Fifty years ago today, September 24, 1972, a cold-blooded assassin shot and killed Dr. John Hill in his large white colonial mansion on 1561 Kirby Drive at the corner of Brentwood Street in Houston’s richest neighborhood known nationwide as the elegance of River Oaks. Dr. Hill was 41. Three years earlier Hill’s wife Joan Robinson Hill, the daughter of rich oilman Ash Robinson, grew mysteriously ill and died. Her oil baron father was convinced that his philandering son-in-law Dr. Hill killed her to marry another woman.
During the 1970s era in Houston, Texas, the city mushroomed into the heyday of many greater days to come. The oil business was booming like a cannon shot, NASA was searching for more men to land on the moon, and The Texas Medical Center had won international fame for having the best darn heart surgeons alive. Amidst the boomtown success was the luxurious River Oaks, an exclusive enclave of sprawling estates and huge mansions sitting on azalea-lined lawns with Rolls Royces, Cadillacs, Lincolns, Corvettes, and Mercedes Benz parked in the driveway or garage.
River Oaks was a place crowded in by ancient oak trees overlapping with spanish moss and mistletoe. Its atmosphere represented the addresses of oilmen, doctors, prominent attorneys, and all the city’s big-shot politicians, and a parade of ‘movers and shakers’ merged into a mesmerizing pot of refined opulent wealth.
The life of Joan Robinson Hill began when she came into the world on February 6, 1931.
As the saying goes down in the Lone Star State, “Everything is bigger and bigger in Texas.” During Joan’s younger years she attended Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri. She made decently good grades, yet she maintained an active social life. Then men flocked into her life. She was the daughter of a rich oil man. Joan Robinson didn’t suffer for nothing.
While in college, Joan married twice, both times before the age of 20. She married Spike Benton, who had a promising career as a Navy pilot, then New Orleans lawyer and childhood friend Cecil Burglass. Her possessive father did not approve of her choices, and each marriage lasted little more than six months.
Joan competed professionally throughout the 1950s and 1960s, winning as many as 500 trophies riding her American Saddlebred horses Beloved Belinda and Precious Possession. She had a riding habit of wearing the same color of clothing as Beloved Belinda, described by Blood & Money book author Tommy Thompson as “a lustrous pearl gray,” which she wore at shows, starting the fashion of wearing light colors.
On September 28, 1957, Joan Robinson married Dr. John Hill, a physician and plastic surgeon. The Hou
ston Chronicle described Hill as “one of the city’s leading plastic surgeons.” Joan Hill was also one of Houston’s wealthy socialites and a nationwide celebrated champion horse rider winning over 500 tournaments. Marital problems threatened to end the marriage as Dr. Hill found another beauty queen on the side named Ann Kurth, a woman who envied Joan Hill.
Joan’s father, Ash Robinson, paid lots of money to help John Hill with his medical career and when he started practicing medicine on a professional level.
Death of Joan Robinson Hill
Then, many years later, during the early morning hours of March 19, 1969, Dr. Hill transported his wife to Sharpstown Hospital after she became violently ill, stricken with an undiagnosed infection and uncontrollable diarrhea. Authorities later said the hospital was ill-equipped to treat Joan’s critical illness.
At approximately 1:30, A.M., nurses recalled how the very ill Joan Robinson Hill sat up in the bed, vomited a ton of blood and suddenly took her last breath. Dr. Hill rushed into Joan’s hospital room, saw her lifeless body, and he began moaning, “No. no, no, making all kinds of noises befitting a grief-stricken husband,” wrote famous author Tommy Thompson, in his 1976 bestselling book about the Dr. Hill, Ash Robinson and Joan Robinson Hill saga, called Blood & Money.
Ash Robinson knew about Dr. Hill’s philandering. And he also knew his daughter was only 38 years old and was healthy without any known illnesses. “That SOB killed my Joan to be with another woman,” Ash Robinson said on several occasions to friends and whomever would listen.
But how could Ash Robinson prove Dr. Hill was a murderer?
Texas state law at the time required an autopsy before any embalming or burial could take place, for anyone who died in a hospital within twenty-four hours of admission. Dr. Bertinot spoke to John Hill about the legal need for an autopsy. Hill asked Jim Oates to call a local funeral home to claim Robinson Hill’s body. Less than four hours after her death, the funeral home removed Robinson Hill’s body from the hospital.
Within an hour after moving the body from Sharpstown General, the funeral home began the process of embalming Robinson Hill’s body. The hospital’s pathologist, Dr. Arthur Morse, arrived at the funeral home at 10 a.m. to carry out the autopsy, only to find that the body had already been embalmed. Morse concluded his autopsy at 11:30 a.m. without finding any signs of what caused Robinson Hill’s death aside from a maroon coloration of her pancreas and offered an opinion that she may have died from pancreatitis.
Assistant District Attorney I.D. McMaster asked Harris County Medical Examiner Joseph Jachimczyk to go to the funeral home to examine the body before the funeral that began on Friday, March 21, 1969. Jachimczyk ordered Dr. Morse to hand over blood and urine specimens taken from Robinson Hill. He then drove to the funeral home to view the body.
