The Green Bay Northwoods Killings — Ch 19
Chapter 19: Never be afraid to raise your voice against injustice
It has been a long road to get here. I started writing this story several years ago, and went through a series of trials in finishing it. My personal life went through a dramatic change recently, and I’ve just settled-in to a new life in a different place, across the country. The whole process has taken months, but it has never been far from my mind that this story needs an ending.
Some might say that ending came when Ray Vannieuwenhoven was convicted of the murders of David Schuldes and Ellen Matheys. One could surely argue that this story was over when Ray died in prison, shortly after he was convicted.
I would argue that this story is not over.
This story lives, because there are still mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters who wonder what happened to their loved ones. There are parts of this tale still to tell. There are areas of this investigation where technology has yet to be applied.
And… there are old, long forgotten stories that deserve another look, with Ray Vannieuwenhoven in mind.
A Massacre at Blisswood
The year was 1968, and just across Lake Michigan by boat, near a Michigan place known as Good Hart, authorities found a horror show. At the Blisswood resort, situated at the base of a bluff on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, investigators found 6 members of the Robison family shot to death inside their cottage.
According to the Battle Creek Enquirer, July 23rd, 1968:
The bullet riddled bodies of six members of a well-to-do Detroit-area family were found in their cottage at a private resort Monday, touching off an intensive manhunt for their slayer. "It was mass murder," said Lieut. Co. Melvin Kaufman, deputy director of the Michigan State Police, who dispatched the department's crime laboratory crew to this northwest Lower Michigan resort community.
In a terrible foreshadowing of the John List killings in 1971, and the Careaga murders in 2017, the slaying was of the worst possible variety — an entire family killed, including innocent children.
The victims were identified as Richard C. Robison, 42, of Lathrup Village; his wife, Shirley, 40; their sons, Richard, 19, Gary, 16, Randall, 12, and daughter, Susan, seven. Police said preliminary investigation indicated the victims had been dead a month.
Richard Robison was an artist and publisher who ran Impressario magazine, an art publication, and operated an advertising agency from Lathrup Village, Michigan, near Detroit. The Robisons owned a private plane, two cars, and traveled often, so nobody considered it odd that they had not been heard from in about a month during the summer of 1968. In fact, Chauncey P. Bliss, owner and caretaker of the resort, said the Robisons had a vacation on their schedule.
He said the family had not been missed since they told him June 23 that they were leaving on a vacation trip to Florida. Bliss said he assumed they had left as planned.
The Petoskey News Review reported:
No one missed them until the odor of their decomposing' bodies drew a complaint from their next door neighbor, Mrs. Russell Moore of Coldwater.
Responding to the report of a foul odor, the owner’s son, Chauncey A. Bliss went to investigate. The media would later report Bliss thought perhaps a raccoon had died and was decomposing somewhere on the property.
C. A. Bliss, co-owner and caretaker of Blisswood, a Lake Michigan resort located near the little community of Good Heart, found the bodies late Monday afternoon. Bliss said the Robison family's cottage was in a secluded part of the resort.
The Battle Creek Enquirer reported:
The family's two cars were found in the driveway of the cottage area and their private plane was at Pellston Airport. [...] Bliss told Emmet County Sheriff's officers that he spotted one body when he opened the door to the cottage. He hurriedly locked the door and summoned police. They found one body in the living room, three in a hall off the living room and another alongside a bed. Robison's body was found in a passageway leading to a loft. Emmet County Sheriff's officers sealed off the cabin area as they explored the possibility that one or two of the victims might have been shot outside the cottage and been dragged into it.
Within a day, the police had concluded that the murder of the Robison family was a deliberate, premeditated act. According to the Traverse City Record Eagle, July 27, 1968:
Business associates of Robison, 42, a commercial artist, advertising executive and publisher of an arts magazine, told authorities they knew of no enemies who would kill the distinguished-looking father, his wife, Shirley, 40, their sons Richard, 19, Gary, 17, and Randall, 12, and their daughter Susan, 8. "We don't have much to work with, and the trail is as cold as the winters in Northern Michigan," Emmet County Undersheriff Clifford Fosmore said.
The Robison family was buried within days and local talk was already at a fever pitch. Details of the crime scene and the murders themselves began to trickle out.
