Robison family murders considered solved by many 45 years later
This year marks a grim anniversary in Northern Michigan. It was 45 years ago this summer that the worst mass murder in the state's history took place in the quiet, little lakeside community of Good Hart.
It was a crime that shattered the setting's idyllic image, one that not only claimed the lives of six victims, but also seemed to take the innocence of the north woods with it.
The year was 1968. It was the first summer the Robisons, a family of six from Lathrop Village, planned on spending the entire season at their seasonal home in the Blisswood Resort community. The home, a simple yet beautiful log cabin, sat on the shore of Lake Michigan.
Nestled amongst the tall pines and dense woods, the lakeside home was nearly impossible to see from the road. A secluded spot for a dream home that would become the place of a final nightmare for the Robisons.
Death's first touch came through a side window of the cabin when a bullet shattered the glass, but that was just the first glimpse into what happened inside.
According to "When Evil Came to Good Hart" author Mardi Link, "it looked like someone shot at the family while they were in the cabin from across the road through the window and they came around and came in through the lakeside door with a handgun and finished them off." All six family members shot, some then beaten with a hammer, but all left inside, not be discovered for weeks.
"The crime was discovered when some women in a nearby cottage were having a bridge party and they could smell it," Link said. "They could smell the crime scene so they called Monty Bliss, the caretaker. He discovered the bodies."
Good Hart found itself splashed across the headlines of newspapers across the country, readers hoping the next day's news would bring word of an arrest, but that news didn't come. "People were in complete shock and afraid because it took weeks before they had a suspect, so people were afraid there might be some crazy murderer was running loose in Northern Michigan," explains Link.
But was there a reason to be afraid? While an arrest wasn't quick to follow the crime's discovery, investigators did indentify a prime suspect.
Joe Scolero was an employee of Richard Robison's cultural magazine Impresario. By most accounts, he was smart, a former military sharpshooter, he knew how to use a gun and perhaps most importantly, he may have had a reason for wanting Richard Robison dead.
"He did have a motive," Link said. "He was embezzling from Richard Robinson and the business while Richard was on vacation in Good Hart."
In a sea of potential suspects, Scolero stood out. Investigators focused on him. The more they learned, the more convinced they became that they had their man.
Scolero was given three lie detector tests, but didn't pass any of them. His alibi for the night of the murder was unsubstantiated and there were potential links back to the crime scene.
"The only piece of physical evidence besides the shell casings was a bloody footprint and it was so important that police got a saw and but the floor that this bloody footprint was on," Link said. "It was obviously left by the killers, so they checked all of Joe Scolero's shoes and they found a match, unfortunately the pair of boots that made that were brand new, never been worn, but they matched perfectly-now we learn that Joe Scolero was known to buy two of everything, two suits, two shoes, two guns and he probably had a pair of boots that he had two of but he got rid of the pair he wore the night of the murders."
"They learn that he owns the gun that is the exact replica of the gun that they believe killed the Robisons, an AR-7," Link said. "They determine that his AR-7 doesn't match what they do find out is where he likes to target shoot. They visit the place downstate, comb the area with metal detectors and they find shell casings. They turn them into the crime lab and they match."
According to Link, as far as investigators were concerned Scolero needed to be arrested and tried for first degree murder. But he wasn't.
In 1973, Oakland County prosecutors began their own search for answers. They began digging into the embezzlement accusations as a precursor to the murders. Word that an indictment maybe handed down reached Joe Scolero, and this time he decided to handle it on his terms.
"One morning the police down in Birmingham get a 9-11 call they show up to an office and they find Joe Scolero dead by his own hand," Link said. "He committed suicide with a 25 cal Beretta-again, the second gun that was used to kill the Robinsons."
For the five years between the crime and Scolero's death, a cloud of suspicion hung over him, and sea of questions from the public swirled around about why he wasn't arrested.
At the time of the crime, Richard Smith was the Emmet County Prosecutor. He remembers well the day his office phone rang with news of the Robison's discovery. Within hours, he was in the cabin, working with investigators, trying to find answers. At the time, he had already decided he wasn't running for re-election, he knew he wouldn't be the one to authorize charges in the case. Smith saw the crime scene and the fallout in the surrounding community in the days and weeks to come.
"It was a horrible crime and in that little place like Good Hart," Smith said. "It was awful, people were locking their doors for the first time in history, and I don't blame them."
Smith, after reading the State Police's final investigative report, stands firm that Joe Scolero should have faced the justice system for the crime.
Over the years, questions arose as to why the Emmet County Prosecutor Donald Noggle didn't bring charges against the prime suspect. There have been accusations that the county didn't want to pay for a costly trial, or that Noggle didn't have the courtroom experience to win the case. Smith doesn't agree.
He believes that Noggle probably could have handled the prosecution.
"I think I would have requested a judge impanel a grand jury and I think that would have smoked out Mr. Scolero, it may not have been necessary to go much further in the prosecution at that point," Smith said.
So why does Smith believe charges were never filled in the county in which the crimes took place?
"I think number one the county wasn't interested in the costs, I think they could have afforded it but they weren't interested in the costs and then when Oakland County determined they could bring murder charges there, I think that relieved a lot of people in Emmet county that they would not have the cost, the expense, and the publicity of a trial taking place here. I think the prosecutor who replaced me had plenty of experience", explains Smith.
Since the Robison's case is not legally resolved, it remains an open investigation.
To this day, 45 years after the crimes took place, there is still a detective with the Emmet County Sheriff's Office assigned to make progress on it. Detective Sergeant J.L. Sumpter is the most recent investigator to inherit the case.
"Our department is set up so that as a detective would retire the next detective takes over the case by default" explains Sumpter.
Sumpter points out that a good portion of his evidence room is filled with the items related to what he describes as the most serious open case the county has.
"As a department we hope it ends everyday. We hope that there is a true conclusion" says Sumpter. Years of investigation has lead the Emmet County detectives to arrive at some theories of what happened here back in the summer of 1948.
"We continue to try and follow up on all leads, it's open because there wasn't or has not been a true end as far as the suspect being truly identified," said Sumpter. "We certainly have the idea, we certainly have had an idea of who it was who may have committed or took part in it, but it does remain open because the suspect hasn't been fully identified,"
Detective Sumpter, as with so many people who are close to the case, hope that somehow, despite the odds, a suitable resolution can still be found. That closure could finally bring an end to a case that has lingered over Good Hart for the past four and half decades.