GOOD HART -- Bold headlines blared the jarring news.
"Family of six found slain near Petoskey" read one newspaper. "Police follow cold trail after mass murderer seeking motives" screamed another.
The slayings of the Robison family at their cottage near Good Hart gripped northern Michigan during the summer of 1968. Forty years later, the case still baffles, frightens, intrigues.
"Those things aren't supposed to happen in northern Michigan, are they?" said Emmet County Sheriff Pete Wallin. "It's probably one of the largest unsolved mass murders in Michigan history."
A massacre like that, at a place like Good Hart, continues to captivate. To understand why, one must return to June 25, 1968, to the Lake Michigan cabin where a family spent their last summer.
The day before, they shopped for clothes.
A mundane outing, made newsworthy only because of the events that soon followed.
The year 1968 had been a tumultuous one. Assassins shot Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. The Vietnam War raged. But for the Robisons, summer beckoned. The family of six left their home in Lathrup Village, outside of Detroit, for a log-and-stone cottage in the northern woods.
The roughly 280-mile trip up Michigan's Lower Peninsula ends at Good Hart. The village is a picturesque speck on M-119, a curving, tree-tented road on which motorists still slow for lake below. In early June, a few flowering roadside trillium hang onto their bloom.
The Robisons' cottage was two miles north of Good Hart, between Harbor Springs and Cross Village in Emmet County. The cabin rested beneath a bluff, about 100 feet from the edge of Lake Michigan. A visitor must find the drive off M-119 and follow a narrow lane down the steep incline. Bends take the traveler south, then loop back to the north and dead-end near the cottage site. The remote retreat was called Summerset.
On June 24, 1968, the Robison family, settling by then into their summer home, went shopping. They spent $26 at The Clothes Post, the Petoskey proprietors later reported to a newspaper. Richard Robison and a couple of his sons lagged behind to look at fall fashions.
The sinister happenings of the next day would thrust the unremarkable excursion and every other facet of the Robisons' lives into the public spotlight.
On that day, a killer or killers crept up to the cabin and, with a spray of bullets, wiped out the family of six. The youngest child, Susan, 7, was bludgeoned with a hammer, news reports recounted. All of the Robisons were shot once in the head with bullets from a .25-caliber gun, and .22-caliber casings also were found.
A prosecution report compiled by Michigan State Police detectives described the scene. Richard Robison, 42 and gray-haired, lay on top of a hot air register in the hallway. His son Randall, 12, was stacked on top of his dad and covered partly with a lavender rug. Susan lay nearby. Visible in the hallway were the legs of Richard, 19, a student at Eastern Michigan University. His younger teenage brother Gary lay in a bedroom. A plaid blanket covered most of mother Shirley, 40, left in the living room in a way that made it appear she had been sexually assaulted, according to newspaper accounts.
It would be nearly a month before the brutality was discovered. Twenty-seven days later, cabin builder and caretaker Chauncey A. Bliss and an assistant checked out a neighbor's complaint of a foul smell in the area. They found the doors to the Robison cottage locked. When Bliss got the house opened, he spotted one of the bodies and phoned police at 3:15 p.m. on July 22, 1968.
Former Emmet County Prosecutor W. Richard Smith was among the men called to the scene.
"Every time a body was found in those days, I expected to be called," said Smith, who now lives near Harbor Springs.
Except this time, Smith was told it wasn't just one body, but "a bunch of them." The scene was horrifying, the odor overwhelming. Police strapped on masks to navigate the rancid rooms.
"I went in ... lasted in there maybe two or three minutes," recalled Smith. "I was just covered with flies, and the stench was unbelievable."
Police initially thought it might be a murder-suicide, but evidence threw out that theory. Some grew fearful about what a killer on the loose might do next.
"(It) rather calmed down after it became known that it was pretty much generally accepted that this was not some weirdo off the beach," Smith said. "For several weeks, it was really a lot of apprehension."
Tantalizing clues emerged, but the murderer remained elusive.
Whoever killed the Robisons gained a jump of almost four weeks on detectives -- weeks for memories to fade, bodies to decompose, weather to wash away any outdoor evidence.
Emmet County sheriff's officials and crews from the state police crime lab began the investigation. Autopsies were conducted at the county fairgrounds.
Richard Zink, the sheriff at the time, was camping at Yellowstone National Park when the bodies were discovered. A park ranger noted Zink's license plate and asked the sheriff if he knew about the massacre back in his home state, the Petoskey News-Review reported. Zink immediately returned home.
But from the start, the trail was "as cold as the winters in northern Michigan," an official told a newspaper reporter. The Robisons informed people they were soon headed out of state, so their long absence had not prompted distress.