All evidence found in the three-bedroom cottage was turned over to the State Police Crime Laboratory at Lansing. While authorities awaited a report on the analysis of the evidence, they methodically sought to trace every prisoner who had escaped in recent years from Camp Pellston, [a] prison camp located only six miles from the Robison cottage. The evidence in Lansing indicates that the family was slain with both .22 caliber and .25 caliber guns. Investigators pointed out, however, that one killer could have used two guns, and this evidence in itself did not prove there was more than one slayer.
Things seemed as expected, and simultaneously, totally out of the ordinary. The crime scene reflected a family getting ready to go on vacation, interrupted by a killer bent on murder.
Inside the home, investigators found one suitcase packed with men's and women's clothing lying open on a bed. Other suitcases were in a loft, empty, the children's clothing was in closets and dresser drawers, they said. Playing cards were scattered on a living room table, indicating a game of double solitaire had been interrupted.
Investigators found Mr. Robison’s body, and when they checked the wealthy man’s wallet, it was empty. It was an inexplicable contradiction that, if the killer or killers were bent on robbery, they left behind thousands of dollars worth of valuables, including camera gear Mr. Robison had gathered for his forthcoming trip.
In the present day, it’s rare to see the authorities admit they’re stumped, ever, but it was more common back in the day, and Michigan investigators said so. Under the headline “Police Still Seek Motive in Emmet Mass Slaying,” the Petoskey News Review reported:
There are many unanswered questions in the case, the biggest mystery ever in the north-woods around this two-pump town in the heart of Northern Michigan's gun country. "We don't know anything," said Emmet County Prosecutor W. Richard Smith. "We don't know how it was done… why it was done... or, for sure, exactly when it was done. And we certainly, don't know who did it.”
"All we know is it was done."
Why was Mrs. Robison's body covered with a blanket?
"I wish I knew. But I honestly don't know," Smith said. "It's like everything else in this case, we're totally mystified.
The fact that two guns were used added mystifying questions to the crime.
"We're, frankly, baffled," said Undersheriff Clifford Fosmore, who is heading the investigation. "Our leads, what few we have, haven't taken us anywhere. We've done a lot of legwork, and we've got a lot more to do." Authorities aren't sure how many people were involved. They theorize that at least two guns, one .22 caliber and one .25 caliber, were used. But no guns have been found. Fosmore pointed out that one man could have used both guns since the .25 caliber was a pistol. He said the .22 could be a rifle or pistol.
By August 10th, it had been six weeks since the murders and the Detroit Free Press covered the case, in a story titled “Killer Sets Grisly Riddle in the Playground of the Rich.” The investigation was not looking good.
"We have no suspects, no motive and we continue to run down all tips and leads with negative results," Sheriff Zink said.
There were further details of what was found at the crime scene still trickling out, too:
Two large pools of blood on the living room floor indicated that at least one other person had fallen there. But Mrs. Robison's body was the only one found in the room. The others, Robison, his youngest son, Randy, 12, and his only daughter, Susie, 8, were piled in a hallway. In a bedroom were the bodies of the other two sons, Richard, 19, a sophomore at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, and Gary, 17, a senior at Southfield-Lathrup High School.
In hindsight, the more we learn about the executions of the Robisons, the more confusing the case gets.
Sheriff Zink is working on two different theories — that it was the work of a deranged individual in the area, or the work of somebody who knew the Robisons and planned it. John Sweet, a parole officer who lives in Petoskey, says: "It was an execution. There's no doubt about it." Sweet leans toward this idea because everyone except Susie was shot execution-style, in the back of the head. He believes that Susie was the only one who tried to run. But others point out that some members of the family besides Susie were shot in the body as well as the head. And since at least three of the bodies were dragged around, it is unclear where each was shot.
It would later be reported that little Susan had also been mercilessly bludgeoned with a hammer.
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This is the moment in this story where I’m gonna catch you up, because we could go through every detail from every media report from July of 1968 to the present day but it wouldn’t change the fact that the execution-style murders of the Robison family in 1968 are still unsolved.
Don’t get me wrong, there are those who will tell you the question of who committed the Robison murders is all but answered.
