Monumental equestrian star Joan Robinson Hill endured several days of extreme nausea and vomiting under the “care” of her husband before finally being admitted into a hospital. But by then, it was too late – Joan died the next day. However, this was a 38-year-old woman who led an active and healthy lifestyle. And given the circumstances surrounding her death – witness testimonies of possibly poisoned pastries, her husband’s infidelity, and his reluctance to take her to a hospital – Joan’s passing is no quiet affair. The fact that she died so suddenly and horrifically sparked immediate national media interest. Convinced John Hill murdered his daughter, Mr. Robinson does everything in his power have a murder investigation opened and his former son-in-law put behind bars. No one could have predicted what happened instead.
Pushing Joan through the hospital on a gurney, a nurse double checks Joan’s blood pressure, incredulous at the surprisingly low numbers. A second nurse assesses that Joan has gone shock. Unable to see anything, Joan cries out in distress.
The episode flashes back to months before. Joan stops by John’s music room on her way out the door. She asks him to look through his growing pile of unopened mail from the bank, worried his neglect will result in another late payment. He tells her that he’ll look but keeps right on playing. Joan complains to her friend Patti about the exorbitant amount of money John is spending on his musical hobby – money they can’t afford to spend.
When John, a plastic surgeon, resumes his extra-marital affair with Ann Kurth, Joan vents her anger and frustration to her friends and fellow horse trainers Diane and Eunice, but she cannot calm down. Joan invites them and her friend Vann Maxwell to play an impromptu game of bridge. She pours them all drinks, leads them to John’s music room, where he’s playing the piano, and proceeds to loudly trash talk him throughout their card game. The room grows tense and Joan’s guests understandably become uncomfortable. When Vann excuses herself from the room, John puts a romantic ballad on the record player. Joan begins to cry and John comes over to stand by the table. Diane suggests they dance and they do. Vann finds the scene too strange when she returns and promptly leaves the house.
A day later, on March 15, Joan begins experiencing flu-like symptoms. The illness persists into the next day but she seems happy enough when she sits down for coffee with Diane and Eunice. She tells them that John had given her a mild tranquilizer to help her sleep the before, and touched by her husband’s care for her, optimistically predicts that their marriage will recover. However, while they are drinking their coffee, Joan suddenly rushes to the bathroom to vomit. Feeling terrible, Joan goes back to bed and John frequently visits to check up on her.
Diane answers strange calls to the Hill’s household throughout the day. An unknown woman using a fake voice calls repeatedly asking for a doctor--presumed to be Dr. John Hill.
After John reviews performance details with a fellow musician, he takes his son, Diane and Eunice out to an awkward dinner. Soon after, Diane receives bad news from Joan’s father – he can only pay her a meager wage to continue working at his daughter’s farm as a trainer. Unwilling to continue at the new rates, Diane and Eunice plan to leave the next day.
The group briefly returns home, but John quickly departs for another meeting. He doesn’t come home until well after midnight, while Joan throws up throughout the night.
The next day, Diane and Eunice offer to stay with her until she feels better, but Joan feels awful about her dad’s offer and declines. They say their good-byes not knowing it’s the last time they’ll ever see each other.
Effie and Archie Green, the Hill’s hired help, are instructed by John not to disturb Joan. However, on March 18, Effie checks on Joan after John goes to work and discovers the woman laying on top of towels soiled by her own dried and bloody excrement. Joan’s face turns blue when Effie attempts to move her into the bathroom to clean her up.
The Greens call John’s parents and Joan’s. No one answers but John returns home and Joan’s mother coincidentally stops by for a surprise visit. Mrs. Robinson finds her daughter lying in her own filth with John standing over her. Not quite thinking straight, Mrs. Robinson doesn’t question John’s decision to drive Joan to a hospital that’s 45 minutes away and has no ER or ICU. She goes with them and later notes that John drove slowly.
In the hospital, Doctors Walter Bertinot and Frank Lanza assess Joan’s condition – the latter believes she is in septic shock. Six hours later, Joan suffers kidney failure and John leaves the hospital to play in his music room. The kidney specialist, Dr. Bernard Hicks, is brought in but cannot perform a procedure without John’s permission. John doesn’t respond to calls from the hospital until many hours later. He gives his permission and the doctors finally perform the procedure that stabilizes Joan’s condition.
John stays overnight while the doctors go home. An hour after John steps out of the room, Joan has sudden heart failure and blood erupts from her mouth. Before she can be given a shot of adrenaline, Joan is dead.
John is informed that Joan’s body must be autopsied, but he doesn’t cancel arrangements with a funeral home and they embalm her body before an autopsy can take place. A pathologist arrives at the funeral home and performs the best autopsy he can given the circumstances. He concludes that she passed away from pancreatitis. Mr. Robinson doesn’t believe his daughter died of natural causes. Seeking justice, he hires private investigators, lawyer Frank Briscoe, and Dr. Milton Helpern, the chief medical examiner for New York City, to help him build a case against John.
Three months after Joan dies, John Hill marries his mistress Ann Kurth. Meanwhile, Mr. Robinson manages to get the case before two grand juries, but neither indicts John for murder. Much later, in a startling turn of events, Ann Kurth, freshly divorced from John Hill, approaches Mr. Robinson in his office, offering to help him take down John.
By the time a third grand jury hears the case in February of 1970, doctors conclude that Joan suffered a massive infection that led to death from either meningitis or septicemia, but they cannot determine what initially caused the infection because of the early, illegal embalming process. This, along with Ann Kurth’s testimony that John confessed to murdering Joan, Mr. Robinson has the jury’s rapt attention. But unable to prove that John poisoned Joan, prosecutors charge him of “murder by omission,” claiming that John’s “care,” and lack thereof, killed Joan. The jury votes in favor of this charge, and the trial begins on February 15, 1971. Unfortunately, an outburst from Ann implying that John murdered Joan directly, and not by omission, leads to a mistrial. A new trial is scheduled for November of 1972.
However, on September 24, 1972, John and his third wife, Connie, return home from a medical conference and a masked intruder shoots John dead. The assailant, later identified as Bobby Wayne Vandiver, adds an extra layer of complexity to the intricate web of intrigue surrounding the case. At first the murder of John Hill appears to be a robbery gone wrong, but Vandiver later confesses that his girlfriend Marcia McKittrick and local madame Lilla Paulus, helped him plan and execute the murder. Paulus, allegedly, was hired by Joan’s father to put a hit out on John.
The police believe McKittrick and Paulus were involved in John Hill’s murder, but they don’t buy Vandiver’s story that Joan’s father was, too. Previously under house arrest, Vandiver goes on the lam before his trial. When he gets caught, he pulls a gun out on a police officer and is shot to death.
After Vandiver dies, McKittrick testifies against Paulus for a shorter sentence and claims that she was the getaway driver. According to McKittrick, Paulus took money from Mr. Robinson to kill John Hill and then paid Vandiver a portion to carry out the hit. Paulus’s daughter Mary Jo Wood testifies that their family met the Robinsons through Joan’s friend Diane Settegast in 1963, and in 1970, overheard a call from Diane to her mother saying that Mr. Robinson was looking to hire someone to put a hit on John.
Diane admits to having met Paulus, but denies saying that Mr. Robinson wanted John killed. The jury finds Lilla Paulus guilty of John Hill’s murder. In 1977, a civil suit is brought against Mr. Robinson by his late wife Connie, and her son, for causing John’s death, but it results in an acquittal.
Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories show hosts Carter Roy and Wenndy Mackenzie present several theories regarding Joan Robinson Hill’s mysterious death, but in the end, they believe she was murdered by her husband.
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