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Joan and John Hill Murder Investigations

KPRC-TV

Sound | 1970

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  •  Activities at a Houston-area horse track and stable. Joan Robinson Hill began riding horses at the age of four. She continued the sport well into adulthood, winning some 500 trophies and several national titles.  
  •  Dr. Joseph Jachimczyx, medical examiner for Harris County, shares his findings following a second autopsy of Joan’s remains. Despite Texas law mandating an autopsy for any person who dies within 24 hours of admission to a hospital, Sharpstown General released Joan’s body to a funeral within four hours of her passing. Her remains embalmed, the hospital pathologist was unable to conclusively determine a cause of death. Joan’s father, Ash Robinson, hired Dr. Milton Helpern, chief medical examiner for New York City, to conduct a more thorough examination. Per a grand jury request, a team of 12 doctors including Helpern performed a third autopsy in August 1969. Jachimczyx subsequently released this report, identifying an indeterminate “fulminating infectious process” as the cause of Joan’s death. Helpern’s final report, issued in April 1970, cited Dr. John Hill’s home remedies and delay in seeking specialized medical attention for his gravely ill wife as contributing factors to her death.  
  •  Though still unable to determine a cause of death, Jachimczyx recommends a grand jury investigation based on the suspicious circumstances surrounding Joan’s passing 
  •  Jachimczyx talks to reporters outside a grand jury hearing 
  •  Harris County District Attorney Carol Vance 
  •  Reporters surround Joan’s husband, John, and his defense team. A grand jury was considering whether to indict the Houston plastic surgeon for his wife’s murder.  
  •  Defense attorney Donn Fullenweider 
  •  Defense attorney Richard "Racehorse" Haynes. Haynes rose to national prominence after winning acquittals in a series of high-profile cases throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In addition to John Hill, he is also known for representing oil heir T. Cullen Davis and Morganna Roberts, also known as the "Kissing Bandit."  
  •  John comments on being the subject of a grand jury investigation 
  •  Millionaire oilman Davis “Ash” Robinson. Robinson was convinced John poisoned his daughter, pressuring the district attorney to present the case to three grand juries. The first retired without indictment. The second ordered the exhumation of Joan’s body. And the third indicted John for murder by omission for willfully withholding lifesaving medical care.  
  •  Ann Kurth awaits to testify before the grand jury. John was having an affair with Ann at the time of Joan’s death. The couple married three month’s after her funeral. John divorced Ann shortly before the grand jury probe, freeing her to testify against him. In 1976, Ann published her version of events in the book Prescription Murder. The book served as the basis of the 1981 made-for-television movie, Murder in Texas, starring Farrah Fawcett.   
  •  Press gaggle with Haynes and his client. Following a weeks-long probe, the grand jury indicted John Hill on the charge of murder by omission on May 22, 1970. It marked the first time the omission statute had ever been used in Texas. John went to trial in February 1971. It ended in a mistrial after Ann Kurth testified that John had confessed to poisoning Joan and attempted to kill her. 
  •  Haynes talks to reporters about another client, Aureliano Silva. Silva was charged with the November 17, 1970, murder of June Gleason. His first trial ended with a hung jury on January 31, 1972. Lasting more than 13 weeks, it was the longest criminal trial in Harris County history at the time.  
  •  Outside the courtroom during the 1975 trial against Lilla Paulus for her role in the murder of John Hill. Following the initial mistrial in February 1971, a new trial against John Hill was scheduled for November 1972. On September 24, two months before court proceedings could recommence, the plastic surgeon was gunned down in his River Oaks home in an apparent robbery attempt. Police determined John’s slaying was actually a murder-for-hire, identifying Bobby Wayne Vandiver as the alleged triggerman and Marcia McKittrick and Paulus as his accomplices. After evading trial, Vandiver died in a shootout with Longview police in April 1974. 
  •  John’s third wife, Connie, with an attorney 
  •  Vance explains his reasons for not bringing charges against Ash Robinson. During trial, McKittrick testified that Paulus told her that it was Robinson who wanted his former son-in-law dead. With no corroborating evidence, prosecutors felt they did not have enough to convict Robinson, and no case was filed against him. The oilman moved from Houston to Pensacola, Florida, in 1979 and passed away five years later.  
  •  Paulus consults with her attorney, Dick DeGuerin 
  •  Most likely Harris County Assistant District Attorney Bob Bennett 
  •  Process server Frank Clauder describes his attempts to serve a subpoena to Robinson 
  •  Outside Robinson’s River Oaks home 
  •  A closer look at his notice for Robinson to appear in court as a witness in the trial against Paulus 
  •  Clauder relates his encounter with Robinson’s wife, Rhea 
  •  Bennett comments on the outcome of the trial. The jury returned a verdict of guilty against Paulus in connection to the death of John Hill on February 28.  
  •  Paulus declines to comment, while DeGuerin relays his plan to appeal 
  •  On March 10, Paulus was sentenced to 35 years in prison. She died in the women’s prison in Gatesville in 1986, never naming the person who ordered the hit. McKittrick received a ten-year jail sentence, serving five, for her role as getaway car driver.  
 
