Saturday, February 22, 2014

Two That Got Away from John Norman Collins and Andrew Manuel


In the summer of 1968, fourteen year old Robert Fox was hitchhiking alone on Washtenaw Ave. when a gray convertible with the top down stopped to pick him up. Two guys were in the car.

Interior of 1956 DeSoto convertible.
He remembers that "as smooth as can be, the passenger door swung open, and the darker of the two men stepped out smiling. I unthinkingly slid between them. Within seconds, I realized I was trapped. Their talk was immediately suggestive. The vibe was the spookiest I ever felt.

"I was frightened and decided to patronize them and told them I was broke and hungry, hoping they would buy me something. Lucky for me, they pulled into the A&W on Washtenaw Blvd. Thank God it was a convertible - the moment the car stopped, I jumped from the center seat into the back seat, and leaped out onto the parking lot. Then I ran into the marshland between Washtenaw and Packard Rd. I was never so glad to get my feet wet! Don't know what I would have done if the top hadn't been down.

"I didn't study their faces - in fact - I avoided eye contact. I remember the passenger the most. He frightened me because he had run the trap on me. His hair was darker than the driver's, and he was heavier set than the driver. He looked Mexican to me. I have a vague recollection of the side of his face. His dark hair was wavy but not curly, not a thin face and pock marked with zit scars. It was absolutely a two-man operation. The trap was very smooth - rehearsed if not practiced."

Like many people who recognized Collins after his photograph was plastered all over the front pages, Robert Fox had the same reaction when he recognized a photograph in the newspaper of Andrew Manuel taking a perp walk with two FBI agents outside the Federal Building in Phoenix, Arizona.

"This episode scared the hell out of me," Fox said. "What surprises me looking back is that I did not make the connection that those guys might be the murderers."

Although Fox couldn't identify the make and model of the car, he did remember the color - gray. It sounds like the same car Collins drove when he first arrived on campus, a 1956 DeSoto Coupe convertible, previously owned by his older brother.

This is likely the car identified by one on Mary's neighbors that Collins used to harass Mary Fleszar when she was walking home the last night of her life. It was the same car that took Collins to Moore's Funeral home in Ypsilanti where he showed up at closing to take a photograph of Mary's body in her closed coffin. He claimed to be a friend of the family. 

Harold Britton, the funeral home director, refused the young man's request. After he left, Britton called the Fleszar family. They hadn't given permission for anyone to take pictures of the body. 

Then Britton called the police and identified the car as being blue/gray. He didn't get the license plate number nor could he identify the car's make or model as it pulled away in the dark. But he did say it was an older model car.


1956 DeSoto Fireflight Adventurer Coupe
And this was likely the same car that John Norman Collins used to take Joan Schell to Ann Arbor on her final ride. Not long after Schell's disappearance and murder, Collins sold the DeSoto to someone in the Detroit area. From then on, he had full use of his mother's new 1968 silver Oldsmobile Cutlass.


***

A woman who wishes that I not use her name related this up close and personal John Norman Collins anecdote to me:

"A person introduced to me as 'John and his date' were in the back seat of my date's car. We were going to a spring fraternity formal. The person seemed really nice and cute. He was talking to me a lot and I liked it.

"All of a sudden, he asked his date 'Are you having your period?' The poor girl was mortified. It was awful. He told her she was stinky. He went on and on. I had tears in my eyes for her.

"When we got to the party, I told my date that I refused to go home with that guy. My godfather lived in Detroit. I gave him the choice of dumping this guy and his date, or I would call and have my godfather pick me up.

"It was about six months after that when a person came up on me while I was leaving my night class at Washtenaw Community College. He started walking and talking to me. I thought I had met him before but wasn't certain. He was real pleasant at first. But when I walked up to my car in the parking lot, he yelled, 'Get the bitch!' There was a Hispanic man hiding in my backseat. There was a darkness in his eyes that was terrifying. He tried to pull me into the car.

"I dug my feet in the ground, and resisted the best I could. I yelled 'help' then 'fire' then 'rape.' No one heard at first. I started screaming the name of some guy I knew at a parking space some distance away. Finally, three guys started running towards me to help. I was dropped by the two men who jumped in a truck parked next to my car and drove quickly away.

"When I reported it, the first thing I told the police was 'I've seen one of them before.'

Corvair Corsa
"Somehow, he got my phone number and started calling me at home several times a day. He told me that I was a 'rich bitch' because I had a new Corvair convertible.... He would call and say how cool I thought I was in my car and how he would end that. He told me there was no place for me to be safe. He would tell me where he saw me and what I was wearing. I had two jobs and he knew where I worked. I was scared.

"My dad worked for the phone company and was close friends with Ann Arbor police chief of detectives. Michigan Bell tapped my phone so it rang at the police station. I was told that the police were keeping an eye on several other people too. 

"When the police came and put me under house arrest for my safety, I still didn't know who the caller was.... It wasn't until Collins was arrested that a frat guy called and told me who he was. Only then was I able to put things together. The caller remembered how uncomfortable I was when I wouldn't ride in the same car with Collins. I was just blessed to get away.

"Recently, I met a woman from Holland, Michigan. I have told very few people about this, but I told her. She said I was living for all those girls.... I am so surprised that I wrote to you. It is part of my life, but maybe this story will make people be more careful."