Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Facing Down John Norman Collins - Kristi Kurtz

The tale I'm about to tell really happened. It took over a year for me to contextualize the incident  that occurred one Sunday evening to me and my then girl friend, Kristi Kurtz, as we were walking to our apartment after visiting friends.

We stopped at the party (convenience) store on the corner of W. Cross St. and Ballard St, just off of Eastern Michigan University's campus. We bought a small bag of groceries, walked up the street a block, and turned right on Emmet St. heading for College Place where we shared an apartment.
 
This neighborhood was over a hundred years old and the old growth trees that lined the street provided a natural canopy of added darkness. As Kristi and I casually walked up the street, a car pulled along side us. It was a muggy July evening, and the windows were rolled down revealing three males in the car.

The driver addressed Kristi first saying, "Hey, baby. Want to go out with some real men?" My response was, "Hey, man. She's with me." The next thing I heard was, "Shut the fuck up asshole or the three of us will get out and kick the shit out of you."

Before I could respond, Kristi was impugning their manhood. "What a bunch of dickless wonders!" she scolded the driver. "Three against one, you cowardly faggots." Did I mention that Kristi didn't take crap from anyone and had a mouth on her?

I figured that it might be time for us to drop our groceries and sprint home, but something unexpected happened. Kristi's defiant response seemed to perplex the driver, then out of frustration, he punched the gas pedal and left us in a cloud of screeching tires and stinking exhaust.  That was sometime after nine o'clock on the evening of July 30th, 1968.

Although I thought this was an isolated incident, one day I was reading an article about the series of unsolved murders in the Ypsilanti area and focused on the second murder victim, Joan Schell. Suddenly, I was able to connect the dots. Joan had been hitchhiking and had taken a ride with three guys in a black and red, unidentified car some time after Kristi and I had been approached.

A year after John Norman Collins was arrested for the abduction and sex-slaying of Karen Sue Beinemen, Collins ex-housemate, Arnie Davis, testified in open court that he was in the black and red car with Collins that night when they picked up Joan Schell. Then Collins and Schell left him and a third person to cruise around town because John said he would drive Joan to Ann Arbor in his car. After that fateful ride, Miss Schell was never seen alive again.

In yet another cruel twist of fate, Kristi Kurtz (41) was found murdered in 1990 during a bungled burglary attempt at her horse farm in Whitmore Lake. More on that story in my next post.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Treading on the Grief of Others in the John Norman Collins Case


It is not easy writing about terrible matters which stir up painful memories and open old wounds. So it is with the Rainy Day Murder cases in Washtenaw County that occurred between the summer of 1967 and the summer of 1969.

If these deaths were matters of private grief, interest would be limited to the family and friends of the deceased, but a lone murderer bent on venting his rage against defenseless young women held two college campuses hostage during his two year reign of terror.

Coeds at The University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University felt threatened by chronic fear. Parents whose hopes and dreams rested upon the fragile shoulders of their daughters lived in dread of getting a knock on the door from plainclothes policemen with the news that their daughter was the latest victim of the phantom killer.

When a sixteen year old Romulus, Michigan, girl and a local Ypsilanti thirteen year old junior high school student were found murdered only twenty-two days apart, the entire city of Ypsilanti went into panic mode. 

The murderer was no longer killing only college girls - every young woman in town was now a potential victim of this at-large killer, and police were no closer to making an arrest than they had been with the murder of the first victim almost two years before. 

Only two of the eight families of victims ever had their day in court - the Beinemans in 1970 and the Mixers in 2005. After forty-five years, most of the parents of the victims have gone to their graves never to see justice done on their daughter's killer. 

It is a persistent wound carried by the brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends of the victims. But generations further removed from those times want to know the facts about what happened to their relatives and the man accused of killing them.

Comments on John Norman Collins websites show a remarkable amount of misinformation about these cases. Some people have elevated Collins to the status of a folk hero who was falsely imprisoned for the deeds of another, then scapegoated and railroaded by Washtenaw County law enforcement officials anxious to prosecute this case. When the actual details and facts of these murders are generally known, it is my hope that such people will disabuse themselves of those notions.

Many young people in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor would like to know more about their history and discover what their grandparents and parents never knew, the full evidence as it exists in the unsolved murders of these six young women.

A debt to history must be paid. The facts of these cases need to be documented and preserved for posterity, so time doesn't swallow up the memory of these young women whose fatal error was not recognizing danger before it was too late.

Soon, the living history of people with knowledge of these cases will be lost. If you can shed some light on these tragedies, now is the time to come forward. You can contact me confidentially at:
                                 
gregoryafournier@gmail.com 

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. 


Friday, October 11, 2013

Aurora Borealis Lights Up Michigan Skies

Near Marquette, Michigan, on October 9, 2013
When I was twenty-one, I went camping in the northwoods on a granite outcropping that towered above the pine, birch, and cedar trees. It was about five miles west of Marquette in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

As night fell, the cosmic light show began. I can attest that it was much better than anything I had ever seen in the heyday of Detroit's Rock Mecca, The Grande Ballroom. 