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On March 19, 1969, socialite and champion horsewoman Joan Robinson Hill passed away at Sharpstown General Hospital in Houston. She was only 38 years old. The suspicious circumstances leading up to her death and the inability of multiple autopsies to sufficiently determine a probable cause prompted three grand jury investigations, the first-ever indictment for murder by omission in Texas, years of scandalous intrigue, and possibly a murder-for-hire plot. Joan Hill was the daughter of millionaire oilman Ash Robinson. She married Dr. John Hill—later to become one of the city’s leading plastic surgeons—in 1957. The couple lived near Joan’s parents in the upscale Houston neighborhood of River Oaks, and had one son, Robert, nicknamed “Boots.” After 11 years of marriage, John asked Joan for a divorce. At his daughter’s request, Robinson pressured his son-in-law towards reconciliation. The following March, Joan was stricken with a mysterious illness. Her condition worsened over several days, until John finally took her to Sharpstown General. Unlike the nearby Texas Medical Center, the suburban hospital lacked an emergency room and intensive care unit. Joan passed away 15 hours later. Contrary to state laws requiring an autopsy in such a situation, the hospital released Joan’s body to a funeral home for embalming before an examination could occur, hindering the ability to determine a cause of death. Robinson was certain his former son-in-law had poisoned his daughter, hiring his own medical examiner and compelling the district attorney to call three grand jury investigations. With the third, concluded on May 22, 1970, John Hill was indicted on charges of murder by omission for his alleged intentional withholding of lifesaving medical care. The case went to trial in February 1971, ending in a mistrial following unsubstantiated testimony from John’s second wife, Ann. On September 24, 1972, two months before the second trial began, John was gunned down in his River Oaks mansion. Despite initial appearances of a robbery attempt, law enforcement soon discovered that the doctor’s killer was actually a hired assassin. Only alleged accomplices Marcia McKittrick and Lilla Paulus were convicted of the crime. Triggerman Bobby Vandiver died in a shootout with Longview police in 1974. At trial, McKittrick testified that Paulus had identified Robinson as the one who ordered the killing, presumably to avenge his daughter Joan’s death. Unable to corroborate the claim, prosecutors never filed any criminal charges against him. Connie Hill, John’s third wife, later sued Robinson for plotting the murder, but the jury declined to award damages. By 1980, some officials speculated that Joan’s suspicious illness and death was actually caused by toxic shock syndrome. This film from Houston’s KPRC-TV captures an assortment of news footage related to the 1970 grand jury investigation into John Hill and the 1975 murder trial of Lilla Paulus. The dramatic saga became the subject of two books, Thomas Thompson’s Blood and Money and Ann Kurth’s Prescription Murder. The latter served as the basis for a 1981 made-for-television movie, Murder in Texas, starring Farrah Fawcett as Joan.