Jachimczyk delivered his report on the second autopsy at the end of March, ruling out any poisoning, and concluding, “it is my opinion based upon a reasonable probability that the cause of death is due to acute focal hepatitis, probably viral in origin.” On reading the report, McMaster felt there was no case, but Ash Robinson refused to believe that no crime had been committed. He hired lawyer Frank Briscoe, a former Harris County District Attorney. Robinson petitioned his son-in-law to give permission for Joan’s body to be exhumed for another autopsy, but Hill refused.
Ash Robinson then hired Dr. Milton Helpern, the chief medical examiner for New York City at the time, to come to Houston to examine Robinson Hill’s body. An autopsy was also requested by a Harris County grand jury investigating Robinson Hill’s death. That autopsy was performed by a team of ten doctors led by Dr. Robert Bucklin, who was then the medical examiner for Galveston County, and including Dr. Helpern, who was deputized as an acting Harris County medical examiner. Helpern examined the body of Joan Robinson Hill for seven and a half hours, then went back to New York with his tissue samples, saying he would issue a report on his findings at a later date.
The series of autopsies indicated that Robinson Hill had suffered a “massive infection” from an undetermined source, but because the body had been embalmed before an initial examination was conducted, an exact cause of death could not be identified. Dr. Bucklin listed Robinson Hill’s cause of death as meningitis and sepsis. Following the autopsy, Joseph Jachimczyk issued a fresh report in which he observed “It is now my opinion that Joan Robinson Hill came to her death as a result of a fulminating infectious process, the specific nature of which is no longer determinable.” Dr. Helpern’s report, issued in April 1970, noted that John Hill’s treatment of his wife at home and the delay in seeking specialized medical attention at a hospital were factors in the death of Robinson Hill.
Harris County District Attorney’s Office Prosecutes Dr. John Hill
Ash Robinson, Joan’s father, desperately wanted his son-in-law Dr. John Hill prosecuted to the max. Robinson, a crusty old man aflush with enough money to last a life time convinced his soul his daughter Joan was murdered by her low-life husband Dr. Hill. All the elements added up in Robinson’s mind; only three months after Joan’s death, Hill married long-time lover Ann Kurth. Robinson doled out thousands of dollars into a personal crusade to sway the powerful handiwork of the local prosecutor’s office to first charge Dr. Hill and then put that killer away. By having this done Robinson knew a trip to the penitentiary would destroy Hill’s career and ruin his life.
Since the day in 1969 when he got the dreadful, gut-wrenching news that Joan had died Ash Robinson didn’t sleep well. Stress and pain awaken him late at night. He’d make several telephone calls to converse with doctors he knew personally, asking them to meet at a selected restaurant where black coffee brewed like steam shooting up from a locomotive train. He queried the doctors on what may have caused his lovely daughter to pass away from this earth so suddenly.
Many suggestions among the medical minds passed across the table until the men grew weary. Subsequently, they left and returned home at the crack of dawn.
Robinson hired Clyde Wilson, one of Texas’s best private detective agencies in the Lone Star State to keep close tabs on Hill. The old man wanted to expose every piece of junk about his former son-in-law.
Ash Robinson was a man possessed! He so badly wanted John Hill persecuted by the long arm of the law. If necessary, Robinson planned to turn loose the howls of predators to consume and overthrow that rotten (expletive) John Hill.
One morning around 9: A.M., Assistant District Attorney(ADA) I.D. McMaster arrived for work on Fannin Street where a tall building housed the prosecuting attorney’s office. McMaster was surprised to learn from an employee that Ash Robinson was there to see him. The employee told McMasters that Robinson was the father of Joan Robinson Hill who’d recently died and that her funeral was later in the day.
Soon as McMaster allowed Robinson to enter his office space the old man Robinson minced no words accusing Dr. Hill of homicide. According to Tommy Thompson’s Blood & Money book, Thompson recalled in writing what Ash Robinson said, “I have reason to believe my son-in-law murdered my only child.”
Robinson ticked off a litany of reasons why he thought his precious daughter was murdered. He recalled how Joan ate French pastries, served by her husband Dr. John Hill, and, afterward, a terrible fever hit her, she vomited incessantly, developed ceaseless diarrhea, and that Dr. Hill disallowed treatment for Joan.
“He wouldn’t allow a doctor to come to their home and treat Joan,” Robinson recalled in a strong, cracked voice. He further explained to McMaster that two witnesses would testify to the strange pastries preselected for Joan.
After Dr. Hill finally took Joan to Sharpstown Hospital, Robinson added, “There was no intensive care unit and she died approximately 15 hours later in that hospital,” Robinson said, as sweat formed on his wide forehead.
But wait there’s more.
Ash Robinson said after Joan died an autopsy wasn’t performed and that she was taken to a funeral home for embalming. Then after the embalming, the autopsy was conducted. “It showed she died from pancreatitis,” Robinson said, looking directly into the eyes of the young Texas prosecutor. McMaster listened with deep interest. The story sounded a bit odd but he told Robinson he would check things out and have the city’s foremost Medical Examiner Dr. Joseph Jachimczyk investigate.
