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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Rich & Beautiful - a Texas Murder

In 1981 Farrah Fawcett did a made for TV movie called "Murder in Texas".  I remember watching it and loving every second of it!  Today's post will be about this murder mystery that still has folks talking in Houston over 40 years later.

This story has so many twists, turns and characters that it makes your head spin.  Forgive me - and feel free to correct me - should I overlook, skip or miss something.

Joan Robinson Hill was the only child of Ashton "Ash" Robinson, a very influential and rich Texas oil man and his socialite wife, Rhea Robinson.  Joan was beautiful, smart and quite the catch in the Houston social circuit.  She was an accomplished equestrian who often preferred the company of her horses to that of humans.  The fact that she was a very spoiled child is not in dispute.

At some point in the 1950's, Joan met John Robert Hill, a handsome plastic surgeon and they married in the late 1950's producing a son named Robert Ashton"Boot" Hill.

John Hill was certainly not born into Houston high society.  Or any other high society for that matter.  He had worked his way through college and then medical school.  He was, by all accounts, a very gifted and dedicated pianist.  Joan's father was never a fan of the man or the marriage and evidence would suggest that the feeling was mutual.

"On Tuesday, March 18, 1969, Joan Hill, a 38-year-old Houston, Texas, socialite, became violently ill for no readily apparent reason. Her husband, Dr. John Hill, at first indifferent, later drove her at a leisurely pace several miles to a hospital in which he had a financial interest, passing many other medical facilities on the way. When checked by admitting physicians, Joan's blood pressure was dangerously low, 60/40. Attempts to stabilize her failed and the next morning she died. The cause of death was uncertain. Some thought pancreatitis; others opted for hepatitis."

(Read more: John Hill Trial: 1971 - Motive: Failed Divorce, Outburst Leads To Mistrial, Retrial Unnecessary - Joan, Robinson, Kurth, and Death - JRank Articles

Ash Robinson would have his daughter's body exhumed twice in order to have private autopsies performed at his expense.  A total of 3 autopsies were performed.  All of them with varying results and conjectures.

It is now believed by many in the medical field, that Joan may well have died from Toxic Shock Syndrome.  However, in 1969 with the medical professionals unable to agree with a final diagnosis and TSS not even a known condition, the death looked mighty suspicious to a wealthy and powerful father grieving over the loss of his only child.  Especially since Ash Robinson hadn't wanted his daughter to marry John Hill to begin with. Another red flag was the fact that John Hill had a mistress and wanted to divorce Joan so he could marry his mistress.  However, Dr. Hill was bound by a pre-nup which clearly stated that should they divorce - he gets whatever he brought into the marriage, but nothing more.  

All the classic signs for murder were there.  Husband who came from nothing but had grown to love the "good life" and would do anything not to give it up.  Wife who thought they could "work it out" and refused to give her husband a divorce so he could marry his mistress, Ann Kurth.  Ann had issued an ultimatum.  "Marry me or leave me alone".  And the icing on the cake?  If he divorced Joan - he got nothing.  If she died - he got everything.

When John and Joan Hill bought the house at 1561 Kirby Drive in Houston, it had its own checkered past (and future).  The Hill's bought the house in 1966 for $80,000 and Robert Hill spent an additional $100,000 just on creating a music room for his piano. 

It was not, and reportedly had never, been a "happy house".  The previous owner died from cancer in the very room where Joan lay dying from her mysterious illness.  The owners before them, had all been embroiled in messy divorces and/or depression with some reporting they were on the brink of suicide when they sold the house.  As for the Hill's, according to Robert, they were a happy couple until about a year after they moved into the house on Kirby Drive.  Their troubles began when John started his affair and ended with both of their deaths.  Both deaths either began or ended in this house.

Connie Hill, John Hill's wife at the time of his death, and his son with Joan continued to live in the house after John's death until the middle 1980's.  At that time, Connie Hill remarried and Robert left for college so they sold the home to an attorney.  As near as I can tell, it has been sold at least twice since then.  All times to attorneys.