Richard Robison worked in advertising and published an arts magazine, Impresario. Early news reports described the family as "wealthy," "close-knit" and "real straight." Later, accounts surfaced that matters might be more complex. A 1970 Detroit Free Press story revealed Robison's advertising company overcharged its biggest client Delta Faucet for ad placements. The article stated Impresario's circulation and number of pages increased substantially in the months prior to the slayings. Advertisements were placed in the magazine without approval from the companies, making it look like a "fat and prosperous" publication, the story said. It also reported Robison talked about a $100 million business plan for "computerized warehouse operations" and "airport cultural centers," but evidence of the venture was sketchy.
Police focused on Robison's business associate Joseph Scolaro. Investigators collected circumstantial evidence, including his access to weapons, that pointed to Scolaro, who gave police a convoluted alibi for the 11 or so hours when some believe he drove from downstate to Good Hart to kill the family.
"I have no question in my mind that Joe Scolaro either did it or knew who did it," said Smith, the former Emmet County prosecutor. "(There are) three things in any murder: Motivation, opportunity and the means to carry it out, and he was the only one of all the possible suspects who had all three of them."
Smith left his job as prosecutor shortly after the crime but interviewed Scolaro early in the investigation. Smith found the suspect to "continually" contradict himself.
Scolaro was never charged. An Emmet County prosecutor in 1970 declined to authorize any arrests, saying there was insufficient evidence. In 1973, Scolaro shot himself. He left a suicide note admitting he was a liar and a cheat but maintained he did not kill the Robisons.
Among the researchers who believe in Scolaro's guilt is Richard Wiles, a Petoskey High School teacher who delved into the case. He heard a number of other theories. The suspect list includes: The caretaker who discovered the crime, a deranged killer on the loose, members of organized crime, some patient at a mental asylum or John Norman Collins, convicted of killing one woman and linked to other murders of females in the Ann Arbor area at the end of the 1960s.
About five years ago, police attempted to revive the investigation by trying to test the DNA of hairs found on Shirley Robison, but the samples were too deteriorated, said Wallin, the current sheriff. The case remains open with a detective assigned to it.
Tips drizzle in, especially around anniversaries, and police follow them up, Wallin said.
"Will it ever be solved? There's always the possibility out there, but I believe most of the players are dead," he said.
Also gone is Summerset, the quiet cottage meant for family gatherings. The woodsy surroundings barely hints at its history. The cabin is removed, but, like the Robisons, remembered.
Forty years later
With a law and order ending still out of reach, the Robisons' story is far from its last telling.
It inspired books, stumped sleuths, and bared a family's private life. The 40th anniversary of the murders will spur more chatter.
"That's the real story: Why doesn't it go away?" said Carolyn Sutherland, owner of the Good Hart General Store.
She is bracing for a barrage of questions from curious summer tourists who pop into her store, a red, roadside building that anchors the village and functions as its post office, grocery, souvenir shop, real estate office and chicken pot pie retailer.
For many, the fascination started with the chilling facts.
"The one main thing about it that is so intriguing is that there were six people that were murdered in a cabin in 1968," said James Pecora, who wrote a book on the killings and is among those who don't accuse Scolaro.
An up-north family vacation is a common experience. It's all too easy to imagine a photogenic family, playing cards and enjoying a carefree summer at their isolated cottage, startled by the sound of gun shots.
"It's the kind of thing that we can relate to because it could happen," Sutherland said.
Relatable, she said, but "not understandable, that someone walks into a house and brutally murders an entire family."
Others are interested because they feel a personal connection to the case. Wiles, the Petoskey teacher, received a subscription to Impresario as a gift and "had a natural interest" in the magazine publisher's murder. He read Pecora's book "Dead End" last summer and it sparked his curiosity. Wiles talked to area residents, mailed 100 letters to people associated with the case and heard back from more than half of them.
"I found out that the locals were very affected by this. Some of them even shed tears about this because it was so close to their hearts," he said.
Now, his mission is to clear Bliss' name, the caretaker whom some pegged for the murders. Wiles calls that a "rural legend."
Tom Mair of Traverse City said he lived on the same street in Lathrup Village as the Robisons and was a friend of 12-year-old Randy. That's why he continues to seek out tips that might help solve the crime. Mair worked with the Silent Observer tip program and provides the tip line phone number (866) 774-2345 and other contacts on the Web site www.unsolvedhomicide.com.
"We've lost suspects. We've lost investigators. We've lost, perhaps, stuff we don't even know we've lost," said Mair.
Despite the elapsed time, Mair is an "optimist" who thinks someone may be alive who knows something useful. And, he understands why people remain fascinated with the decades-old case.
"It's a good mystery. It has a lot of characters and a lot of color," he said.
The Agatha Christie-like list of suspects, the romantic, rustic setting and the cliff-hanger plot lines make the Robisons' murders endure in a region rich with legends. For it's only a short distance from Good Hart to Devil's Elbow, where Odawa Indians believed spirits roamed in darkness.
"It just makes for great campfire talk in the north," Wiles said.
But the Robisons' story isn't a ghost tale or a detective novel. Theirs is a true story, awaiting an epilogue.