The night sky inspired me to write a poem. That was forty-four years ago, and I haven't seen the Northern Lights or the poem since.

But as luck would have it, I found a wonderful photograph taken recently on October 9th, 2013, by Ryan Stephens that captures a glimpse of how beautiful the heavens were that night so long ago.

Todd and Brad Reed Photography took a photograph of the same event from Ludington, Michigan, in the Lower Peninsula for a different perspective.

Same event from Ludington, Michigan

By the way, I found the poem I wrote so many moons ago. I'm awash with good memories of great times with old friends.


 Northern Lights

Near Marquette,
encircled by woodwinded
dark moans and whistling howls,
lies a Sanctuary of Stone.

Above noise, above trees,
this towering mound is dwarfed
by a panorma
of star strewn sky

shooting waves 
of promenading luminary reflections,
streaking and undulating,
a spectacle of the heavens

stroked with hues of
incarnadine, emerald, and canary.
The only show -
the only sounds around.
                                                             

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

John Norman Collins, aka Bill Kenyon - The 8mm Muscleman

My search for reliable information to restore the facts of the Rainy Day Murders has been a Sisyphean task.  

Drawing together what is known about John Norman Collins and the "coed killings" in one place is a huge undertaking but long overdue.

My researcher, Ryan M. Place, and I have invoked the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain documents from the Michigan Department of Corrections, the Michigan State Police, and the Washtenaw County Coroner's Office, with several more government agencies pending.

Despite major gaps in the public records, we have discovered some interesting information by scouring through these boxes of government documents. Among the more surprising finds are some items on an evidence log in the Karen Sue Beineman case folder. 

Somewhere in the Michigan State Police vault in East Lansing, Michigan, there are weightlifting photos of John Norman Collins posing for Tomorrow's Man magazine as Bill Kenyon. He appeared in the September, 1969, issue which came out on newsstands at roughly the same time he was arrested for the first-degree murder of Karen Sue Beineman.

***

Tomorrow's Man was a pulp magazine popular in some male circles in the 1950s and 1960s. Under the guise of male physical fitness and weightlifting, the magazine was available on newsstands across the country and was often a young man's first exposure to alternative male lifestyles. Their magazine's motto was "Hunks in Trunks."

This was before gay rights and the lessening of the social stigma against male homosexuality. By the end of the 1960s, American culture underwent a fundamental shift in cultural mores. Tomorrow's Man became obsolete and went out of business. The magazine's back issues are collector's items and very hard to obtain. (See the link below for some of their iconic cover art.)

***

My researcher and I have made an additional FOIA request for the photos of JNC posing for Tomorrow's Man magazine.  These items were not used as evidence in the case, and the Michigan State Police has determined that they have no monetary value.
  • two 8x10 black and white stills of Collins posing
  • one 8x10 contact proof sheet with twelve poses
  • one copy of Tomorrow's Man magazine showing Collins posing as Bill Kenyon
  • fourteen color pictures of Collins posing
  • and a must see to believe - twenty-five foot long reel of 8mm film of John Norman Collins striking poses.
Last week, I wrote a Michigan State Police detective who has worked on these cases recently. I asked him to suggest to his commander that the state police consider digitizing the 8mm film stock before it fades to nothing and turns brittle in the can. If Ryan and I are successful in obtaining this film, we will post it on YouTube.

At the very least, we hope to secure some decent scans of photographs to include in a photo bank in the true crime book I'm writing, The Rainy Day Murders. The photograph of Collins above is a photocopy taken from a vintage Detroit Free Press article dated August 30, 1970.

http://www.pulpinternational.com/pulp/entry/Assorted-covers-of-Tomorrows-Man-bodybuilding-magazine.html

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Polish Village Cafe in Hamtramck, Michigan



No trip to Detroit is complete for me without eating some of the city's famous cuisine. Sure, White Castle and Coney Island dogs are local delicacies, but for my money, there is no place better than the Polish Village Cafe to get a real taste of ethnic European Detroit. 


"A Taste of Poland" (Polish Plate)
Located in Hamtramck, a city within the city limits of Detroit, the restaurant is easy to access from the Interstate. The neighborhood is in good repair and reminds me of when I grew up in the Oakwood area of Detroit in the early 1950s. The business section appears lively and active.


As great as the kielbasa, golabki (stuffed cabbage), pierogi, and nalesniki (crepes) were, something else caught my palate, a dark Polish beer named Zywiec [je-vi-ets] Porter. It is surprisingly smooth with a 9.5% alcohol content that complements the ethnic delights this restaurant has to offer.

To learn more about The Polish Village Cafe, watch this short video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZX5-JfCYeg

Also, enjoy this fantastic animation of Poland's history: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2DrXgj1NwN8