Houston's Darkest Hours

Murder and Intrigue in River Oaks Proves Truth Is Stranger than Fiction

This notorious case gripped the city for years, each twist and turn more unbelievable than the last.

By Abby Ledoux November 26, 2018 Published in the December 2018 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Image: Tim Lane

Though it sounds ripped from the pages of a dime novel, the salacious series of events that began with the unexplained illness and sudden death of 38-year-old Joan Robinson Hill on March 19, 1969, really happened in River Oaks. The notorious case gripped the city for years, each twist and turn more unbelievable than the last. It took true-crime writer Thomas Thompson 500 interviews and 450 pages to piece it together in his legendary 1976 tome Blood and Money.

The mysterious circumstances surrounding Joan’s death—a rocky marriage to her third husband, a doctor named John Hill, recently changed wills and contested divorce petitions, rumors of petri dishes and strange pastries, an inconclusive autopsy, and a swift burial—led her oil tycoon father, Ash Robinson, to believe Joan’s husband had fatally poisoned her. Robinson launched a crusade to hold Hill accountable, hiring private investigators, compiling his own evidence, and even exhuming his daughter’s corpse.

Over the next few years Hill would manage to marry twice more as the wheels of justice turned. He was indicted in 1970, becoming the first person in Texas ever charged with “murder by omission”—essentially, the crime of withholding lifesaving treatment. But his second wife, already his ex, inadvertently caused a mistrial by dropping the bombshell that Hill tried to kill her and had previously confessed to Joan’s murder.

On September 24, 1972, now on his third marriage and awaiting retrial, Hill was gunned down by a masked intruder at the Kirby Drive home he’d once shared with Joan. What appeared to be a robbery soon seemed more like a hit, and the suspected gunman, Bobby Wayne Vandiver, was charged with murder; both his girlfriend and the brothel madam the couple claimed had set up the murder were also arrested. Vandiver died before doing any time, but his accomplices went to prison.

Meanwhile, despite claims that Robinson was behind the hit, he was never arrested. The closest he came to judgment day was a $7.6 million wrongful death suit brought in 1977 by Hill’s third wife and his then-17-year-old son with Joan—Robinson’s own grandchild. On the stand, Robinson admitted to despising Hill but denied having him killed. “I never gave [the madam] one red penny at any time in any form, shape, or fashion,” he told the civil jury, which went on to acquit him.

In 1981 NBC produced a miniseries on the sordid saga, Murder in Texas, starring Farrah Fawcett as Joan, Sam Elliott as Hill, and Andy Griffith as Robinson.

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