Within weeks after Joan's death, Robert Hill married Ann Kurth and moved her into the house at Kirby Drive.

Ann would later testify at John's trial that one night in a drunken rage, he admitted to her that he had regularly injected Joan with her own urine killing her.  She testified that he also admitted to her that he had also killed both his father and brother.

If he did indeed kill her by injecting her with her own urine, it would certainly explain why none of the autopsies were conclusive.  It would also explain why no known foreign toxins were found to suggest a poison.  I'm sure in 2011, doctors would be able to detect and possibly suspect this method of poisoning, but in 1969, they could not.  Our urine is nothing more than natural toxins that our body is disposing of in order to prevent our being poisoned.  If you take those concentrated toxins and reintroduce them into your body, you are in effect being poisoned to death quite naturally by toxins that are not foreign and thereby undetectable.  At least in 1969 medical standards.  

Joan languished completely bedridden for nearly a week before she was finally brought to a hospital and died.  She had been exhibiting flu-like symptoms for a week prior to becoming bedridden.  During this time, she told her father and others who inquired about her health that her husband was taking excellent care of her.  He was taking daily urine samples for testing and was injecting her twice daily with a vitamin cocktail that should make her feel much better soon.  However, that was not the case.

Other sources state that Dr. Hill had taken feces samples from very sick patients and had put them into a petri dish creating a deadly bacteria which he then injected into pastries which he fed to his wife.  At the trial, Ann Kurth-Hill testified that one day when she was at the apartment which John kept for his "second life", she had seen 3 petri dishes  in the bathroom.  When she asked John about them, he brusquely informed her that it was "just an experiment that he was working on."

Ash Robinson dedicated his time and considerable resources and influences to the goal of proving Dr. Hill murdered Joan.  He made daily calls to the prosecutor's office, the attorney General's office, Congressman and noted physicians.  He had Joan's body exhumed on at least two occasions for private autopsies.  He had the house and occupants on Kirby Drive under surveillance and even had a private investigator digging into John's past and family.

He had a stroke of luck when Ann decided to come forward with John's alleged drunken confession.  After only 9 months of marriage, John Hill had unceremoniously dumped Ms. Kurth and she was not happy about it.  He was finally able to convince the prosecutors to charge John Hill with the murder of his daughter.

After months of badgering, intercessions from noted lawmakers and persistence on the part of Ash Robinson, the prosecutors dug around until they found a Texas law that allowed them to use the extremely rare charge of "murder by omission," in effect, killing someone by deliberate neglect.

The trial began in February, 1971 and lasted 11 days before a mistrial was declared.   Of course, Ann Kurth-Hill testified.  One of the Hill's neighbors, Vann Maxwell, also testified that shortly before Joan became ill, she had told Vann that she was intending to file for divorce. 

 John Hill had filed for divorce in December, 1968 but had withdrawn his petition when it came to light that he would not only risk losing everything in a contested divorce but also his reputation and personal medical practice might severely suffer if it became public knowledge that he had participated in an affair.  He instead elected to enact a "reconciliation" with his wife.

The Defense attorneys had thought it highly inappropriate that Ann Kurth-Hill was allowed to testify at the murder trial of her ex-husband.  However, the presiding Judge decided to allow it with the condition that he could stop her testimony at any time.  

The main thrust of Kurth's testimony was given over to a vivid account of an incident in which, she said, Hill had attempted to kill her. It came just one month into their marriage. They were out driving when, Kurth claimed, Hill deliberately smashed her side of the car into a bridge.

"What happened next?" asked Prosecutor McMaster.

"He pulled a syringe from his pocket and … tried to get it into me." Kurth said that she managed to knock the syringe from Hill's hand, but that he then produced another hypodermic needle.

"And what did he do with that one, if anything?" queried MeMaster.

Kurth, who several times had to be admonished by the judge for her overly theatrical presentation, crescendoed, "He tried to get that syringe into me!"

Here the prosecutor speculated. "Was he attempting to treat you? Or harm you? Do you know?"

"Yes, I knew." Kurth hesitated, as if unsure what to say next, then blurted out, "Because he told me how he had killed Joan with a needle."

