The Murky Circumstances Of Joan Robinson Hill's 1969 Death

Joan Robinson Hill and John Hill had a marriage befitting of a wealthy couple central to a daytime soap. Hill was a prominent plastic surgeon, referred to by the New York Daily News as one of the top docs in Houston. Robinson-Hill was the daughter of Ash Robinson, a Texas oil millionaire. From the outside looking in, the couple had a picture-perfect life. Robinson-Hill was an accomplished equestrian, spending much of her free time riding and competing with her many horses. And though Hill was busy with his practice, the couple was prominent in the Houston social scene.

But Hill and his wife led a dream life of wealth and social prominence under the dark cloud of Hill's infidelity. For some time, Hill had been dating a woman named Ann Kurth, whom he had met when he was picking up he and Robinson Hill's son at a summer camp (per The Victoria Advocate). The ongoing affair between Hill and Kurth took its toll on the marriage, with Hill filing for divorce in early December 1968 (via Crime Magazine). Hill and Robinson Hill reconciled quickly, but the newly found bliss didn't last more than the winter. In mid-March 1969, Hill again filed for divorce, perhaps hoping to begin a new life with Kurth. 

Rather than end in a messy divorce, the saga of this Houston couple would culminate into one of the most bizarre series of court cases the Houston metro had ever experienced. Homicide trials, a murder-for-hire scheme, and one scorned father's demand for justice lay the framework for the twisted case of the death of a Texas socialite.

Robinson Hill died in a Texas hospital

In March 1969, Joan Robinson-Hill was admitted to the hospital with what was believed at the time to be flu-like symptoms (per the Associated Press). The New York Daily News reports that her symptoms became much worse after her admission, as her blood pressure dramatically dropped. Fifteen hours after being admitted, she vomited a large amount of blood and died. Hill made arrangements for his wife's funeral, and her body was sent to a local funeral home in preparation for burial.

Robinson Hill's body was embalmed almost immediately, complicating matters when an autopsy was ordered. The Corpus Christi Caller-Times tells us that it was thought she might have died from a case of pancreatitis, due to the observation that the organ was severely discolored. But as the body had already been embalmed, isolating a definite cause of death proved be difficult. This would not be the first autopsy to be performed on the recently deceased socialite, however. Suspicions began to grow, particularly among several close friends of Robinson Hill's. But their skepticism about her cause of death was no match for the fury that had been unleashed in Hill's father-in-law.

Robinson Hill's father begins to suspect foul play

Ash Robinson was convinced that his son-in-law had murdered his daughter. He knew beforehand that John Hill was carrying on an affair and had previously filed for divorce on two occasions. After speaking with several of the couple's friends, he began to theorize that Hill had poisoned her. The New York Daily News reports that several days before she was admitted to the hospital, friends at her home saw her eat a pastry that Hill handed to her. After she fell ill and died, they recalled that Hill had refused to let her change out the pastry he handed her for one of the others on the plate, insisting that she eat one particular éclair. The information was given to Robinson, who was able to successfully demand a second autopsy. 

According to the San Antonio Express, the initial death certificate listed acute viral hepatitis as the cause of death. Months after she was buried, Robinson's Hills' body was exhumed for a second examination. Per The Victoria Advocate, Galveston County Medical Examiner Dr. Robert Bucklin and his team claimed Robinson Hill succumbed to a case of "bacterial meningitis with acute septicemia." Meanwhile, Dr. Milton Helpern — who was hired by Ash Robinson — suggested that Hill might have been murdered via poison (per

The trials of John Hill

With suspicions against John Hill mounting, potential charges of murder were brought to the grand jury. Hill most likely would never have faced indictment had it not been for a shocking revelation of events presented to the court by his one-time mistress Ann Kurth (via the Ottawa Citizen). Believing that they did not have the evidence to show that Hill had poisoned his wife, they filed charges of "murder by omission" against him, based on their belief that his lack of attentiveness and refusal to take her to a hospital promptly resulted in her death (via Associated Press)

Hill and Kurth married months after the death of Robinson Hill, a tumultuous arrangement that lasted less than a year. Kurth testified that Hill had confided in her that he had poisoned his late wife with a special kind of poison. She recalled how her ex-husband told her of concocting a solution made from human excrement and tricked her into ingesting it (per the Ottawa Citizen ). According to Kurth, she was also the target of Hill's murderous intentions, having survived three separate attacks from the doctor. In one incident, he allegedly crashed his Cadillac on the passenger side into a concrete bridge. The New York Post reports that when this failed to kill her, Hill presented a syringe with what she assumed to be poison. But before Hill could inject her, someone appeared at the scene of the accident to assist the couple.

Per The New York Post, this trial came to an abrupt end when Kurth lost control of herself during cross-examination and exclaimed to the jury that "he told me he killed Joan with a needle." A mistrial was declared.

Hill was gunned down in what was thought to be a robbery

The prosecutors continued their efforts to put John Hill behind bars after hitting the speedbump of a mistrial, and a new trial was set. But Hill never had another opportunity to beat the charges. On September 24, 1972, Hill and his third wife, Connie, arrived home after attending a medical convention in Las Vegas (per the Ottawa Citizen). Shortly after walking in the front door, Connie was attacked by a man in a Halloween mask and forced to the floor. Hill was soon on the floor beside her. Connie was able to break free after a short struggle, making a run toward the safety of a neighbor's house. As she fled, she heard the sound of the fatal gunshots that ended Hill's life.

At first, investigators believed Hill was a casualty of a botched robbery. But clues eventually led them to determine that Hill was the target of a hit. An investigation revealed that Bobby Wayne Vandiver was the gunman. When questioned by police, Vandiver confessed that he and his sex worker girlfriend, Marcia McKittrick, was hired by a Houston madame named Lilla Paulus (via the New York Daily News). Rumors began to swirl around Houston, suggesting that Ash Robinson ordered the hit and paid Paulus to orchestrate it.

The sad family saga was the subject of a true crime book and a TV movie

Bobby Wayne Vandiver never faced trial for his part in John Hill's murder. The Ottawa Citizen reports that police gunned him down during an attempted jail break before he could face the court. Prosecutors had enough evidence to charge Marcia McKittrick and Lilla Paulus with murder, however. McKittrick turned state's evidence and testified against her former madame in a plea deal that got her 10 years in prison while securing a guilty verdict and a 35-year sentence for Paulus (per the New York Daily News). Though she claimed that Paulus told her Ash Robinson had paid her to organize the hit on Hill, there was not enough evidence for prosecutors to ever charge Robinson with anything related to Hill's death. Hill's widow and son filed a civil lawsuit against Robinson for wrongful death. The $7.6-million suit was tried by a civil court, with the jury ruling in favor of Robinson (per Houstonian Magazine).

The story was written in the 1976 book "Blood and Money" by journalist Thomas Thompson. In 1981, a made-for-TV movie was produced and aired that gave a dramatic rendering of the death of Joan Robinson-Hill. "Murder in Texas" starred Farrah Fawcett as Robinson-Hill, Sam Elliott as John Hill, and Andy Griffith as Ash Robinson (per IMDb). 

Additionally, the mysterious death of Robinson-Hill was featured on an episode of Investigation Discovery's "Behind Mansion Walls" in 2011 (via IMDb).