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May 22, 2003

Emmet County detectives revive investigation of 1968 mass murders

Record-Eagle staff writer

      PETOSKEY - The investigation into one of the most grisly unsolved mass murders in Michigan history has been revived, thanks to the discovery of some forgotten evidence and the interest of two Emmet County detectives.
      Emmet Sheriff Peter Wallin said the investigation into the 1968 Robison family murders in northern Emmet County got new life when a box of police documents related to the case was found.
      The box was in the back of a closet in former sheriff Jeffrey Bodzick's office. It was discovered when the office was cleaned out following Bodzick's death last July 21.
      Sheriff's Det./Sgt. Bobra Johnston began to pore through the hundreds of documents, as well as other evidence and investigative reports stored in a departmental vault. Det./Sgt. Gwen White-Erickson of the Petoskey post of the Michigan State Police has also assisted.
      The two detectives met with the heads of DNA, fingerprint and ballistics investigation at the state police crime lab in Grayling Tuesday, going through the details of the case.
      Those details are horrific. Thirty-five years ago in July, a caretaker called police after smelling the unmistakable stench of rotting corpses coming from inside the family cottage of Richard Robison, near Good Hart north of Harbor Springs.
      "It was putrid," said Johnston. "The original officers on the scene said they were met with a wall of flies."
      Inside, police found the decomposing bodies of Robison, 42; his wife, Shirley, 40; sons Richard Jr., 19; and Randall, 12; and daughter Susan, 8.
      Each had been shot in the head with a .25-caliber handgun. Susan had been bludgeoned with a hammer. Shirley Robison appeared to have been sexually assaulted. Police later determined the murders had occurred 27 days earlier, on June 25, 1968.
      Johnston said investigators now hope to obtain DNA evidence from three pubic hairs found on the body of Shirley Robison. They've been told by crime lab experts, however, that it's a long shot.
      "Even if our DNA isn't salvageable, Gwen and I still intend to go to prosecutor Robert Engel and ask him to close (the case), based upon the evidence," Johnston said.
      That evidence, Johnston said, points to the late Joseph Scolaro, a partner of Richard Robison's in their Detroit-area advertising business.
      Though there was much circumstantial evidence tying Scolaro to the murders, he was never charged.
      That evidence included that Scolaro had argued by telephone with Richard Robison the day of the murders; that for 11 hours later that day Scolaro was unaccounted for; and that he owned the types of handgun and rifle implicated in the murders.
      "The state police made this case on ballistics evidence 34 years ago," Johnston said.
      Then-Emmet Prosecutor Donald Noggle kept the case open, however. Johnson speculated that he was seeking accomplices.
      "This scene was so horrific, it was hard to believe one person could have done all this damage," she said.
      Five years later Scolaro took his own life with a handgun, claiming in his suicide note he was innocent of the murders. The Robison murder case then went cold.
      Johnston said she believes Scolaro could have acted alone.
      "The first shots came through the window - a small-caliber rifle, no exit wounds from the bodies," she said. "I think the family was so stunned, the next thing you know, he is inside the house, shooting people. There was only one set of bloody footprints in the cottage."
      Most compelling, Johnston said, is a summary of the evidence made by a state police investigator, David Myre, found in that long-forgotten box in the sheriff's department closet. In it, Myre synthesizes the hundreds of items of evidence and hundreds of pages of reports into a concise case summary.
      Johnston credited Al Koski, a retired Royal Oak journalist who covered the murders decades ago and has remained interested in them ever since, for helping keep the cases alive.
      "He's been up here several times, coming up on his own, just to touch base," she said. "He is just a well of information."
      Johnston and Wallin said they remain hopeful that the 35-year-old murder mystery can be closed soon. Working on it along with current crimes has proven a challenge, Johnston said.
      "We are so busy that this case only gets an hour here and an hour there," she said. "We have too many victims who are currently alive and demand our attention."

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