Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The John Norman Collins Mess and My Motivation For Writing About It

A small number of people have questioned my motives for writing The Rainy Day Murders about John Norman Collins. Why reopen old wounds?

The sex slaying murders of seven and possibly more local young women created an atmosphere of sustained panic and mortal fear for college coeds on two college campuses, Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti and The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. 

 ***

This tragedy left an indelible impression on me and anyone else who lived through that terrible period of Washtenaw County history. I first realized an arrest had been made in the "Coed Killer Case" when I was walking down from my apartment on College Place St. to have lunch at Roy's Grill, a diner on the corner of W. Cross and College Place. It was Friday, August 1, 1969, around 10:30 or so in the morning.

I lived only a block down the street and saw an assortment of four or five police cars surrounding the corner house on Emmet St. A small group of people had gathered across the street from the house; the police were keeping spectators away.

My first thought was that another girl's body had been found. A year before, Joan Schell, the second victim of a phantom local killer, had lived across the street from this very same Emmet St. house. Her body was found in farm country on the northern outskirts of Ann Arbor.

I approached someone I knew and asked him what was happening, "John Collins was arrested for the murder of that Beineman girl a week ago," he told me. 

My friend had occasionally ridden motorcycles through the countryside with Collins, and now and then they "exchanged" motorcycle parts, so he knew him. When I asked how he got his information, he pointed to a guy in front of the cordoned off house who was arguing with policemen. 

Arnie Davis lived across the landing from Collins on the second floor and described himself, during the court case a year later, as Collins' "best friend." Davis wanted to get his stuff out of the house, but it had already been locked down as a potential crime scene. 

I walked a scant block further to W. Cross St. and ate lunch at Roy's Grill. When I walked up the street to go home, the crowd had grown and the media had arrived by this time. I have a vivid memory of reporters questioning bystanders. 

When I saw Collins' picture in the newspaper later that evening, I was able to place the name with the face. I realized that I had several negative brushes with this guy while I was a student at Eastern Michigan. 

He tried to clothesline me once when I passed by him. Perhaps he was displeased with me because I witnessed him and his friend Manny attempt to break into a car on my street, College Place.

As I was about to walk past him, I ducked and swung around in a defensive position, but Collins and Manny continued walking down the street like nothing had happened. They headed towards the Emmet St. boarding house where they each rented rooms.

After learning of Collins' arrest, my mother called me on the phone relieved. She reluctantly told me that she had suspected I might be the murderer because I resembled the eyewitness descriptions in the newspapers. Can you believe that? Thanks, Mom.

***

When The Michigan Murders came out in 1976, I snapped it up like so many other people in Ypsilanti and anxiously read it. I was disappointed because I felt the novelization of the story took liberties with the facts and relied too heavily on official reports and the work of an Eastern Michigan University English Professor, Dr. Paul McGlynn.  He had allowed Edward Keyes to use his notes which McGlynn had gathered while attending the court proceedings doing research for his own book.

I soon discovered that many assumptions and liberties were taken with the story which made for smooth flowing fiction, but the real story is anything but smooth flowing. It is a ragged mess of complicated misinformation, shaky news reporting, and missing documentation. If this was an easy story to tell, it would have been done long ago.

The most frustrating and confusing aspect of Edward Keyes' novelization was that he chose to change the names of the victims and their alleged murderer. When another author took up the charge of this case some years later, he too changed the names of the victims and of the accused, and then referenced those names to the fictitious names which only compounded the confusion and led to the obscurity of the real victims.
  
Over forty-five years have passed since these sad events, and it is time for the record to be restored and updated. It may have been customary in the past for authors to change the names of victims to protect the families and their feelings, but those days are long gone. I would rather get the facts right than be polite.