The entire Robison family was murdered on June 25th, 1968 inside their Good Hart, Lake Michigan summer cabin, but it wasn’t until the smell of decomposition brought the community’s groundskeeper to the doorstep twenty-seven days later that their bodies were discovered. The stench of death was so strong it permeated the cabin’s walls. Investigators wore gas masks on scene. For that same reason, the cabin was destroyed after the police conducted their investigation.
Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories show hosts Carter Roy and Wenndy MacKenzie revisit the chilling tale of The Robison Family Murders, one of the largest unsolved mass murders in the State of Michigan’s history.
Gladys Moore and her friends play a game of bridge outside her lakeside cabin when an overwhelming and putrid smell on the breeze breaks their concentration. Her friend Betty gags and comments that it smells like something died twice. This prompts Gladys to call Chauncy Bliss, the groundskeeper, and she instructs him to investigate. Chauncy and another employee named Steve Shananaquet trace the smell to the Robison family cabin.
They knock on the cabin door, but when no one answers, Chauncy and Steve look through the window. That’s when they notice the bodies inside and call the police. In a quiet, picturesque town like Good Hart, murder is a rarity, so the shocked deputy sheriff at the police station panics.
In a flashback to June 16th, Richard and Shirley Robison drive 275 miles from their suburban home to their summer cabin in Good Hart, MI with their four kids. When the family can’t decide on what music to play and the hunger complaints begin, Richard distracts the children with the “license plate game.” As the youngsters play, Shirley asks after her husband and the ad agency he runs, noticing that he’s been uncommonly and persistently stressed. He grows stern, telling her he doesn’t want to talk about work, and quickly refocuses his attention to the game.
In another flashback, Richard and Shirley sit on lawn chairs while their children play in the lake. Richard turns the page to his newspaper and Shirley serves him lemonade. She asks him about his stocks and he changes the subject after a brief response, playfully pulling her into the water with him.
The episode then returns to the discovery of the murdered family members. Undersheriff Clifford Fosmore is called to the crime scene at the Robison’s cabin and meets nine others there, including various deputies from Emmett County, State Troopers, a reporter, and Emmet County Prosecutor Richard Smith.
The odor inside the cabin is so bad that the group leaves and returns with gas masks. Walking through a thick swarm of flies, they discover Shirley’s body first. She appears to have been sexually assaulted. Next, they find Richard’s body piled in the hallway with Susan and Randall’s. Richard Jr. and Gary are laying on the ground in a bedroom. Each family member sustained gunshot wounds to the body and one final shot to the head, but 7-year-old Susan also had been bludgeoned with a hammer left at the crime scene.
Undersheriff Fosmore makes the mistake of picking up the hammer with a paper towel, which wipes the handle clean of fingerprints. He also holds it up in the air, allowing the reporter to take a photo.
The police theorize that the killer came up from the woods and used a .22 caliber rifle to shoot Richard twice through a window near the front door. The shot was made at a distance, suggesting that the assailant had good aim and some form of gun training. The killer then entered the cabin and shot Shirley with a .25 caliber, followed by Randall and Susan. The older boys were gunned down when they bolt for a back bedroom, possibly trying to reach the rifle stored in the closet there. A note saying “Will be back” had been left outside the cabin to delay discovery of the murders.
The advanced decomposition of the bodies and lapse in time leaves police with little evidence to go off.
At first, the police believe the killer attacked the Robison’s with the intent of robbing them, as several very expensive jewelry pieces and $700 in cash had been stolen. Curiously, expensive electronics like cameras and even several wallets were untouched. The location of Traverse City State Hospital, a mental health facility ninety miles north of Good Hart, compels investigators to theorize that the perpetrator was an escaped patient.
However, the intensive investigation into Traverse’s mentally ill patients doesn’t last long when the alibis for every suspect check out. Emmet County Sheriff Richard Zink then announces a new theory – that the killer knew the cabin and the family. Police zero in on Chauncy as their new prime suspect, and two detectives from Detroit – Lloyd Stearns and John Flis – travel up north to help with the case.
Lloyd and John interview town residents about Chauncy Bliss and learn that he lost a son in a motorcycle accident a year before the Robison family murders. The angle that Chauncy killed the Robison’s in a fit of grief and mental instability does not lead to anything conclusive.
Next, Lloyd and John focus their attentions on Richard Robison’s closest business associate, Joe Scolaro. An audit of the company’s finances reveals that almost $60,000 disappeared a couple months before the Robisons were killed. According to the bank official who notified Richard of the missing funds, he wasn’t aware of the shortage until the day of his death.
In a flashback, Richard is furious when he finds out about the missing funds and calls Joe, demanding to know where the money went. Joe promises to get to the bottom of it, and asks about his family vacation, but Richard hangs up. Joe immediately leaves the office, telling his secretary to cancel all his meetings for the day.
Upon further digging, Lloyd and John learn that Joe served as a sharpshooter in the military, and they strongly suspect Joe stole the $60,000 and then murdered his boss to cover it up.
When interviewed by the two Detroit detectives, Joe claims that he cancelled all his appointments to attend a one day of a three-day plumbing convention with a client. Richard’s call about missing money apparently spurred him into solidifying their business relationship with Delta Faucet. Lloyd and John next talk to Bob Laidlaw of Peerless, who was present at the convention and allegedly talked to Joe. However, Bob cannot remember which day he spoke to Joe.
A Delta representative, on the other hand, tells the detectives that Joe was at the convention on June 24th, not on the 25th like he said. Now, Joe not only is without an alibi, he has also been caught in a lie. When Lloyd and John search his house, they find a pair of boots that match a bloody footprint left by the killer at the crime scene.
They also notice that he compulsively buys two of everything, so even though the boots they find are spotless and brand new, it’s likely Joe bought a second pair, which he wore to the Robison cabin. While the killer likely disposed of the boots he wore on the night of the murder, Lloyd and John hope they can still find them.
Stay tuned. On next week’s episode of Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories, we’ll follow investigators on their massive gun hunt, discover new evidence and explore a couple surprising leads – including a mysterious contact of Richard’s and a suspect known as the “Co-Ed Killer.”