had he been prosecutor following the murders, he would have tried the case. He said he’s tried and won other cases with less evidence.

Fenton sits on the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Association of Michigan cold-case review panel, which looks into unsolved homicides and determines which cases warrant a closer look. The panel has never considered looking into the Robison case because it is considered solved.

“It’s not being actively investigated because we all know who did it,” Fenton said. “I wouldn’t really call it an open case. All the investigators know who did it.”

AN ENDURING MYSTERY
So if the Robison case was so open and shut, how did it remain in the popular consciousness as an unsolved mystery? Wiles said that was a perception fueled by the media.

“Every year a newspaper person would call it a mystery and, well, after you say that enough, people believe it,” he said.

Wiles said the case was distorted in the media as an unsolved mystery over the years because at first, reporters didn’t pay close enough attention, and later on, because the mystery claim just kept getting repeated. Also, in the beginning, the person who murdered the Robison family was able to control the narrative.

“First of all, the Detroit newspapers were on strike, and they had been for a year, so that meant that they didn’t dig into the case,” Wiles said. “That left the perpetrator, Joe Scolaro, to be the mouthpiece for whatever newspaper reporters did come up. He was managing the whole damn thing. He was acting so aggrieved and so outraged.”

There were other theories that drove the mystery — purported connections between Richard Robison and the Mafia, strange behavior on the part of the caretaker, and partial confessions by some convicts serving time who seemed to know things they shouldn’t about the murders.

For instance, true crime author Mardi Link is more convinced today that Scolaro was responsible than she was 10 years ago, but she isn’t as definitive as Wiles.

Link, who published a book about the case, “When Evil Came to Good Hart,” in 2008, also took part in the Petoskey forum. She’s updated her book for 2018, and she’s also releasing a podcast about the saga, “Up North Cold Case.”

Link said it was amazing how Covault, Smith, and Strearns could talk about a 50-year-old case as if it happened yesterday. Just as amazing was how rapt the crowd was to hear their accounts.

“I think it was pretty cathartic for the community to have an event like that,” Link said. “When that crime happened, the innocence of northern Michigan was shattered, in a way, and it took years for that to dissipate at all.”

In the new edition, Link left the body of her book untouched — except for one typo that was corrected — but she wrote a new afterword.

In the intervening years, Link said she’s grown to have a deeper appreciation for the original investigators.

“I think I may have made a common yet faulty assumption that law enforcement is so much more skilled today than it was in 1968, and I don’t think that’s true at all. I think the only change is the technology,” Link said. “I think it’s common for us today to feel superior to the past, and that feeling is not well grounded at all.”

SUMMERSET SITE FOR SALE
Wiles said he believes he was destined to devote part of his later life to investigating this case. His connection to Richard Robison pre-dates the murders. In addition to Robison’s advertising agency, the late entrepreneur published a Detroit arts magazine called Impresario.

As a teenager who lived in the Detroit area, Wiles won a subscription to the magazine when he called in to a WJR radio show.

“I could hardly understand what I was getting every month, but it was interesting to me,” Wiles said. “And the next thing I know, the guy is dead.”

Wiles recalls that he followed the case, and thought about it again after he finished college and moved to Petoskey to look for a teaching job. He was hired as a substitute in 1972 and became a full-time teacher at Petoskey High School two years later.

He spent the next several decades teaching and thought about the murders every now and then. He said he would sometimes drive up M-119, on the stretch known as the tunnel of trees, and get an eerie feeling just north of Good Hart.

Wiles said that as the 40th anniversary of the murders approached, he felt increasingly frustrated that the case remained unsolved and that no definitive book had been written about it. (Link’s book had not yet been published.)

Too many questions and not enough answers, Wiles thought. Although not yet retired, Wiles said that as he began to research, he stumbled upon a vocation he would devote himself to in retirement: myth-busting.

“I just decided I was going to start interviewing people on my own. I knew people were going to die soon,” Wiles said. “I interviewed over 100 people.”

He also used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain every page of every police report he could find about the case. 

During his research, Richard Robison’s sister, Elaine Marie Robison, who was wary of researchers and reporters, was won over by Wiles’ thoroughness and tenacity. She sent him what Wiles believes is the only artifact that remains from the Robison cabin after it was destroyed following the murders — a sign, which used to hang over the fireplace, that reads “Summerset,” the name given to the cabin by its builder and caretaker, Monty Bliss.

In 2009, Wiles completed a 500-plus-page white paper on the murders, which he named Summerset. Wiles submitted his paper to the Petoskey Public Library, and he also donated the Summerset sign, which is now part of the library’s Michigan Room collection.

For five decades, the land where the Robison cottage once stood has been vacant. Wiles said after the murders, a family purchased the property and kept it untouched, almost as though it was a memorial. That’s perhaps soon going to change.

The property recently went on the market. The one-acre waterfront lot is listed for sale for $425,000.

 

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