“Dr. Hill killed my Joan,” became the oft-repeated words of Ash Robinson from then on.
Grand Jury Investigate
Following Joan Hill’s death in March 1969, Dr. Hill married Ann Kurth, the pretty woman he’d been dating while married to his now deceased wife. Dr. Hill may have committed the cardinal sin when he divorced Kurth shortly before he was indicted by a grand jury for the death of his wife Joan Hill. By divorcing Kurth, his attorney Richard “Racehorse” Haynes, explained to Dr. Hill that he’d made a bad move because if Hill remained married to Kurth she could not testify against him due to their marriage under Texas law.
Then elected Harris County District Attorney Frank Briscoe discussed the entirety of the case, the controversies of medical opinions, and what the witnesses saw regarding the alleged ill-fated French pastries that Dr. Hill preselected for Joan Hill to eat. Both men expressed doubt the doctor murdered his wife, yet they felt enough evidence warranted a grand jury to investigate the questionable matters. The grand jury began hearing evidence in the summer of 1969. Newspapers, TV, and radio reports saturated the news throughout Houston and beyond. Rumors spread like wildfire suggesting Dr. Hill just may be a killer, after all.
Worried about his career and freedom, Hill contacted private investigator Clyde Wilson, the same undercover guy previously hired by Hill’s nemesis Ash Robinson to dig up dirt on Hill. Wilson recommended that if Hill wanted to clear his name it’d serve best to take a polygraph test. Hill decided he would but only have it done with the administration of sodium pentothal, a substance better known as “truth serum.” Hill’s attorney and ADA prosecutor I.D. McMaster would attend the session.
The drug was given to Dr. Hill at Sharpstown Hospital by anesthesiologist Dr. Richard Smith, a doctor who occasionally assisted Hill with surgeries. Unsurprisingly, Hill passed the test with flying colors. McMaster wasn’t too convinced of the accuracy of the drug given to Hill because Hill’s answers appeared too composed.
The first Grand Jury investigated the case without indicting Dr. Hill. The information was too confusing, a bit iffy at best. Meanwhile, Ash Robinson became increasingly agitated over the lack of progress in the investigation. With a focus sharp as an eagle, Robinson then ramped up his scheme to nail his former son-in-law and sought out a powerful man in the law enforcement and political arena to represent him, former elected Harris County DA prosecutor Frank Briscoe.
Robinson urged Briscoe to sway his former underling ADA McMaster to impanel a second grand jury. When Briscoe refused, Robinson fired him, then hired the law firm of Vinson and Elkins.
The current elected District Attorney Carol Vance obliged and put the case before a second grand jury to determine if they would order an exhumation of Joan Hill’s body. Once the news hit the newspapers the second grand jury agreed to exhume the body this is when Hill went scrambling to hire a criminal lawyer named Don Fullenweider. Fullenweider asked his partner the colorful but very outstanding attorney Richard “Racehorse” Haynes. Haynes was one of Texas’ best criminal defense attorneys, he was a great orator, his mind was sharp and witty, and he knew the law similar to knowing how simple it was to walk inside a courtroom. Only the big-dollar clients could afford to hire him.
Dr. John Hill became the next one on the list.
In February 1970, the case was heard by a third grand jury. This panel heard testimony from Ann Kurth, who told them that Hill confessed to killing his wife and tried to kill Kurth on three occasions. Helpern presented his findings to the grand jury in April 1970. McMaster and his fellow Assistant District Attorney, Erwin Ernst, believed that Hill had murdered his wife but there wasn’t enough evidence to indict him.
Ernst found a rarely used law sufficient to prosecute Hill for failing to provide an adequate level of care, which resulted in her death. The jury voted 10-2 to indict Hill for murder by omission, deciding that he “willfully, intentionally and culpably” contributed to his wife’s death because he had not given her sufficient medical care.
The state of Texas had not previously indicted anyone on a charge of murder by omission.
Dr. John Hill’s murder trial began on February 15, 1971. ADA prosecutors I.D. McMaster and Erwin Ernst tried the case in the courtroom of Criminal District Judge Fred Hooey. Racehorse Haynes and Don Fullenweider represented John Hill. The doctors involved with the autopsy of his wife’s death verbalize duel conclusions on the witness stand as to the exact cause of Joan Robinson’s death. The medical combatants only stirred more frustrations and uncertainty.
Drama queen Ann Kurth testified against Hill, claiming that he tried to kill her on June 30, 1969, by crashing their car into a bridge, and by injecting her with a hypodermic needle. She also told the court Dr. Hill confessed to killing his wife, explaining in detail how he executed the dastardly deed by lacing pastries with infectious bacteria and later injecting Robinson Hill with the same bacteria. If Kurth’s testimony was true it contradicted the charge of murder by omission in the indictment.
Racehorse Haynes leaped to his feet, objecting vigorously. There was no way his client would get a fair trial and Kurth’s accusations against Dr. Hill that he killed his first wife had nothing to do with the charge of omission. Judge Hooey made a quick decision. He declared a mistrial. Dr. Hill could go home for now. His trial was rescheduled for November 1972.