After Robison’s death, a man named Joseph Raymond Scolaro II took control of Robison’s business affairs and sold Impressario magazine through what were later determined to be deceptive business practices. The police reportedly considered him a suspect in the murders of the Robisons, but Scolaro staunchly maintained his innocence.
In March, 1973, Scolaro killed himself in his office with a .25 caliber gunshot to the temple, and he left a suicide note.
“I am a liar, a cheat, a phony, but I am not a killer. I am scared and sick.”
Then, there was a telling postscript.
“P.S. I did not kill the Robisons.”
I’m told many Michiganders and area residents still believe Joe Scolaro to have been the perpetrator of the Robison massacre. And there have been other hints and allegations, too.
There was a report that Mr. Robison had recently returned from a trip to San Francisco and had rented a room in Detroit for several days without the knowledge of his wife. The implications of such a thing were vague. Perhaps he was having an affair, leading a secret life, or had dealings with the mob.
There were no clear answers. Like a small town crime does, it took on a life of it’s own and everyone had their pet theories.
But the crime was never solved.
Let’s go back to what Sheriff Zink believed, according to the Detroit Free Press:
Sheriff Zink is working on two different theories — that it was the work of a deranged individual in the area, or the work of somebody who knew the Robisons and planned it.
The crime was premeditated. That’s what the investigators said. However, the label “premeditated,” to me, suggests a bit of bias from the inception of the investigation. A “deranged individual in the area,” as the perpetrator, cannot be investigated with premeditation leading the way — only a known associate or connection of the Robison’s would seem like a plausible suspect if premeditation is assumed.
A large percentage of killers are caught because the authorities rightly assume that a wife was murdered by her husband, or an executive by his employee, and so on. Killers very frequently know their victims.
But what if they don’t? What if the killer selects his victims at random, as targets of opportunity? What if that same killer gets away without being seen by anyone, and leaves so little evidence that a delayed, imperfect investigation fails to uncover his identity?
The authorities have no reasonable way of identifying the actual killer. They focus on associates and business partners and other plausible suspects. They work intensively, spending interminable hours and late nights and holidays trying to make the case, but the case remains unsolved because their suspect is not the one who did it.
Cases go cold and remain unsolved.
Someone needs to come forward and say “look into this.”
Investigators who do it for a living have jobs to do, and frequently don’t have the time or the inclination to investigate long cold cases without a damn good reason.
To whomever might be reading this, amateur investigator or professional sleuth, this is the part where I’m gonna try to give you that damn good reason.
As I covered in a previous chapter, Ray Vannieuwenhoven’s military service records do not appear to be available anywhere online that I can find. Although I have a skilled researcher working on it for me, he has not had any luck yet. I hope to see some progress on that soon, because establishing Ray’s whereabouts is key to including or excluding him from the many crimes I’ve written about in this story.
Could Ray Vannieuwenhoven’s first murder have been the murder of the Robison family in 1968? Ray would have been 31 years old at the time.
There are other details which I believe are relevant.
Investigators were somewhat puzzled by the lack of a vehicle seen approaching or leaving the Robison residence. Furthermore, there were bullet holes in the cabin’s windows, and the windows faced Lake Michigan. With the contention that the first person might have been shot outside, circumstances seemed to indicate the killer or killers might have approached from the lake.
Did the killer arrive in a boat?
I researched what it takes to cross Lake Michigan in a boat. It’s not a simple task for most. According to “Dockwa’s Definitive Guide to Boating on Lake Michigan,” a 23-foot vessel is recommended, although people are known to brave the crossing in vessels as small as 16-feet on a calm day.
Ray Vanniuewenhoven was an extremely avid fisherman, and told his neighbor Wayne Sankey that he once hauled and delivered boats as a profession.
Did Richard Robison order, or recently take delivery of, a boat? The large boat of a wealthy publisher? Did the police ever run across any evidence about a boat?
I’m again compelled to wonder whether Ray Vannieuwenhoven suffered from PTSD (or “shell shock” or “battle fatigue” as they used to refer to it) when he returned from his military service.
The stories we occasionally see in the news about ex-soldiers, tormented by their service, make me wonder whether a man from Wisconsin might have been one of them. How far-fetched is it to think that a man who would shoot and murder a young Wisconsin couple 8-years later, might have gone on a PTSD-fueled rampage on Lake Michgan in 1968?
