A prolific equestrian and wife of a plastic surgeon, Joan Robinson Hill’s storied life of privilege and excess ends abruptly with a dreadful, wasting sickness and an ex-husband tried for murder by omission. Joan mysteriously falls ill in March of 1969 – her condition worsening under her husband’s “home care.” Even when he relents and finally takes her to a hospital, Joan never recovers. Instead, she spends her final days in agony, vomiting and defecating blood. Fueled by the shock and intrigue stemming from the details of Joan Robinson Hill’s sudden and unexpected death, murder investigation and trial creates a media frenzy. By the time it is all over, two more dead bodies join her in the ground, including her suspected murderer.
Pacing with a drink in hand, Joan Robinson Hill repeatedly calls her husband after reading the note he left behind, but he does not answer. Upset by her husband’s cowardice and their struggling marriage, Hill throws the glass she’s holding and punches a chair.
In a flashback to Joan’s baby years, Rhea Gardere Robinson holds Joan before a sweet, snuffling pony. Little Joan responds excitedly to the animal and gently pets its nose. Unable to conceive, the Robinson’s adopted Joan and cultivate her a love of horses from a young age, showering her with love, encouragement and support as she transitioned from riding lessons to competing regularly in equestrian circuits. By her 20s, Joan had 500 trophies and was a monumental star in the equestrian world. She rarely lost a competition.
In college, Joan tries her hand at acting and attracts the attention of several Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer scouts. She excitedly tells her parents about their invitation to test for one of their pictures. Joan’s mother is absolutely delighted but her protective father refuses to drive her out to Los Angeles, afraid the studio will take advantage of his too trusting daughter. Her parents argue over whether to let her go.
In rebellion, Joan clandestinely marries Navy Pilot Spike Benton. Within six months, they divorce and Joan marries a lawyer named Cecil Burglass. They, too, divorce within six months – all before Joan’s twenty-first birthday, much to her father’s shock and disapproval. Six years later, in 1957, Joan marries plastic surgeon John Hill, but they initially live more like roommates than spouses. Joan continues winning competitions in the equestrian circuit, while John forms his own surgery practice. Both become notable fixtures of Houston society and are well acquainted with its nightlife.
Three years into their marriage, Joan and John have a son. Instead of turning the empty wing of their second home into a room for the baby, John decides to make it into his own personal music studio. He goes to his father-in-law for a $10,000 loan for the project but is firmly denied. Hurt but not defeated, John turns to the bank for help, but his taste for the finer things of life quickly balloons the $10,000 loan into $100,000, much to Joan’s displeasure and resentment. Rather than consider his young son and family in his project budget, John impetuously buys state-of-the-art equipment for his band and chooses extravagant designs for the studio. It drives a wedge in their marriage.
Furthermore, John starts an affair with a woman named Ann Kurth and leaves Joan within the first month. Unaware of the affair, Joan is rattled when she comes home to an empty house and a brief note. She repeatedly calls her husband’s office but is stonewalled by the secretary. Upset, she turns to her father for comfort. He suggests hiring a P.I. to find him, but Joan declines the offer, thinking it would ruin what’s left of their marriage. Joan holds onto the hope that their relationship will mend.
A couple weeks later, John finally tells Joan the truth and she slaps him. Not long after, Joan is served divorce papers, but despite her husband’s infidelity, she refuses to sign them. Her father arranges a meeting with John and reminds him how easily he can demand back all the money he leant him over the years. Unable to pay his debts, John timidly signs an agreement to return home to Joan and end his relationship with Ann. He doesn’t keep his promise for long.
When Ann finds out that John is unwilling to leave Joan, she threatens to leave him. Soon after, John brings home pastries for Joan and their house guests Diane and Eunice. Just as Diane is about to pick up one, John stops her and kindly tells her it’s for his wife. It’s around this time that Joan suddenly falls ill.
In the week leading up to Joan’s death, Diane and Eunice witness firsthand the couple’s fights becoming worse and worse. On March 15, 1969, Eunice’s worry for Joan intensifies when she doesn’t get out of bed by four o’clock in the afternoon. When Eunice asks John about it, he tells her that he gave Joan a mild tranquilizer, because she was having trouble sleeping. Joan confirms his story when she finally wakes up.
Joan makes a heartbreaking discovery that John resumed his affair with Ann when his trip to take their son to the barber stretches too long. Having promised not to tell his dad’s secret, the young boy reluctantly admits that the trip took so long, because they had to stop by Ann’s apartment to pick up sheet music.
Joan’s illness takes a turn for the worst but John doesn’t take her to the hospital. It’s not until her mother finds John standing over Joan while she lay in her own filth, that she is finally admitted after three days in John’s “home care.” Vomiting and defecating blood, Joan dies painfully. Both family and hospital staff believe John is to blame, especially considering he drove her to a hospital 45-minutes away without an ER or ICU, rather than take her to a closer, better equipped one. He is arrested on suspicion of murder.
Stay tuned for next week’s episode of Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories.