September 24, 1972: Wife-Killer Dr. John Robert Hill Killed Before Trial


WHAT HAPPENED?


At the young age of 38, Joan Olive Robinson Hill, a socialite and equestrian from Houston Texas, died in an unexplained manner. Her husband, John, became the first person in the state of Texas to be charged with murder by omission. On September 24th, 1972, weeks before his trial was set to start, John was murdered.


Joan and John married in 1957, but their marriage was tumultuous, and in 1969, she died under mysterious circumstances. Joan's father accused John of poisoning her. His first trial, in 1971, ended in a mistrial. His 1972 trial never took place due to his death.

JOAN'S EARLY LIFE


When oilman Davis Ashton "Ash" Robinson and his wife, Rhea, learned that they wouldn't be able to have children, they made the decision to adopt. In March of 1931, they were introduced to a one-month-old Joan Olive, and they adopted her. They loved her and took great care of her, and her interest in horses started as young as 3. By the age of 7, she was regularly competing in equestrian competitions.


Joan attended Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, where her grades played second fiddle to her social life. Her father leased a suite of rooms in a hotel near campus so he and his wife could be visited regularly.


Joan took part in many college productions, which earned her some attention from a talent scout. However, her father, believing Hollywood was full of predators (he ain't wrong), refused to allow her to go audition. Also in college, she married two different people before she turned 20. Her first husband, Spike Benton, had a promising career as a Navy pilot, and her second husband, Cecil Burglass, was a lawyer in New Orleans and a childhood friend. Her father approved of neither marriage, and neither lasted beyond 6 months.


She continued competing as an equestrian, willing as many as 500 trophies.


John Robert Hill was born in 1931, the second of 3 children to a farmer, Robert Raymond Hill, and his wife, Myra Hannah Hill, from Edcouch Texas. All of the kids played the piano growing up, and John attended undergrad at a liberal arts college. However, after graduation, he attended Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, and then took a residency in surgery at Hermann Hospital in Houston.


In the 1950s, new heart surgeries were being pioneered by Houston-based doctors, and medical students were flocking to study under the brilliant minds who created them. Realizing the market was a bit saturated, he opted for plastic surgery, a speciality that only had 10 certified surgeons in the city at the time.


His medical career was nearly cut short after he perforated a patient's bowel during surgery and stitched him up without fixing it. Then the patient died. However, somehow, that didn't end his medical career, and he completed his residency. Then, during another surgery, a drill bit broke off in a patient's jaw during surgery and he left it embedded in the patient's face. Also, this somehow did not end his medical career. (Apparently, his brother had committed suicide shortly before the error, so he was given leniency.)


On September 28, 1957, Joan and John married. They were a big part of Houston's social scene, but they led pretty separate lives. For the first 6 years of their rocky marriage, they lived at Joan's father's home. Joan was focusing on his equestrian career, and John devoted all of his spare time to performing music. (His relationship with his first doctor-partner dissolved when his partner, Roth, grew tired of being asked to cover for him at work so he could go perform in music recitals.)

THE HILL'S LIFE TOGETHER


In 1960, the couple had their first son, Robert Ashton Hill. After the birth of her son, her father bought Joan a farm so she could breed horses and establish a riding school, which was her dream. They called it Chatsworth Farm, and it became the scene of the annual spring picnic for all of Houston's doctors.


In 1965, the couple bought a house. He asked Joan's father to loan him $10,000 so he could turn their servant's room into a music room, so he could focus on his passions of playing piano, trombone, flute, and recorder. He spent 20 hours a week, on top of being a surgeon, taking lessons and participating in musical concerts with several groups. But Joan's father denied him the money, as it was "frivolous" and he had already given them a loan to buy the house. (I'm really aligning my beliefs to Joan's father a lot.)


So instead, he arranged for a bank loan so he could commission an engineer to make "the finest music room since Renaissance Italy". Long story short, the $10,000 he thought he was spending actually came out to $75,000. And then, he needed a handmade piano and then another fancy piano and anyway, all of this to say, he ended up spending $100,000 on his music room.


Obviously, this became a point of contention for the couple. After their separation, she told a friend that he didn't care about her or their son, but just his stupid music room. And while he was pouring thousands of dollars into the room, Chatsworth Farm did not become the raging success that Joan had hoped for, and it was hemorrhaging money. So by 1968, the couple realized they had extreme problems.


Those problems got worse when John started having an affair with Ann Kurth, a woman who he met when they were picking up their children from summer camp. Eventually, he told Joan he was having an affair and they began living apart, John staying at Ann's home. In 1968, he had divorce papers served to Joan, but she told her father that despite everything, she still wanted to make it work.


And so, Joan's father basically struck up a deal with John: If he would go back to his daughter, he would start charging him for all of the debt he was in. And without the financial freedom to do anything else, he withdrew his divorce petition and the couple reconciled. However, he continued to see Ann. Guests who stayed at the Hill house during this time remember a lot of contention between the couple, including various arguments about him going out and staying out all night.


Then, she found out that he was still maintaining the apartment he had with Ann. After all of this, Joan told friends she was planning to discuss the issue with a lawyer. But later that evening, John came into the room and put a romantic song on and the 2 slow danced. Joan told her friend that he made her so happy that night, and "I think it's going to be all right between us from now on."

ILLNESS AND DEATH

On March 15, a few days later, Joan told her friends that she was feeling ill from a pill that her husband had given her the night before. She spent most of the day in bed after throwing up in the morning. John told her friends, Diane Settegast and Eunice Wollen, who were staying at the house, that he was going to go get some medication for her. He took their son and Diane and Eunice out to dinner that night, but Joan was too sick to join. 2 days later, Diane and Eunice said goodbye to their friend, who was still sick, as they were returning to Dallas.


The following morning, the Hills' maid found Joan in a soiled nightgown, containing blood. The maid helped Joan to the bathroom, noticing her face turning blue. She called her husband and asked him to call John, but he didn't answer.


Her mother didn't know she was ill until that day when she entered her daughter's room to find her laying in her own waste and vomit with John at the foot of the bed. Instead of calling an ambulance, he drove her to the hospital himself, 45 minutes away. During the drive, Joan kept saying she was going blind. When she arrived, her blood pressure was so low the doctors thought there was an error on the reading.


No one could agree on what was wrong, from the flu to a food-borne illness to septic shock, nothing explained her symptoms. Her condition was getting worse and worse, her kidneys beginning to shut down. She was starting to stabilize, though her condition was still very severe, at 12:30 AM on March 19. But at 2:30 that same morning, the nurse realized that she had gone into sudden heart failure. She did that morning.

AUTOPSY AND MURDER CHARGES


By Texas law at the time, anyone who died within 24 hours of hospital admission required an autopsy. When Joan's doctor, Dr. Bertinot, told him about the legal need for the autopsy, he quickly called a local funeral home to claim Joan's body. Less than 4 hours later, her body was taken and the funeral home began the embalming process. The pathologist arrived at the funeral home to carry out the autopsy, only to find that her body had already been embalmed. He thought she may have died from pancreatitis, but could not provide a certain cause of death.


However, Joan's dad wasn't convinced. He believed that John had killed his wife, and asked another medical examiner if he would view the body. He believed the cause of death to be focal hepatitis, ruling out poisoning. But still, he was not convinced.


A third autopsy was conducted by Dr. Milton Helpern, the chief medical examiner for New York City at the time. They found that she had suffered a "massive infection" from an unknown source, but still couldn't determine an exact cause of death. However, this autopsy did note that John's delay in seeking medical attention was a factor in his wife's death.


Further speaking to his guilt, he married Ann Kurth in June of 1969, just months after his wife had died. They divorced the following year when he was indicted for the murder of his wife. With friends in high places, Joan's father petitioned a murder investigation to be launched, and in February of 1970, the case was heard by a grand jury. In that, Ann admitted that he had confessed to killing his wife, and had tried to kill her on 3 occasions.


The jury tried to convict on murder by omission, or not seeking proper medical care in a timely manner. The trial began on February 15, 1971. Again, Ann testified that he tried to killer her, once by injecting her with a hypodermic syringe, and once by crashing their car into a bridge. However, the case ended in a mistrial.


On September 24, 1972, his next trial was weeks away from starting, when he was shot dead by a masked gunman during a robbery at his mansion. Though it definitely seems like Joan's dad was involved, Bobby Wayne Vandiver was arrested for John's murder. He said he had done it for money, and that the killing was a $5,000 contract killing. He implicated Marcia McKittrick and Lilla Paulus as accessories to the murder.


McKittrick was charged with first degree murder, and was eventually convicted of being the getaway driver. She was given a 10-year sentence, but was paroled after 10 years. Paulus was charged as being an accomplice to the murder. She was given 35 years, and died in prison in 1986.


And Vandiver failed to appear for his trial, skipping town and changing names. When a police officer in his new town of Longview, Texas became suspicious of him, they had an altercation, and the police officer killed him. So he was technically never charged, and can technically not tell us if it was Joan's father or not who payed him $5,000 to kill him.


And that's the story! Honestly, what a mess! Equestrian socialites! Thousands of dollars in grand pianos! Cheating! Bribing your terrible son-in-law to get back with your daughter because she wants that! Poisoning! Mystery embalming! Murder for hire! This story really has something for everyone.


Of course, I feel terrible for Joan who seemed to truly want to make her terrible marriage work. I think perhaps her father enabling her her entire life, going so far as to blackmail her husband to stay with her, probably led her to such a bad situation. But it is really unfortunate that her husband (likely) poisoned her, didn't get her help, and then had her body embalmed before anyone could figure out that he did it. I'm not saying he deserved to die, but the world is probably better without him in it.

REFERENCES:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joan_Robinson_Hill


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