Texas Mansion Mystery: The life and murders of Joan Robinson Hill and Dr. John Hill

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Monday, May 15, 2023
Texas Mansion Murder
TEXAS TRUE CRIME: She was the glamorous River Oaks socialite who had it all. Joan Robinson Hill - striking, talented, and a national equestrian star. In the 1960's, she and her plastic surgeon husband, Dr. John Hill, were at the top of Houston society.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Before they were the center of one of the strangest murder mysteries in Houston history, they were a glamorous couple at the top of Houston society.

She was the glamorous River Oaks socialite who had it all. Joan Robinson Hill was a strikingly beautiful woman, and a talented national equestrian star. In the 1960's, she and her plastic surgeon husband, Dr. John Hill, were well-known in the highest circles.

Then it all came crashing down. The murders and conspiracies that swirled around the Hills would become one of the biggest stories to come out of Houston's fanciest neighborhood -- River Oaks.

"Oh, she was gorgeous. You know, the white hair, just very stunning. A very stunning woman," remembers Virginia Abercrombie, a longtime friend of Joan. "Everybody just loved her to death. The sweetest, nicest person I think I've ever known in my life."

Joan and Virginia often competed in the same horse show circuits. Virginia, just a teenager at the time, remembers looking up to Joan. The horsewoman and her surgeon husband lived an exquisite mansion on Kirby, just before the street curves toward downtown Houston. In its heyday, it was the scene for parties and musical evenings. John was an avid musician, and built an extraordinary music room on the second floor of the house. For a few years, it looked like perfection.

Well-known attorney Dick DeGuerin, who eventually played a crucial role in the murder saga, recalled the couple decades later. "Now when they first married, of course, John Hill was a society doctor and it was um, that month's wedding of the century, you know?"

"It looked like a match made in heaven," he said. "This beautiful high society horse woman, the daughter only daughter of a wealthy oil man and John Hill, handsome, dashing plastic surgeon at the top of his profession."

Houston socialite Joanne King Herring, now 93, remembers visiting the couple more than 50 years ago.

"I liked her," said Herring, who still regularly holds court throughout Houston.

"He was zero," she allowed, noting she was never that impressed with Dr. Hill. Still, when Joan Robinson fell ill in 1969 and died within days, murder didn't immediately cross Herring's mind.

"No, not at the time. We just thought it was normal. That she had had some great tragedy, some kind of stomach problem, because that's what Dr. Hill said."

But not everybody believed Dr. John Hill's story that his wife just fell ill. Joan Robinson Hill's father, the brash oilman Ash Robinson, began what many described at the time as a years-long effort to get his son-in-law indicted.

"If you want to get it in for somebody, you're going to find every, every little ounce of evidence and talk and hearsay to make them look bad," said Tom Kennedy, a long-time reporter in Houston who covered the Hill family saga. "And that's what he did. He had influence in the court. He had unbelievable influence with the grand jury."

It took several grand juries to get there, but in the spring of 1970, Dr. Hill was indeed indicted of murder by omission for the death of his wife Joan. This was an unusual charge because John Hill was not accused of directly killing Joan, but rather not providing adequate care of her.

A key prosecutorial theory was that the surgeon poisoned his wife using chocolate eclairs laced with deadly bacteria. Some believed he grew the bacteria in the home of his mistress, Anne Kurth. It was a blockbuster case that captivated Houston. It would end in a dramatic mistrial.

"He definitely got away with (murder,)" said Virginia Abercrombie. "I firmly believe that. Mm-hmm. He definitely got away with it. He got away with murder. Plain and simple. Absolutely. And I was so mad."

Abercrombie wouldn't be the only person upset about the mistrial; there were others. In September of 1972, as Dr. Hill and his then third wife Connie got home from a work trip, he opened the door to his mansion, someone inside pointed a gun, and shot him multiple times. Dr. John Hill died at his doorstep.

Neighbor and attorney Donn Fullenwider was first to arrive at the bloody scene.

"I can only see his body lying there in the blood and with his mouth and nose taped," said Fullenwider, who still remembers the day his client and neighbor died. "My vision is just looking at his face and seeing the blood and seeing, obviously he's dead. You know, I didn't know what to do."

The mystery of who killed Dr. John Hill would involve months of investigation by Houston police. The biggest initial break was that the gun was found in some bushes in the same River Oaks neighborhood. That weapon was traced to a doctor in east Texas who told detectives that a prostitute he hired stole his gun.

Those revelations led investigators to Dallas, and then later back to Houston. Eventually, three people including the prostitute, the shooter, and a purported madam, were all charged in the murder of John Hill. Dick DeGuerin, the attorney who ended up representing the purported madam, summed up the case.

"Bobby Vandiver was the guy that killed John Hill. Really no question about that. There was lots of evidence about that. And Bobby Vandiver was a bad guy. His girlfriend was Marcia McKittrick, who was from Dallas. When she came to town to Houston, she stayed with and knew (purported madam) Lilla Paulus. And so the police and the investigators put two and two together and figured out that Lilla got Marcia to get Bobby Vandiver to kill John Hill. That was the theory of the prosecution."

Getting to trial with these three defendants would be no easy task. And in the end, many people believe the mastermind behind the murder of Dr. Hill, was never indicted.

Even today, questions remain over who orchestrated the murder of the surgeon who was accused of killing his wife. We explore those twists and turns in the full episode of Texas Mansion Murder.

"Nowadays murder cases aren't nearly as interesting," said attorney Kent Schaffer, who was a young private investigator at the time. "Somebody shoots somebody over a dice game behind a building. So what? Back then, there was a whole different world around murders and this had everything you could possibly look for."

That's certainly the case here, and our ABC13 Texas True Crime special aims to take you through the whole saga.