Ash Robinson was enraged. He cursed. He swore. He literally came off the hinges. But the old crusty man had another idea. If the law won’t prosecute him, something else will.
Revenge is only gratifying when the targeted enemy is dead.
Houston Police Homicide Detectives Jerry Carpenter and Joe Gamino
On Sunday evening, September 24, 1972, Houston Police Homicide Detectives Jerry Carpenter and Joe Gamino were killing time eating dinner at a local restaurant. Sunday was one of these days they weren’t chasing murder suspects and other “hooks and crooks.” Just so happened, this day was slow even for big city cops until a waitress beckoned Carpenter to the phone to chat with a homicide division lieutenant. Hanging up the phone, Carpenter barked at Gamino, “Let’s go Joe. We got one.” “It’s big.” “What we got,” Gamino wanted to know. “A masked killer broke into Dr. John Hill’s house and shot him to death!”
This evening, just so happened, the Detectives were less than five minutes away from the address where Hill’s mansion was. Arriving at the scene in the fabulous River Oaks the Detectives were bewildered. Murders happened throughout the city like clockwork but not where the rich, powerful and famous lived. Uniformed officers and news reporters milled around in front of the house. An officer briefed Carpenter and Gamino on what transpired based on statements from Hill’s wife Connie, his mother named Myra, and his young son Robert “Booth” Hill.
Observing John Hill’s lifeless body, Carpenter immediately suspected the shooting was nonetheless a gangster hit. What led Carpenter to this conclusion was how the killer used adhesive tape to wrap Hill’s mouth, nose, and eyes.
Detectives interviewed Hill’s wife Connie who said they were ambushed just when they returned home from a medical conference in Las Vegas. The masked intruder forced his way into the Hills’ home about a half hour before John and Connie Hill were due to arrive home. The shaggy-haired man bound Hill’s mother Myra and his son Booth, taping their mouths with adhesive tape. When the Hills arrived, Connie rang the home’s doorbell and was greeted by someone in a green mask she initially thought to be her stepson playing a joke.
The intruder grabbed Connie Hill, saying “This is a robbery.” She struggled herself away from him and ran down the street. As she ran screaming for help, suddenly, she heard shots fired. A neighbor heard her cries for help, let her in, and let her call the police. When the police and an ambulance arrived at the Hill home, they found John Hill in the foyer, face down.
Standing over him was his 12-year-old son; feet and arms bound, he had managed to hop from a back room of the house. The adhesive tape had come loose from his mouth and he cried, “They’ve killed my daddy.” The ambulance attendant searched for vital signs but found none. When the body was turned over, Hill’s eyes, nose, and mouth were found to have been sealed shut with adhesive tape by his killer. The police noted this type of killing was prevalent in the local underworld. John Hill was beaten and shot three times: in the chest, shoulder, and right arm.
A Search For a Killer
Detectives Jerry Carpenter and Joe Gamino spent several hours at the Mansion hoping to find a clue to identify the killer of Dr. John Hill. What really stoked the officers’ disbelief was that an unknown person invaded the close-knit, confined River Oaks, easily got into Dr. Hill’s home, tied up Hill’s mother and son, and waited patiently inside the mansion until Hill and his wife Connie arrived then struggled with the fierce doctor and managed to kill one of Houston’s prominent citizens and got clean away without a soul seeing him or a suspicious vehicle.
“Something wasn’t adding up at all,” Carpenter said to Gamino. The next day the local newspapers ran the blazing headlines, Dr. JOHN HILL MURDERED in MANSION.
Dr. Hill’s second wife, Ann Kurth, the lady who testified against him during trial was quoted in Tommy Thompson’s book as saying Ash Robinson the former father-in-law of Dr. Hill who hated Hill with a passion called her on the phone and spoke in a slow, Texas drawl, “Did you hear about old John Hill?” asked Ash Robinson. “He went and got himself shot to death.” Ann Kurth answered, “yes.” It was a terrible thing, she agreed. “Yes,” echoed Ash. “A terrible thing. Just wanted you to know about it.”
Ann Kuth felt utterly afraid. She felt Ash Robinson was gloating over Dr. Hill’s death. A fired bullet was recovered in the foyer of the Mansion, yet unless a weapon was found to compare with the mangled bullet it was useless.
Meanwhile, Carpenter and Gamino were working the streets to find a killer. Carpenter pumped his informants for information because he knew the people on the streets pick up chatter, sometimes good information, sometimes just plain old Texas bullshit rumors. Throughout the medical community and the high society circles which Dr. Hill drew himself into during his lifetime, the words from the bigshots flowed heavily like tasty champagne at a cocktail party.
Needless to say, the chatter at local hospitals and high-end restaurants filled with Houston’s high society people overflowed with the suspicion that Hill’s worst enemy Ash Robinson had hired someone to kill Dr. Hill to avenge the death that he’d caused his beloved daughter Joan Robinson Hill. Ash Robinson vehemently denied killing his former son-in-law telling friends and associates that he’d have never hired someone to kill his grandson’s father while his grandson was at home.