Defense attorney Haynes leapt to his feet, demanding a mistrial on grounds that the defense had not been given an opportunity to prepare themselves against a direct accusation of murder. (This was the first that Haynes had heard of any syringes). Judge Hooey, plainly worried by this turn of events, at first denied the request but did order a recess. During the adjournment, however, Hooey had second thoughts. The tenuous legal precedent by which Kurth had been allowed to testify, and then her foolhardy outburst, convinced him that if he allowed the trial to continue there were clear and palpable grounds for appeal. Accordingly, 11 days into the hearing, he granted the mistrial.

Interestingly enough, the jurors, when polled afterward, indicated that they were inclined to believe John Hill innocent. Ann Kurth's story hadn't impressed them at all.

Read more: John Hill Trial: 1971 - Outburst Leads To Mistrial - Kurth, Judge, Hooey, and Haynes - JRank Articles

The retrial was set and reset 3 times.  However, before the trial could begin, John Hill, now married for a third time to Connie (I can find no information as to her maiden name) was gunned down in the foyer of his house in what has always been believed to be a contract killing.  Of course, Ash Robinson was always the name that came up whenever anyone mentioned this.  Although no one ever officially linked Ash to the murder of John Hill, it should be noted that following this latest death in his family, Boot Hill cut all ties to Ash Robinson.  Rumor is rampant that Boot believed his grandfather had hired someone to murder John Hill.  Proof that these rumors were valid is the fact that in 1977 both Connie and Boot Hill brought a civil suit against Ash Robinson for the wrongful death of John Hill.

Ultimately, 3 people were arrested for the murder of John Hill.  Bobby Vandiver and girlfriend Marcia McKittrick admitted complicity, but claimed that they had been hired by a notorious Houston brothel madam, Lilla Paulus. When Vandiver was shot by police in an unrelated incident, McKittrick, promised a 10-year sentence, agreed to testify against Paulus. Additional testimony was provided by Paulus' own daughter. She told the court of overhearing her mother say, "Ash Robinson is looking for somebody to kill John Hill." Eventually Paulus was convicted and sentenced to 35 years imprisonment in 1975.

When the wrongful death civil suit was finally brought to trial after a nearly 10 year battle, Lilla Paulus' daughter declined to testify, leaving Marcia McKittrick as the main witness against Robinson. A polygraph examination indicated that she was being truthful in saying that Robinson had caused the death of John Hill. A similar test suggested that Robinson was being truthful when he said he hadn't. Given this welter of confusion, the jury acquitted Robinson of collusion in the death of his son-in-law, and the suit was quashed.

The movie that I watched back in the 1980's left no doubt in anyone's mind that John Hill had murdered his wife.  It further showed Ann Kurth as a victim in this story.  However, after researching the matter, I am of the conclusion that while John Hill may indeed have poisoned his wife, Ann Kurth was certainly no victim.

Did John Hill murder his wife or did he just seize an opportunity when it presented itself to him?  Perhaps John didn't murder his wife.  Perhaps she became sick with something that would lead to her death if left untreated and John simply elected not to get her medical treatment but to allow whatever ailment she had to consume her.  Then he is left a widow with their minor son to care for.  For a man desperate to get out of a marriage, this must have seemed to be a win-win situation for him.

As for the other players in this story, no one seems certain of Connie Hill's whereabouts but one thing is fairly obvious.  She apparently was a good person who believed in her husband's innocence and took care of Boot until he was an adult.

Robert Ashton "Boot" Hill supposedly went on to graduate law school becoming a criminal prosecutor.  Later he became Chief of Legislative Affairs for the Montgomery County State's Attorney's Office.

So is this story an unsolved mystery where the murderer gets away scott free, then the grieving father hires someone to murder him?  Or is this a case of a greedy doctor who wanted to marry his mistress without losing any of "his" worldly possessions and seizes upon an opportunity to become a widower when his wife contracts toxic shock syndrome?

Either way, it doesn't bode well for the character of Dr. John Hill.