The Mysterious Death of a Socialite and Subsequent Murder of Her Plastic Surgeon Husband
Houston socialite Joan Robinson Hill died under suspicious circumstances in 1969. Three years later, a man gunned down her husband in a possible murder-for-hire.
Joan Robinson Hill was born on February 6, 1931, and adopted by David Ashton “Ash” Robinson and Rhea Robinson, who raised her in the Houston area. She was the couple’s only child. Ash Robinson was a prominent Texas oilman, and therefore, his daughter never lacked for anything. He once shelled out nearly $30,000 for a saddle horse for her.
Joan was a beautiful and independent young woman who excelled at equestrian sports, earning seven world amateur five-gaited grand championships. She was considered one of Texas’s best horsewomen and often pictured on the local newspaper’s society pages.
At the age of 26, Joan married Dr. John Robert Hill in a fairy-tale poolside wedding at her parents’ home in September 1957.
John graduated from Baylor University’s College of Medicine in Houston and pursued a career as a plastic surgeon earning a staggering $150,000 salary, equivalent to over $1 million today. His social status rose to a prominent level after he married Joan.
The couple eventually had one son, Robert. The Hills lived in a large, four-bedroom home at 1531 Kirby Drive in Houston’s upscale River Oaks District.
On Sunday, March 9, 1969, Joan’s two friends — Diane Settegast and Eunice Wollen — arrived at the Hill home for an extended visit. Joan was furious because her husband had not come home the night before.
John returned later that night and presented her and her friends with French pastries and four small china plates as if making amends. However, he did not allow the guests to choose their preferred delicacy but instead handed them each one. Joan commented that her husband’s “cream puff was the most alluring of the treats.” But John served her a chocolate eclair instead.
The consequent night John did the same thing with the pastries — gave each of the guests one and his wife a chocolate eclair.
On Saturday, March 15, 1969, Joan overslept and apologized to her guests. Her husband had given her a pill the night before that knocked her out.
The next day, she had fallen ill and spent most of the day in bed. John told the guests that he was going to buy medication to give her a shot.
Two days later, Joan was hospitalized. A nurse took her blood pressure at the hospital and discovered it was dangerously low, with a 60/40 reading. By late afternoon, her kidneys were failing, and she passed away at 2:30 a.m. on March 19, 1969. She was 38 years old.
In his 1976 book, Blood and Money, Thomas Thompson wrote, “Texas law required an autopsy to be performed by the country coroner on any person who dies in a hospital within 24 hours of admission. The coroner must rule on the cause of death before releasing the body for embalming and burial.” In this case, the law might have been ignored or deliberately broken.
Pathologist Arthur Morse was surprised to find Joan’s body had already been embalmed, making his job more challenging because he could not test blood and other vital fluids. He completed a preliminary microscopic examination of tissue flakes from the body, but it did not show an exact cause of death.
The examination showed some mysterious inflammation that had spread throughout the body, although its source and exact nature unknown. Arthur decided that a probable cause of death was pancreatitis.
Several months later, officials exhumed the body. A team of physicians performed an autopsy. Their results showed Joan had died of meningitis with septicemia blood poisoning.
Ash Robinson never believed his daughter died from an illness. She was a healthy young woman and in great shape from riding horses. She became ill soon after eating French pastries served to her by her husband. Most importantly, John had taken his wife to Sharpstown Hospital, which did not have an intensive care unit at the time. She was treated by a doctor unfamiliar with her medical history. The hospital was farther away than the established one, 15 miles from the Hill’s residence.
Ash consulted several prominent physicians in the Houston area, and none believed she died of an illness. Ash believed John murdered his daughter by poisoning her during a specific period. Joan had mentioned divorce, most likely because of John’s numerous affairs.
What happened next further raised Robinson’s suspicions.
On May 26, 1969 — less than two months after his wife’s death — Hill obtained a license to marry Ann Kurth, with whom he was having an affair while married to his first wife. The marriage was short-lived, and Hill and Kurth divorced on March 12, 1970.
By 1971, Harris County prosecutors had developed a solid case against John and accused him of murder by omission — causing his wife’s death by delaying medical treatment.
The trial ended in a mistrial after Ann testified that John told her he killed Joan and tried to kill her on three separate occasions.
In June 1971, John married for a third time to Connie Loesby, a woman described as “genteel” and “ladylike, and the complete opposite of his first wife.
Before John could stand trial for the second time, he was gunned down in the same home he had shared with Joan.
A Deadly Night in September
On Sunday, September 24, 1972, John and Connie Hill returned to Houston from a national meeting for plastic surgeons in Las Vegas.
Before the couple arrived home, ex-convict Bobby Wayne Vandiver forced his way into the Hill’s River Oaks home, tied up John’s mother and son, and left them on the dining room floor. He then struck the boy in the head and Mrs. Hill in the throat, fracturing her larynx.
Fifteen minutes later, the Hills returned home. When the doctor opened the front door, Bobby was waiting in the entryway, with a pillowcase over his head. John lunged for the intruder, and Connie ran to a neighbor’s house for help. As she ran, she heard gunshots — Bobby had shot and killed her husband.
Bobby repeatedly said that he was committing a robbery. John’s defense lawyers called it a “professional hit” and pointed the finger at Ash; they believed he hired Bobby to murder John in retaliation for Joan’s death.
In May 1974, Longview police shot and killed Bobby in a cafe in an unrelated incident before he could stand trial for John’s death. Two accomplices — Lilla Paulus and Marcia McKittrick — were the only people convicted of John’s murder. They were accused of planning his death allegedly at Ash Robinson’s request. Ash denied the allegations and was never charged with the murder.
Connie Hill was awarded custody of Robert, who was eight years old when his mother died. John Hill’s family later filed a lawsuit against Ash, accusing him of hiring Bobby to murder John. However, a judge ruled that Ash had no part in the killing of his former son-in-law. He died in 1985.
Author Thomas Thompson penned the book Blood and Money about the tragic story. The “Abilene Reporter-News” reported on Oct. 24, 1976, that “it took Thompson 18 months to gather his research, interviewing around 500 people, including law enforcement officials, medical professionals, horse show people, and Robert Hill.”
Murder in Texas, a television movie, aired in 1981 based on the Hill tragedies. It starred Farrah Fawcett as Joan Robinson Hill, Sam Elliott as her husband, and Andy Griffith as Ash Robinson.
Robert Hill resides somewhere on the east coast.
Thompson, Thomas. Blood and Money. 1st ed. Doubleday, 1976.