Nearing the end of the first week a cache of names had been given to Detective Carpenter, one name stood out for an unknown reason, a woman named Lilla Paulus. Paulus was known to Houston Police Vice Squad as the wife of a well-known bookmaker. The informant never accused Paulus of taking human lives but the guy said he knew for sure she knew people in the Texas underworld eager to carry out a paid hit. With many people to chat with, Carpenter documented Paulus’s name in his offense report.
A Gun Found
One day while the Detectives were interviewing Dr. Hill’s wife Connie, son “Booth” and his mother Myra, prepping them to assist an FBI artist to draw a sketch of the killer a call from headquarters. An officer said a child in the River Oaks neighborhood had found Hill’s suitcase in bushes only a short distance from where Hill was shot and killed in his mansion.
Carpenter and Gamino rushed down the street to find excited children peeping into the bushes. When Carpenter opened the suitcase, to his dismay, inside were Dr. Hill’s medical papers. Then maybe there were prints on the briefcase, who knows.
As Gamino scribbled on a notepad to document their findings, Carpenter strode further down the line of bushes and suddenly, he stopped, the veteran Detective spotted what appeared to be a dark-looking, round and skinny iron piece extending out far enough to reveal itself: Bending over, Carpenter grabbed ahold of what appeared to be a .38 caliber snub nose pistol.
A rush of adrenalin hit Carpenter’s bloodstream as he held up the weapon to show Gamino who appeared surprised but hoping the gun was the murder weapon.
A subsequent ballistic test conducted at the police department by firearms examiner Randy Sillivan, Sillivan fingered three different .38 slugs into the rusty weapon and fired them into a cotton bale. The results showed the three spent slugs had similarities to the spent bullet found inside Hill’s home in the foyer. Next, Sillivan grabbed some handmade bullets and repeated the process. After comparing the bullets with the markings on the single bullet found in the mansion it was a definite match. The examiner was right on target. The killer had used handmade bullets to murder Dr. Hill.
Sillivan called Gamino with the good news explaining the gun was their murder weapon.
Finding the gun and matching the ballistics, the Detectives hit the jackpot.
Now, who owned the murder weapon? the Detectives wondered aloud. Soon they found out. After Carpenter submitted a teletype to a federal agency with the serial numbers the information came back indicating the gun had been purchased in 1969 at a store in Longview, Texas by Dr. Orrin Staves.
The Detectives were puzzled. Another doctor involved?
Dr. Orrin Staves was a wealthy Black doctor. He was bewildered to find two Houston police Detectives waiting to talk with him at his office. Staves boasted of how he earned six figures per year and drove a fleet of expensive Cadillacs. When Carpenter showed Staves the .38 pistol, he immediately recognized the weapon telling the officers that a whore named Dusty had stolen it from him. Staves further admitted that he enjoyed the pleasures of female flesh. This is how he encountered a white prostitute named Dusty.
He said Dusty called him, asking if she could come over and spend quality time with him. Staves agreed. Dusty had sticky fingers because not only did she get paid for her services but she stole Stave’s .38 pistol, the same gun used to murder Dr. John Hill. Carpenter asked Staves if Dusty’s name was her trick name. Shrugging a bit, Staves said he wasn’t sure. But he also said he thought her name was Marcia McKittrick.
Knowing the vice trade, Carpenter hit every whore spot he dealt with looking for Marcia McKittrick. Carpenter questioned whore house runners, pimps, streetwalkers, punks, and gamblers. His determined work paid off. Marcia McKittrick was from Dallas, Texas. Carpenter found one of her arrest photos and her mother’s address in Dallas.
Determined to find the killers of Dr. John Hill, Carpenter and Gamino headed to Dallas where they spoke with Marcia McKittrick’s mother. When Carpenter asked the woman if she knew her daughter was a prostitute she said, “Yes.” Besides hustling as a prostitute, Marcia’s mother said her daughter had one boy and that Marcia was a “Sweet, loving girl; she got mixed up with the wrong people.” The mother said Marcia told her when she met a man on a “hillbilly TV show who got her (Marcia) hooked on drugs that she’s never been the same.”
Carpenter asked Marcia’s mother if she knew where her daughter was. “I don’t have the slightest idea,” the woman said.
More information trickled in on Marcia McKittrick. Carpenter learned she had a new chippy named Bobby Van … or something like that. Still, the dope addict prostitute was nowhere to be found.
Finally, another lead surfaced name-wise.
Bobby V, with the unusual name, turned out to be an ex-convict named Bobby Vandiver. Carpenter and Gamino now knew Bobby Vandiver and Marcia McKittrick. She was his “ride or die” girl. She made money for Vandiver hustling tricks, except for the money she purchased illegal drugs with.
Strange as it seemed, Dr. Hill’s Son, named Booth, had told Carpenter that the man’s voice who broke into their mansion sounded like Don Meredith the man from Dallas. Bobby Vandiver was from, ironically, the Dallas area, as well. Vandiver had been to prison for burglary and trying to steal a safe.
A tweety bird whistled into the ears of investigators and told them where the elusive Vandiver could be found. A captain with the Dallas division of the Texas Department of Public Safety contacted Detective Carpenter asking if he was looking for an actor name Bobby about a murder.
