Tuesday, January 21, 2014

John Norman Collins on the Prowl



The court of public opinion has long held that John Norman Collins (JNC) is culpable in the murders of seven young women in Washtenaw County, Michigan from 1967-1969. 

To be precise, six of the girls were from Michigan and one was from Milwaukie, Oregon. Roxie Ann Phillips was visiting a family friend in California when she crossed paths with JNC. One of the original seven victims, Jane Mixer, was found in 2005 to have been murdered by someone else, Gary Earl Leiterman.

It is well-known and documented that JNC prowled the streets of Ypsilanti. Five women testified that he tried to pick them up, all within a forty-five minute window before he picked up Karen Sue Beineman. Collins gave her a ride to a wig shop before he brutally killed her in his uncle's basement. So said The People of Washtenaw County.

But did JNC ever pose the same threat to young men? Although that isn't the subject of The Rainy Day Murders, several men have come forward with stories about their brushes with Collins. Without corroboration, their anecdotes have no evidentiary value, yet that doesn't mean that their stories are untrue. To date, it is unknown if JNC had any young male victims.

One of the men who contacted me was clearly more disturbed about his brush with Collins than the others. I placed a call to this person who went by the handle of Atlanta Tom. He didn't want to reveal his true identity to me at first. His memory of the incident stills haunts him after forty-four years, and he had difficulty telling his story.

When JNC was arrested and his perp walk photograph appeared all over the television news and front page reports, Tom finally knew the name of the man who tried to assault him five months earlier.

I was skeptical at first because he couldn't express his story and his feelings coherently. We were both getting frustrated, but I could sense he was uncomfortable and having trouble collecting his thoughts. 

Then we began talking about Eastern Michigan University's 
campus during the late Sixties and discovered that we had mutual acquaintances and ran in the same circle of people we loosely called "freaks." I was a few years ahead if him at Eastern.

When Atlanta Tom finally settled down, I asked him to tell his story again from the beginning. Now, I was able to stitch my initial notes together and discover his story. 

In a subsequent phone call interview, he allowed me to tell his story though he confessed he was uncomfortable about it. He always felt "guilty" because he didn't report the incident to the police. In the month after his incident, another young women was brutally slaughtered in the area. By July, four more had lost their lives.

"You were young and afraid," I reassured him. "Maybe you could have changed history and saved those girls, maybe not. Besides, you couldn't identify him by name at the time."

"That's not all," he said. "My name is Tom Zarski. I'm the guy who called 'Uncle Russ' on the radio with the 'Is Paul (McCartney) Dead?' story, which quickly became the 'Paul Is Dead!' story. That was in February of 1969. I didn't think anyone would believe me after that."

Here is Tom's story as told to me. Believe it or not!

***

"While hitchhiking home to Bloomfield Hills from EMU on a late Friday afternoon in February, I was picked up by a person who told me to get in, and then he asked me for my name. 'Tom,' I said, hopping into his car with my laundry bag in tow.

Tom described himself as very unsure of himself and a very immature eighteen year old freshman, both physically and socially. He didn't feel comfortable at EMU and spent as much time home as he could.

Tom Zarski related to me that the person who picked him up in front of the Ypsilanti Police Department on Michigan Avenue looked three or four years older than he was. The driver's upper body build made him look like a college quarterback type with clean cut short haircut which wasn't popular in 1969. He looked out of place for the times. What Zarski remembered most about his benefactor was that he looked like a fraternity guy.

But something bothered him from the start. The driver "eyeballed" him and it made the hair stand up on the back of his neck. Then, when the driver started to speak, he was a quick talker and very slick. 

Tom remembered being offered a free ticket to a Bob Seger concert at Eastern Michigan's Bowen Field House if he wanted to go. The guy said he had an extra ticket and would fix the shy freshman up with his sister who liked young guys. 

I was at this concert that night.
This was all too much and too fast for the socially immature young man to process. "Why is this guy bothering with me, a scrawny, immature kid? All I could think of was that he wanted something. I told him that my father was waiting for me to come home for the weekend, and I couldn't change my plans. But thanks anyway."

"Within ten minutes of being picked up, his friendly attitude abruptly changed as he slammed on the brakes before dumping me off on the shoulder of Interstate 94 east, just before the Rawsonville exit. 'Go ahead! Get out!' he commanded as he spun his wheels leaving me in a cloud of blue exhaust.

"He took off and I stuck out my thumb trying to get a ride hitchhiking, walking backwards towards Detroit's Metropolitan Airport. When I got there, I thought, I would call my father and tell him I'd be late. Then I could catch an airport shuttle to Bloomfield Hills. That was my plan.

"As I continued to walk east, I heard someone yelling my name from an overpass. 'Tom! Tom! Tom!' By now, it was dark and I couldn't make out who it was. But nobody knew me around there, and it struck me that I had told the guy who picked me up my name. 'What's he want now?' I thought. Trying not to panic, I ignored him and kept walking with my thumb out having no success getting a ride. 

"As I approached the next freeway exit, I noticed a car was parked with it's headlights on and pulled over on the exit's right shoulder. The car's trunk was open, but the high beams were so bright that I couldn't recognize the car or anything else in the darkness.

"The next thing I knew, I heard the trunk slam and a lanky figure began running me down swinging a tire iron at me. It was the same guy who was now trying to attack me. I saw a panel truck pull over about fifty yards up the freeway from where I had just come. Fueled by fear, I outran my stalker. 

Three farm workers hauling potatoes had stopped and congregated around the truck's front right tire to take a bathroom break so they wouldn't be seen by oncoming traffic.

"I ran up to them with my laundry bag slung over my shoulder and asked if I could have a ride. Someone was trying to attack me. They looked and saw a shadowy figure walking towards the freeway entrance ahead.There is safety in numbers and they said 'Sure.' All four of us squeezed onto the front bench seat. 

"Clinging to my laundry bag, I saw the guy standing on the shoulder as we went by giving me a crazed look and shaking his head slowly with his arms crossed over his chest. The crow bar must have been hidden behind his back.

"My rescuers dropped me off at Merriman Rd., and I walked the rest of the way to Metro Airport looking over my shoulder the whole way scared to death. By the time I made it home, I was a nervous wreck. Shaking, I told my father, 'Someone tried to kill me tonight.'

"Two days later on the following Monday, I was hanging out in the McKenny Union snack bar, a recent addition to the newly remodeled Student Union building. It had large, modern window panels on three sides of the addition for natural lighting. A sidewalk ran between these large windows and Welch Hall next door that formed a bottleneck for students walking during class change.

"I saw some sort of fraternity demonstration going on outside, so I went up to the large window to get a better look. Much to my stark terror, there he was, the same guy who tried to attack me Friday night. He was leading the parade, cavorting, and goosestepping in rubber boots.

"He looked into the snack bar window and our eyes locked. I saw an expression of horror on his face. He recognized me right away and did a 180 degree turn and ran towards W. Cross St. He was probably afraid I would call the police on the spot."

"Why didn't you?" I prompted.

"My father wanted me to make out a police report, but I let my friend talk me out of it. She told me, 'Why get further involved?' Now, I wish I had."