Blocking the facts and details of the John Norman Collins coed killer case, through the trial and sentencing, has been a time consuming and tedious process. But bringing out the voices of the past by reconstructing the dialogue of the witnesses' testimony from newspaper reports of the day has been insightful and fascinating.
Working with old information and with what we've learned about this case since the seventies, an account is starting to form which will give a more textured and resonant picture of the trial than the phonetically transcribed court transcripts would have, which incidentally were unavailable to me. The Washtenaw County Courthouse Records Department has "purged" this case from their files.
My researcher, Ryan Place from Detroit, and I are entering uncharted territory now - the John Norman Collins prison years. Using the Freedom of Information Act, we were able to secure a thousand prison documents from the Michigan Department of Corrections.
Once we paid our tribute ($500), we were sent a box full of unsorted photocopies which had to be categorized, placed in chronological order, and thinned of duplicate copies. Of the one-thousand photocopies we purchased, only about three-hundred are useful to us, and many of them are routine paperwork of little or no interest to the general reader.
The good news is that now I have a manageable amount of information to work with, and a picture of John Collins' years behind prison bars is beginning to take shape.
When we saw the initial amount of prison materials, we hoped that we had received the full sweep of his four decades in prison at Marquette, Jackson, and several other Michigan correctional institutions, including a short stay at Ionia, which houses Michigan's mentally ill and deranged prison population.
But there are huge gaping holes in the chronology of his many years in prison. Still, there is some interesting factual information to be found among the routine and often sketchy paperwork.
Something missing is any information on John Collins attempted prison breaks, especially a tunneling attempt he made with six of his prison inmates. They tried to dig themselves toward an outside wall of Marquette prison in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
Discovered by a prison guard on January 31, 1979, Collins and six other convicts had dug nineteen feet toward an outside wall within thirty-five feet of freedom. They had been scooping out handfuls of sand since the previous summer.
The prisoners were charged with breaking the prison's rules but little more is known about the incident. There must have been an investigation, but we don't have any evidence of any. Were escape charges ever brought against them? I'd like to know more and will pursue it further.
It would have been nice to get a well-organized and concise information drop from the Michigan Department of Corrections, but they aren't in the business of helping me do research for my book, In the Shadow of the Water Tower.
It is the search for knowledge that drives me and my researcher to uncover as much about these matters as we possibly can and to shed light on this dimly remembered and deliberately shrouded past.