Detective Carpenter’s voice boomed into the phone, “If it’s Bobby Vandiver we sure as hell are.”
What sweetened the black coffee was the fact Vandiver had a failure-to-appear warrant issued for his arrest for possessing burglary tools in Houston.
Not too long afterward, Bobby Wayne Vandiver was in custody.
From the beginning, Vandiver refused to cooperate with police until he was positively identified as the perpetrator by Hill’s mother. Gamino reminded Vandiver that “Whoever gets down first gets the deal.” Vandiver wanted to know how much time he’d have to serve. Carpenter said he would contact Assistant District Attorney Bob Bennett to discuss deals. Bennett hurried to the police station and hastily conferred with Gamino and Carpenter. Bennett explained to Vandiver that if he gave it all up and whatever he said could be corroborated that he’ll offer him 12 years in the slammer. Bennett also told the ex-con that he would need him to testify against others.
Bobby Vandiver knew a good deal when he smelled one. Still, he felt tormented over snitching. What the hell, Vandiver sang a song of criminality better than “Rockin Robin.”
Confessing to the murder, Vandiver told police he had done it for financial gain. During his confession, Vandiver implicated house madam Lilla Paulus and a former sex worker named Marcia McKittrick and that they had been directly involved in Hill’s murder. He claimed that the shooting was a contract killing that he had been asked to carry out for $5,000. He told detectives “[Paulus] told me the contract was on a doctor who had killed his wife.”
Vandiver further said it was the wife’s father who wanted Dr. Hill dead. During several days of police interrogation, Vandiver told Detectives Carpenter and Gamino that Lilla Paulus had first mentioned the contract in the summer of 1972, but that he had never intended to go through with it. He said that after his money got ragged that he agreed to kill Hill. Lilla Paulus paid him and Vandiver refunded $1500 to Paulus as a finders fee. Paulus had the low down on all of Dr. Hill’s activities and traveling. To set the wheels in motion, McKittrick telephoned Hill’s office to arrange an appointment with the surgeon but was told he was in Las Vegas. They subsequently traveled to Las Vegas to carry out the killing there, but could not find Hill, so they returned to Houston.
He said they had scoped the area quite well, driving up and down Kirby Drive to learn the escape routes, and checking out where the mansion was located. They decided Marcia would drop him off, drive to the House of Pies on Kirby Drive and wait at the phone booth for Vandiver to call her after he made it safely to West Gray at Kirby. On September 24, 1972, Vandiver recalled how he and prostitute Marcia McKittrick drove to Dr. Hill’s home in River Oaks in an Oldsmobile. They already knew what time the air flight for Dr. Hill and his wife would arrive from a medical conference in Las Vegas.
As if watching a killer on screen purge his soul of demonic forces all three men, Carpenter, Bennett, and Gamino waited to hear the final moment that befell Dr. Hill.
He recalled being let in the mansion by Hill’s mother. Vandiver bound Hill’s mother Myra and his son “Booth.” Vandiver kicked Myra Hill in the throat to weaken her to let her know he meant pure business. Lilla Paulus had instructed Vandiver not to hurt Booth.
“The doctor and his wife came up and rang the doorbell. So I opened the door. They stood there like it was a joke. I reached out with my left hand and grabbed the upper part of (Connie’s) jacket with my gun in my right hand. I said, ‘Come on in, this is a holdup.”
“The woman broke and ran.”
Everything went down fast.
“You son of a bitch,” or something like that, Vandiver said. Dr. Hill grabbed the intruder’s gun and tried to rip the green pillowcase off Vandiver’s head. An intense struggle ensued between the men over the gun until Vandiver fired the weapon four times, three of the bullets striking Hill, killing him. A wayward bullet zoomed into the foyer.
Despite the many times Vandiver and McKittrick rehearsed the area by driving through it before the hit went down, Bobby Vandiver ran like a wild horse and got lost. He wound up on South Shepherd, Greenbriar, and then he walked hurriedly to Westheimer and back. The killer just knew he’d be arrested for murder simply because he was lost. Finally, he stumbled onto West Gray Street. Vandiver hunched down into a phone booth similar to a child playing hide-and-seek. He called McKittrick at House of Pies.
“There was a rumble. I’m here at West Way,” Vandiver yelled into the phone. Actually, he meant West Gray.
Detectives wanted to know if he’d seen an old man driving a Lincoln named Ash Robinson visit Liila Paulus’ home. Vandiver said he didn’t recall seeing anyone matching that description but that McKittrick and Paulus told him the contract was for the father of a woman who’d been killed by Dr. Hill. “I think the doctor had been married to the old man’s daughter,” Vandiver said. After Vandiver killed the doctor at his home, he fled with McKittrick to Los Angeles, where they shared an apartment for several months, but they frequently quarreled and returned separately to Texas in 1973.
On April 25, 1973, a grand jury voted to indict Vandiver and McKittrick for first-degree murder and indict Paulus as an accomplice to murder. Vandiver’s trial was set for September 1973. In the meantime, District Attorney Bob Bennett arranged for him to live at a motel with his wife, Vicki. She had found a job as a waitress, but he was required to stay in his room unless accompanied by someone from the District Attorney’s office.
