Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Fourth Estate Proves its Worth in the John Norman Collins Case

When I went to the Washtenaw County Courthouse to get transcripts for the John Norman Collins case last fall, I was surprised to discover that those files had been "purged" from their records. The explanation was that they were old and it was a cost saving move.

I was dumbfounded. I'm  hoping that they are stored deep in a warehouse someplace, so I continue my document search. It is hard for me to imagine that history can so wantonly be destroyed because of a short sighted budget decision.

With the absence of official documentation, it would be impossible to piece this forty-five year old case together were it not for a small handful of reporters who went beyond the headlines and wire service reports to document this case. Hundreds of stories were filed in newspapers cross the state of Michigan and beyond, but some reporters stand out.

First and foremost is William (Bill) Treml, crime reporter for The Ann Arbor News in those days. This was Bill's first big break and the longest lasting case he ever reported on. His news stories were the most detailed reporting on the string of seven murders that plagued the campuses of Eastern Michigan University and The University of Michigan.

Bill Treml also had a virtue that made his reporting cutting edge; he had the trust of local law enforcement which placed him at the top of the list for inside information. The Detroit News and The Detroit Free Press reporters were outsiders and were treated that way. There is something to be said for reporters not getting too cozy with authorities.

Walker Lundy of The Detroit Free Press stung Washtenaw County law enforcement with a string of critical articles on local police efforts, but none more scathing that his report on the botched "mannequin" mantrap where he described police as the "Keystone Kops." This was a major slap in the face for local law enforcement who was on the verge of capturing the killer when the governor took over the case and handed it to the Michigan State Police. Lundy's critical eye and adversarial relationship with the police gave his reporting more of an edge than Treml's.

The pressure to solve these cases was intense in Ypsilanti and nobody kept the police on their toes more than John Cobb of The Ypsilanti Press. John was licensed to have police band radio scanner in his car and was often on the crime scene taking pictures and snooping around before the police could get there. For a time, he was under consideration as a possible suspect.

The last reporter I would like to single out is Cynthia (Cindy) Cygan of The Macomb Daily. She had a distinctive approach to her stories. The Daily was the local Warren and Center Line newspaper, the hometown paper of the Collins' family. 

Miss Cygan went to school with John Norman Collins sister, Gail, and now she found herself reporting on the trial of Gail's younger brother. Cygan often reported about the family in the courtroom or about the spectators, some of whom came to see Collins. Her perspective provided a necessary counterpoint to the overall reporting of this case.

I owe a debt of gratitude to these reporters in particular and also to the nameless staff reporters who helped to preserve this history, so I can reconstruct this "lost" case for the true-crime book I am writing entitled, The Rainy Day Murders.