Did he imagine he was back in the war again?
Did he carry out “the mission” seeing the faces of enemy combatants instead of the terrified faces of the innocent Robison family? Or was he simply a psychopath?
Take a look at it on the map.
The journey across the lake in a boat, from Ray’s old stomping ground to the eastern shore of northern Lake Michigan, would likely take a couple of hours at most, depending on conditions.
How far-fetched is it?
I honestly believe it is worth looking into.
Was Ray Vannieuwenhoven a Serial Killer?
That is the question, right? Of all the things I’ve written about here, the main, overriding question is “Was Ray Vannieuwenhoven a serial killer?” He was convicted of murdering David Schuldes and Ellen Matheys in 1976, and one of their murders he accomplished from a distance, with a rifle.
What are the odds that a killer like that has never killed before? What are the odds that a killer like that would never kill again?
That’s the question that got me started on this story, because the answer seems obvious to me. A killer like that does not commit these crimes in a vacuum, then drop them like a hobby that’s grown old. I believe Ray killed both before and after he murdered David and Ellen, and he got away with it.
The Complete List
1968: The Robison Family murdered near Good Hart, MI. Unsolved. Ray Vanniuewenhoven possible perpetrator.
1972: Cynthia Allen murdered near Grover. Stabbed. Unsolved. Ray Vannieuwenhoven possible perpetrator.
1975: Mrs. Pat Wisniewski Murdered by shotgun near Amberg. Unsolved. Ray Vannieuwenhoven potential perpetrator.
1976: David Schuldes and Ellen Matheys murdered by rifle. Ray Vannieuwenhoven. Convicted, 2021.
March 12, 1977 (approx): Reported rape by Badgeman in Marinette County. Unsolved.
March 14, 1977: De Pere woman raped by Badgeman in her home. Unsolved.
March 16, 1977: Olive Cunningham and Vera Zimmer robbery and possible attempted rape by Badgeman in Appleton. Unsolved.
Aug/Sep, 1979: Two indigenous women murdered near Amberg. Shot in their heads. Unsolved. Ray Vannieuwenhoven potential perpetrator.
Nov. 30, 1988: Edward and Frances Cizauskas murdered at Jalopy Jungle, in Town of Sheboygan. Victims bludgeoned and stabbed. Unsolved. Ray Vannieuwenhoven potential perpetrator.
Nov. 16, 1991: Ann and Ceil Cadigan murdered in their rural Casco home, in the Green Bay metro. Victims bludgeoned and stabbed. Unsolved. Ray Vannieuwenhoven potential perpetrator.
If your favorite storyteller hit the true crime jackpot and called every single one of those cases correctly, it means Ray Vanniuewenhoven would have been responsible for 16 murders and 4 alleged rapes, 5 if you count Ellen. (Ray was never convicted of rape in Ellen’s case due to an antiquated “statute of limitations” law in Wisconsin.)
Even I’m not crazy enough to believe I sleuthed all those cases out correctly, but every one of them is worth looking into.
And here’s the most important point.
Ray Vanniuewenhoven’s DNA is on file, and his profile has already been developed. There is no further investigatory expense in comparing Ray’s DNA to any and all genetic evidence collected and profiled in any of these cases.
In cases where a victim’s perpetrator has been profiled with DNA but not identified, it’s little more than comparing one profile to another.
Just check to see if Ray’s profile matches.
Yes, that’s it.
I’ve written this story and I have screamed from the mountaintop about Ray Vannieuwenhoven and how I believe he was a serial killer. I’ve made phone calls and sent emails to law enforcement and tried to track down retired journalists, and maybe I’m not very good at that, because nobody has given me the time of day.
But, I’m telling you, true crime friends, I believe this.
At this point, I have to leave it up to you.
If you believe it like I do… that there are answers to our questions, and that the victims’ families deserve answers, then I can only count on you to speak up.
Faulkner said “Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world would do this, it would change the earth.”
Let’s hear it, sleuths.
Author’s Note: although I have not published them here, I have kept meticulous records of every newspaper article and source quoted in this series, and I am happy to share this information with any writer or investigator interested in helping to bring resolution to these cases.