Vicki was in the process of seeking custody of her children from a previous marriage, and in June 1973, Vandiver asked Bennett if he could travel with her to Dallas while the case was heard. Bennett granted the request on the condition that Vandiver checks in with him on a regular basis. Vandiver showed up as promised in September, only to learn that the trial had been postponed, and Bennett reluctantly allowed him to return to Dallas.
The trial was eventually rescheduled for April 1974, but Vandiver failed to appear. He went on the run and moved to Longview, Texas, adopting the alias J. C. Sheridan and trying to maintain a low profile. However, Longview police officer John Raymer grew suspicious of the newcomer to his town. After discovering the man’s first name was actually Bobby, Raymer confronted Vandiver at a cafe one evening in May; Vandiver pulled a gun, and Raymer shot him dead.
McKittrick remained at large for several months but was finally arrested in Dallas on September 21, 1973, after attempting to cash a forged payroll check at a drive-in bank. Under questioning, she corroborated Vandiver’s story and also told Carpenter and Gamino that she had met Ash Robinson while she was staying with Lilla Paulus in 1972. McKittrick claimed that Robinson had said he would do anything to get custody of his grandson, but that the only way that would happen was if Hill was dead.
She said that Ash Robinson and Paulus had met frequently at Ben Taub hospital where money was handed over and that Robinson had also visited Paulus at her home, where he gave her plans of Hill’s home and $7,000 on the day of the shooting. McKittrick was scheduled to be tried in 1974, alongside Paulus.
However, Paulus’s lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, argued for Vandiver’s evidence to be dismissed under the Sixth Amendment, which gives a defendant the right to confront their accuser; the request was granted. DeGuerin also asked for McKittrick’s evidence against Paulus to be ruled as inadmissible. But although this request was also granted, presiding Judge Price ruled that McKittrick’s evidence could be used in the state’s case against her. McKittrick’s attorney, John Caperton, then sought consensus for her to enter a not guilty plea, but accept a guilty verdict, something to which Bennett agreed. McKittrick was convicted of being Vandiver’s getaway driver and given a ten-year jail sentence.
Trial and conviction of Lilla Paulus
As McKittrick was led from the court, ADA prosecutor Bob Bennett asked her to give evidence against Paulus, but she was initially reluctant to do so. She continued to resist until the case against Paulus was heard in February 1975 - by Judge Frank Price, 209th Criminal District Court.
Lilla Paulus hired a young, hard-hitting, legal wizard to represent her named Dick Deguerin who’d been trained by legendary criminal defense attorney Percy Foreman. Deguerin was a partner in Foreman’s law firm. Foreman and his crew of attorneys charged clients hefty fees. ADA prosecutor Bob Burdette assisted Bennett to try the case against Paulus.
At the trial, McKittrick testified that Ash Robinson had paid Paulus $25,000 to find someone to eliminate Hill and that in turn, Paulus had paid Vandiver a measly $5,000 to carry out the murder. McKittrick and Robinson both passed polygraph tests. The results indicated that McKittrick was truthful when she stated that Robinson had caused John Hill’s death and that Robinson was telling the truth when he said he had nothing to do with Hill’s murder.
Harris County Medical Examiner Joseph Jachimczyk testified John Hill had been shot three times. The fatal bullet struck Hill’s aorta causing death within five-to-ten minutes. Houston Police firearms examiner testified he matched a bullet found at Hill’s Mansion with a pistol found near the crime scene that had been stolen from a doctor by Marcia McKittrick who later gave the gun to Bobby Vandiver.
Bennett also produced evidence that Ash Robinson had taken out a private telephone number, which had been found written on a scrap of paper in Paulus’s handbag. DeGuerin then sought to portray McKittrick as a liar by calling Paulus to the witness stand, a strategy almost successful until Paulus deviated from the agreed testimony.
She had sought to portray herself as a respectable widow who had taken pity on McKittrick. However, after telling the court that she did not know Vandiver, but had taken McKittrick into her home after a friend of her late husband had introduced them in the spring of 1972, Paulus offered a comment on the difference between the two women’s lifestyles. She told the court “I liked [McKittrick] even though you could gather from her conversation that her life was just a little bit different from mine.”
Paulus claimed to know nothing of McKittrick’s past, but Bennett thought her comparison of the two women’s lifestyles was unusual if she was telling the truth. He knew that several years earlier she had been arrested on vagrancy and prostitution charges, and he sought a way to impeach her testimony. An officer who had arrested her, Lieutenant Allbright, then testified, casting doubt on her credibility, after which Bennett eventually persuaded Paulus’s daughter, Mary Jo Wood, to give evidence against her.
The relationship between mother and daughter had soured some years previously after Paulus had disapproved of a man Wood was dating, attempted to have them both killed, then had her daughter confined to a mental hospital. Wood had escaped from the institution and fled with the man to another state, where the couple married, and she was afraid to return to Texas. She agreed to testify only after Bennett assured her that the District Attorney’s office would ensure her protection while she was in Houston.
