Monday, April 8, 2013

"The Rainy Day Murders" - Who Were the Victims?


Without a full confession and tangible corroborative evidence, it may never be proven that John Norman Collins was the killer of Mary Fleszar (19), Joan Elspeth Schell (20), Maralynn Skelton (16), Dawn Basom (13), Alice Kalom (23), or Roxie Ann Phillips (17) - the California victim from Milwaukie, Oregon.

Collins was only brought to trial for the strangulation murder of Karen Sue Beineman (18), which occurred on the afternoon of July 23, 1969. Three eyewitnesses were able to connect Collins and Beineman together on his flashy, blue Triumph motorcycle. Then an avalanche of circumstantial evidence buried John Norman Collins. The lack of a credible alibi also worked heavily against his favor with the jury.

Technically, the term "serial killer" does not legally apply to Collins. He was only convicted of one murder. It wasn't until 1976 that the term was first used in a court of law by FBI profiler, Robert Ressler, in the Son of Sam case in New York City. 

When the Washtenaw County prosecutor, William Delhey, decided not to bring charges in the other cases, Collins was presumed guilty in the court of public opinion by most people familiar with the case.

Today, however, not everyone agrees because of the ambiguity that surrounds this case and the many unanswered questions. To prevent a mistrial in the 1970 Beineman case, prosecutors suppressed details and facts about the other unsolved killings. 

There are many young people who believe Collins was railroaded for these crimes by overzealous law enforcement, and that he should be given the benefit of the doubt and released. That can happen only with a pardon by a sitting Michigan governor.

When the series of sex slayings stopped with the arrest of Collins for the murder of Karen Sue Beineman, everyone was relieved. Most certainly, other young women were murdered in Washtenaw County after Collins was arrested, but none with the same signature rage and psychopathic contempt for womanhood. These were clearly power and control murders.

The six other county murders of young women in the area from July of 1967 through July of 1969 were grouped together and considered a package deal. Law enforcement felt they had their man. The prevailing attitude of Washtenaw County officials was that enough time and money had been spent on this defendant.

DNA testing and a nationwide database was not available in the late Sixties. Even if it had, Collins would not have been screened because he would not have been in the database. He had never been arrested or convicted of any crime and had no juvenile record.

Still, in 2004, over thirty years since Collins was thought to have murdered University of Michigan graduate student, Jane Mixer, DNA evidence exonerated him and pointed the finger at Gary Earl Leiterman, a nurse in Ann Arbor at the time of Jane's murder.  For some people, the Mixer case cast the shadow of doubt over Collins' alleged guilt in the remaining unsolved murders attributed to him.



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When Edward Keyes and Earl James changed the names of the victims and their presumed assailant in their respective books on Collins, they left readers with a mishmash of fifteen fictitious names. Then William Miller wrote a script about these murders called Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep and once again, the names of the victims were changed.  

When John Norman Collins officially changed his last name in 1981 to Chapman, his Canadian birth father's last name, even people familiar with the case became confused. The end result was that the real identities of the victims and their assailant have been obscured over the years and all but forgotten by the public.

Using the real names of the victims, here is a micro-sketch of each of the remaining young women whose cases have yet to be solved but are considered open by the Michigan State Police. The Roxie Ann Phillips California case is the exception.

Roxie Ann Phillips
  1.  Mary Fleszar (19) went missing on July 9, 1967, and was found a month later on August 7, 1967. She was not killed where her body was found. It had been moved several times and was unrecognizable. Mary taught herself to play guitar left handed and played for church services for several denominations on Eastern Michigan University's campus. People who knew her said she was very sweet and vulnerable.
  2. Joan Elspeth Schell (20) was seen hitchhiking and getting into a car with three young men in front of McKinney Student Union on EMU's campus. She was last seen with Collins just before midnight on June 30, 1968, by three eyewitnesses. Prosecutors felt this case was promising but never pursued it.
  3. Maralyn Skelton (16) was last seen on March 24, 1969, hitchhiking in front of Arborland shopping center. An unidentified witness said she got into a truck with two men. Of the seven presumed victims, Maralyn took the worst beating of the lot and then in death, suffered under the hands of the media.
  4. Dawn Basom (13), the youngest of the victims and a local Ypsi girl, was abducted while hurrying to get home before dark on April 16, 1969. Dawn was last seen walking down an isolated stretch of railroad track that borders the Huron River. She was less than 100 yards from her front porch. Police were able to discover where she had been murdered, not far from her home. Her body was found tossed on the shoulder of Gale Rd. in Superior Township. A fifteen mile, triangular drop zone was beginning to reveal itself to investigators.
  5. Alice Kalom (23) was the oldest victim long thought to be on her way to a dance on the evening of June 7, 1969. Two people report that she had a date with someone she had only recently met at a local restaurant, the Rubaiyat, in Ann Arbor. Another person said he saw her standing outside a Rexall Drug store that evening. Alice's body was found two days later, and it had the earmarks of the previous killings. Her murder site was discovered also - a sand and gravel pit north of Ypsilanti. Her body was deposited on Territorial Rd, furthest north of any of the victims. Police claimed they found evidence in the trunk of Collins' Oldsmobile Cutlass that linked Collins to Miss Kalom. This was another case the prosecution thought they might be able to win but never brought to trial
  6. Roxie Anne Phillips (17) was from Milwaukie, Oregon, visiting a family friend in California for the summer in exchange for babysitting services. On June 30, 1969, Roxie had the misfortune of crossing paths with John Norman Collins in Salinas, California, where Collins was "visiting." In many ways, the California case was the strongest of any of the cases against Collins. Extradition was held up so long in Michigan that Governor Ronald Reagan and the Monterey County prosecutor lost interest in the case and waived extradition proceedings. This remains a cold case. 
What links these murders are the mode of operation of the killer, the ritualized behavior present on the bodies of the young women, and the geoforensics of the body drop sites.  

At the time of the murders, investigators thought that the killer may have had an accomplice, but that idea was largely discredited by people close to the case. The two likeliest suspects were housemates with Collins. Both men were given polygraph lie detector tests and were thoroughly interrogated by police detectives. Prosecutors were satisfied of their innocence or complicity in any of the Washtenaw County murders

But investigators did discover that both friends of Collins were involved with him in other crimes such as burglary, fencing stolen property (guns and jewelry), and motorcycle theft. 

There was also a "fraud by conversion" charge brought against Collins and one of his friends for renting a seventeen foot long house trailer with a stolen check that bounced. They abandoned the trailer in Salinas, California. It is the suspected death site of Roxie Ann Phillips.

These guys were not Eagle Scouts, that's for certain. When the trailer was discovered, police found that it had been wiped clean of fingerprints inside and out. Both men returned to Ypsilanti two weeks earlier than they had planned, driving back in the 1968 Oldsmobile Cutlass that was registered to John's mother but had been in John's possession for months.

Back in the Sixties, police protocols and procedures for investigating multiple murders were not yet established. For two long years, an angry killer of young women was able to evade police, but slowly a profile was developing and police were closing in on the suspect from two different fronts. Washtenaw County's long nightmare was about to end. 

Part two of three: Next post: Treading on the Grief of Others