Dr. John Hill, a prominent
Houston surgeon and alleged murderer of his wife, Joan Robinson Hill,
daughter of Houston oil millionare, Ash Robinson. Joan's and John's
deaths were the subject of two books and a movie, "Blood and Money" by
Tommy Tompson, "Perscription Murder" by Ann Kurth, "Murder In Texas"
starring Sam Elliot, Katharine Ross, Farrah Fawcett and Andy Griffith.
Dr. John Hill
One of Houston's most sensational and
complex murder cases began in 1969 with the mysterious death of
socialite Joan Robinson Hill, but the tangled tale was played out in the
Hill was the wife of one of the city's leading
plastic surgeons, Dr. John Hill, and was the daughter of a wealthy and
cantankerous resident of River Oaks, oilman Ash Robinson.
Joan Hill died on March 19, 1969. Dr. Hill was
charged with causing her death by withholding medical attention. He went
on trial in 1971, but it ended in a mistrial. Before Hill could be tried
again, he was shot to death at the door of his River Oaks mansion. The
reputed hit man, ex-convict Bobby Wayne Vandiver, in turn was shot to
death by police in Longview before he could be tried.
Two women, Lilla Paulus and Marcia McKittrick, were
the only people convicted in the doctor's death. They were accused of
arranging Dr. Hill's death, allegedly at the behest of Robinson.
Robinson, however, was never charged in the case. He died in 1987 in
Dr. John Hill
Plastic surgeon Dr. John Hill's wife Joan was big in
the local "horsey set". She died suddenly in 1969, and her father,
oilman Ash Robinson, was convinced that Hill killed her by poisoning her.
Robinson pressured prosecutors to indict him, but there was no evidence
of murder. They finally indicted Hill on the rarely used charge of "murder
by omission"; which meant he was accused of killing her by not getting
treatment in time to save her.
By the time the trial began two years later, Hill had
remarried and divorced Ann Kurth, the exwife of a well known lawyer
whose name still adorns a well known local law firm. She also thought
Hill killed Joan, so she agreed to testify against him.
She was also a drama queen who went out of control on
the witness stand. Prosecutors wanted to establish that Hill was prone
to violence, and Kurth was testifying about their frequent fights. When
she suddenly blurted out that Hill tried to choke her one night, and
told her that he killed Joan, the defense called for a mistrial and got
it. It seems that she'd never thought to mention that incident in any of
her pretrial testimony to the grand jury or in her meetings with
The retrial was set for the next year, during which
time Hill married again. One night in 1972 he answered the door at his
house in River Oaks and was shot dead. Police suspected Ash Robinson was
behind it but they could never find enough evidence to take to a grand
They tracked down two women, Marcia McKittrick, a
prostitute who drove the getaway car, and Lilla Paulus, an acquaintance
of Ash Robinson, and even proved that Paulus hired the gunman. But they
could never connect the dots and connect Robinson to the shooting. Old
Ash covered his tracks very very well.
Just about everybody connected with this case is dead
now, including the shooter, Bobby Vandiver. He was caught in east Texas,
but shot and killed by police before he could be brought to trial.
Ash Robinson died in Florida in 1987.
John Hill Trial: 1971
Motive: Failed Divorce, Outburst Leads To Mistrial,
Defendant: John Robert Hill
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Donald Fullenweider and Richard Haynes
Chief Prosecutors: Erwin Ernst and l.D. McMaster
Judge: Frederick Hooey
Place: Houston, Texas
Dates of Trial: February 15-26, 1971
SIGNIFICANCE: Sensational trials are not
uncommon in Texas, but the extraordinary sequence of events that
followed the death of Joan Hill made this a case without equal.
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.
Joan's father, Ash Robinson, a crusty and extremely
wealthy oilman, remained convinced that his daughter had been murdered.
Neither was he reticent about naming the culprit: John Hill. When, just
three months after Joan's death, Hill married long-time lover Ann Kurth,
Robinson threw thousands of dollars into a crusade to persuade the
authorities that his son-in-law was a killer. Noted pathologist Dr.
Milton Helpern, hired to conduct a second autopsy, cautiously
volunteered his opinion that Joan Hill might have been poisoned.
Under Robinson's relentless badgering, prosecutors
scoured legal textbooks, searching for a way to indict Hill. They came
up with the extremely rare charge of "murder by omission," in effect,
killing someone by deliberate neglect. Assistance came in the unexpected
form of Ann Kurth. Hill had ditched her after just nine months of
marriage. What Kurth told the district attorney bolstered their decision
to indict Hill.
Jury selection began on February 15, 1971. Because of
the defendant's undeniably handsome appearance, Assistant District
Attorney I.D. McMaster aimed for a predominantly male, middle-class
panel, one he thought likely to frown on a wealthy philandering
physician. His opponent, chief defense counsel Richard Haynes, quite
naturally did his best to sit jurors that he thought would favor his
client. In this first battle McMaster emerged a clear victor, securing a
jury made up of eleven men and one woman. Haynes wasn't that perturbed.
In a long and eventful career he'd overcome bigger obstacles, earning a
statewide reputation second to none for tenacity and legal acumen. Not
for nothing had he acquired the nickname "Racehorse." It promised to be
a memorable contest.
If Haynes had been discomfited by some of what Effie
Brown had to say, then he wanted nothing at all to do with the testimony
of Ann Kurth. Indeed, he believed that under Texas law she should not
even be allowed to take the stand against her former husband. But his
strident and lengthy objections on this point were overridden by Judge
Frederick Hooey after the prosecutors had unearthed yet another obscure
precedent, this time a case in which a wife had been permitted to
testify against her husband. Judge Hooey let it be known, however, that
he was uneasy with his own ruling, and had agreed only to Kurth taking
the witness stand on condition that he might stop her testimony at any
McMaster first led Kurth through her relationship
with Hill, then he asked if she had seen anything "unusual" at Hill's
apartment during the week of Joan Hill's illness. She told of entering
the bathroom and finding three petri dishes—the kind used in
laboratories—with "something red in them." Hill had come in and angrily
shooed her from the room, saying that it was "just an experiment." The
next day she also spotted some unusual pastries in the refrigerator.
Hill, again annoyed, told her not to eat them.
But 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 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?"
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."
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.
The retrial was set and adjourned another three times
until finally being put on the docket for November 1972. But before this
could happen, on September 24, 1972, John Hill, by now married for a
third time, was gunned down at his mansion in the exclusive Houston
suburb of River Oaks, in what had all the hallmarks of a contract
killing. After several months of investigation, police arrested three
people in connection with the case.
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.
This extraordinary case reached its conclusion in
1977 when Hill's surviving wife, Connie, and son, Robert, brought a
civil suit against Ash Robinson alleging that he had caused John Hill's
wrongful death. On this occasion 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.
Three trials failed to establish Dr. John Hill's
guilt or innocence but did provide one of the most remarkable legal
sagas of the 20th century. Had a jury been given the opportunity to hear
all of the available evidence against Hill, including his sudden and
ominous predilection for plying his wife with unaccustomed pastries in
the weeks before her death, in all likelihood he would have been
convicted of murder. Whether that verdict would have survived the Texas
Court of Appeals is something we shall never know.
SEX: M RACE: W TYPE: T MOTIVE:
MO: Boasted to second wife of
killing five victims, including first wife, his father, brother, and a
DISPOSITION: Mistrial in
wife's death, 1971; sh in apparent contract murder with second trial
pending, Sept. 24, 1972.
Joan Robinson Hill
This is one of the last public photos taken of John
Hill and Joan Robinson Hill
shortly before she died.