Bennett introduced Mary Jo Wood as a surprise witness. She went on to testify that when Wood was a young girl, Paulus had owned several properties on Galveston’s Post Office Street, a notorious red-light district, that were operated as brothels. She also said that Paulus had accepted payment from a man who wished to perform a sexual act with Wood. Wood testified that she and her mother met Joan Robinson Hill through Diane Settegast around 1963.
While at Robinson Hill’s home, the women also met Ash Robinson. Wood said that she and her mother occasionally sat in the Robinson box at horse shows. When Wood visited her mother in December 1970, she claimed she was told by Paulus of a call from Settegast, saying that Robinson wanted to hire someone to kill John Hill.
Diane Settegast testified that she had known the Robinson family since 1952 and had met Paulus in 1957 or 1958. She denied telling Paulus that Ash Robinson wanted someone to kill his former son-in-law. Settegast, who had stayed at Paulus’s home during the first murder trial for Hill, said she did have three telephone numbers for Ash Robinson; she believed she received the third number after the murder of John Hill and may have given the number in question to Paulus. She continued by saying that she had seen Paulus in the company of Ash Robinson only once; it was at Chatsworth Farm during the 1968 holiday season.
During closing arguments, Dick Deguerin said, “The prosecution has asked you to vote a conviction on a dispute between this woman and her daughter. Mary Jo Paulus Wood is a girl who hates her mother so much that she would bring lies before you - and that’s what they are – lies.” Referring to Marcia McKittrick, Deguerin said he “felt sorry for her.” “I don’t think she has much of a future. I don’t think she can live with herself after what she did. When she first had the opportunity to implicate Lilla Paulus and Ash Robinson she wouldn’t do it. Then she was offered immunity; she was offered freedom if she would say what Jerry Carpenter wanted her to say.”
Displaying bloody crime scene photos of Dr. Hill, Deguerin said, “They’re terrible. Awful!” “But you can look at these until the moon drops out of the sky and you won’t see a clue to connect Lilla Paulus with this terrible death.”
“I beg you not to be blinded by the prejudicial testimony; I beg you to judge this case on the evidence. If you have that doubt, that reasonable doubt that you must have, then that doubt belongs to Lilla Paulus. For God’s sake don’t surrender that. She is not guilty of this offense.”
ADA prosecutor Bob Bennett went straight to the point. He would cut Paulus’ jugular vein and let the blood of truth cry out from the grave.
“On September 24, 1972, John Hill ended his life by saving Connie’s. There was good and bad in John Hill, but he ended his life with courage.”
Bennett looked at Connie Hill and Myra Hill, John Hill’s wife, and mother. The women were sobbing. Bennett felt by doing this didn’t harm his case to turn a kind phrase in memory of the victim. It was time someone in this town did.
The prosecutor was barely heating up. He didn’t want to leave any doubt in the jury’s mind about Lilla Paulus’s guilt.
Next on the agenda, Bennett quickly picked up a bullet and the revolver used to kill Hill to demonstrate callous behavior.
“This was fired (bullet) through the barrel of this gun because Ash Robinson wanted it done, and because Lilla Paulus wanted it done for profit.”
Bennett held up a picture of John Hill.
“The coffin picture. Remember that? Does that show you what Ash Robinson thought and how his mind works?” Bennett alluded to the cutting of John Hill’s picture because the edges of the picture resembled a coffin. Bennett reminded the jury how apparently, Ash Robinson decided not to leave it to the law to decide John Hill’s fate. Deciding to take the last shot at Paulus, Bennett assembled photos of John Hill’s dead body on the table before the jury.
“Look at these,” Bennett said, “See what Lilla Paulus did. And she couldn’t do it with her own hands. She had to hire a depraved ski mask bandit.”
Lilla Paulus was convicted and given a 35-year sentence. Ash Robinson claimed that Paulus had loved his daughter and that her actions were born out of a sense of justice for avenging Joan Hill’s death. He continued to maintain his own innocence. Paulus subsequently appealed, and in October 1981, the Texas Court of Appeals reversed the conviction, ruling that there was not enough evidence to prove Paulus’ guilt and that McKittrick’s evidence was unreliable. This decision was then overturned by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in May 1982, reinstating the conviction and the original sentence. Paulus died of breast cancer at the Gatesville prison on May 16, 1986.
A selection of related stories:
This 50th-year Anniversary story about Houston’s River Oaks Contract killing of Dr. John Hill written by Clarence Walker is dedicated to Former Houston Police Homicide Detectives Jerry Carpenter (Deceased) and Joe Gamino now retired. A special dedication is also given to famed criminal defense attorney Richard “Racehorse” Haynes (Deceased), Former Prosecutor Bob Bennett (Deceased), I.D. McMaster (Deceased) Erwin Ernst (Deceased) and prominent criminal defense attorney Dick Deguerin.
NewsBlaze Senior Reporter Clarence Walker can be reached at [email protected]
NewsBlaze Senior Reporter Clarence Walker used several different public domain sources such as Wikipedia, Houston Newspapers, National News Media, and quoted material from the book Blood & Money to write and complete the 50th year anniversary involving the death of Dr. John Hill on September 24, 1972, and the preceded death of Joan Robinson Hill in 1969. Walker also covered other Houston murders.