Nov. 5 2008 12:00 AM

Michigan author pens skillful true-crime debut


The memory of death, especially violent death, has a long life. As time passes, that memory is often clouded, confused by details of events that did or did not happen.

That’s what Mardi Link, of Traverse City, learned when she decided to write “When Evil Came to Good Hart,” a book about the 1968 mass murder of a family of six vacationing at Good Hart, a small village on Lake Michigan’s shore between Harbor Springs and Cross Village.

Link remembers that summer. As a young girl, she and her family were on their way to their vacation home on Lake Huron when she heard the news on the radio. That memory was imprinted on her, but what she finds amazing is her parents have no recollection of it. Link may have a reason to remember that day. She was about the same age as Susan, 7, one of the six victims of the Robison family who were killed in their vacation home. “It was too close for comfort,” said Link during a recent interview.

Link was fascinated by the case and kept a manila file of newspaper articles on it as the investigation unfolded and ultimately failed to identify a murderer.

Link graduated from Michigan State University in 1984 with a journalism degree and moved to New Hampshire, where she worked for the Foster Daily Democrat as a police reporter, learning skills she used when she returned to Michigan.

Coming back to the state in 1990, she became an avid Court TV watcher, and her interest in the old case bubbled as the 40th anniversary of the killings approached. She opened her old manila folder stuffed with clippings and reread them. Since the case was never solved and, at the time, there was no book on it, she decided to write one.

Her first task was to get the case files from the Michigan State Police and the Emmet County Sheriff. She said Emmet County had so many requests for the information they had put it on a DVD. The State Police quickly sent a box of material. Link said the two police agencies provided more than 1,200 pages of documents and “some very gruesome photographs.”

The photographs were not unexpected. In the hot July of 1968, Detroit-area businessman Richard Robison, his wife, Shirley, and their four children were discovered brutally murdered. More than a month passed after the killings before they were discovered, and their bodies were badly deteriorated.

Link set out to read the file and put together a chronology of the case. She also made a point to avoid the several books on the case that began appearing, including “Dead End” by James Pecora, of Lansing. “I didn’t want to read anything that prejudiced the case,” she said.

Link said the biggest challenge was the passage of time. “People were dead,” she said.

At the time of the murders, theories about the killer or killers abounded. Some thought a local did it, others said a business associate of Robison’s was behind it, and some believed a serial killer was the culprit.

Link said she had heard all the theories, but she wanted to come to her own conclusion based on the evidence. That evidence was scant, due to what Link’s dad called the “perfect storm of a murder investigation.”

First, Link said, the sheriff was on vacation at the time (his first in eight years), leaving an inexperienced under-sheriff to investigate the case. The killings were also done in a remote location. People were tracking in and out, and it was already a “cold case” when it was discovered. “There was no physical evidence except a bloody footprint and some ballistic tests,” Link said.

Link’s own investigation did not lead her to any startling conclusions, but rather confirmation that Robison’s business partner, Joseph R. Scolaro III, who committed suicide in 1973, was the killer. The most telling piece of evidence was the ballistic testing, which showed ties to a type of weapon used at a shooting range Robison frequented.

So why isn’t the case closed? Link and others believe someone helped Scoloro with the murders, however, she said it’s likely that person is also dead. Link also said although there is still tremendous interest in the case, some people were reluctant to talk with her.

She recalls one person asking, “Why can’t you leave well enough alone?” Link, who has lived in Michigan most of her life, was able to gain the trust of most of the locals, who helped her fill in details and color that were not in official reports.

One of the more unusual suspects in the murders was John Norman Collins, who is serving a life sentence for the serial murders of several coeds in the Ann Arbor area during the late 1960s. There was some evidence that Collins knew one of the Robison siblings. His possible involvement was fictionalized in Judith Guest’s 2004 book “The Tarnished Eye.” Link knew of the book, but chose not to read it before writing her own.

While approaching a deadline during the writing, Link sequestered herself in the family cottage for a month. Going stir crazy, she looked in the Alpena newspaper for something to do. She found a discussion group at the local library was focusing on Guest’s book. Mistakenly thinking Guest, who is noted for her book “Ordinary People,” was to be at the event, Link shuffled off to it. At the event she admitted to writing a book on the Robison murders and met an expert on the case who was able to help her on the project. A year later, she returned to the same library to do a reading and discuss her own book. Sitting in the front row was none other than Guest, who summers in northern Michigan.

Like others, Guest was probably impressed by Link’s skillful work. Although it is classified as a true-crime novel, Link’s book is as good as any of the police procedurals being written in the mystery genre. Link is now researching another long-ago unsolved murder in Michigan that involves nuns, priests and the sanctity of the confessional.

Mardi Link
Author of “When to Good Hart” 7:30 p.m., Nov. Schuler Books 1982 Grand River Okemos FREE (517) 349-8840 www.schulerbooks.com