Friday, November 22, 2013

The Canadian Dream of John Norman Collins

When John Norman Collins discovered in 1980 that Michigan Governor William Milliken had signed an international prisoner exchange agreement with Canada, he had an idea. 

John was born in Windsor, Ontario, Canada in 1947, and moved with his mother and siblings to the Detroit area on the American side of the river in 1951 where he grew up. If he changed his adopted father's last name, Collins, and returned to his birth father's last name, Chapman, it might strengthen his claim at repatriation.

He most certainly was hoping also that the name change would help him coast under the radar of public notice and the scrutiny of the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC). On January 5, 1981, in an Oakland County courtroom, John Norman Collins legally became John Norman Chapman.

Collins' Michigan sentence called for Life without the possibility of parole. If transferred to Canada, he would be subject to their law which provides for the possibility of parole after fifteen years of a Life sentence. Additionally, a foreign conviction does not constitute a criminal record in Canada.

Including his time served in the Washtenaw County Jail prior to his prison sentence, Collins had served twelve years of his Life sentence. A transfer to a Canadian prison meant he would have been eligible for parole in 1985. 


Collins (Chapman) handled all of the paperwork successfully and he was transferred from Marquette Prison in the Upper Peninsula to Jackson Prison, closer to the Federal building in Detroit where the international transfer was to take place.

But on the day of the hearing, it was discovered that one signature from Ottawa was missing, so the transfer hearing was rescheduled until the paperwork caught up with the necessary signature.

Before that could happen, a fellow Marquette prison inmate familiar with Collins' plan to circumvent his full sentence blew the whistle on him. He posted a letter to the Detroit Free Press night editor, someone he had worked with on an earlier prison story.

The night editor gave the story to Marianne Rzepka who ran a story the next day called "Transfer to Canada For Killer?" That evening, Michigan's Associated Press picked up the story on their wire service, and by morning, thirty-three newspapers and eight-five radio and television stations ran with the story.

When the prosecutor of the case, William Delhey heard of the transfer request, he immediately contacted the parents of Karen Sue Beineman and they started making phone calls and writing letters.

To convince John Norman Collins' last remaining Canadian relatives not to sponsor him for eventual parole, a letter of some graphic detail about the case and other troubling details, was sent by Prosecutor Delhey to their Canadian home.

When Collins' uncle received a call from the Canadian Director of Prisons, he was told to stay away from the case due to its graphic nature and content. After reading about the details of the case, Mr. Chapman, John's paternal uncle, refused to support Collins any further. 

In a collect phone call from prison, Collins became unhinged when he was told that he didn't have the support or acknowledgement of his Canadian relatives, an essential part of the transfer agreement. 

John's Canadian cousin remembers it this way: "When my Dad realized that John was lying to him about his innocence, my Dad told him off in no uncertain terms.... There were some colorful metaphors thrown around and it was after that, that my Dad refused to take any more of John's collect phone calls from prison, but he never stopped me from writing him.... I was in the living room watching TV, so I heard everything."

"After my Dad got off the phone, he spoke with my Mom out on the balcony. When they came inside, he sat me down and spoke with me. In that conversation, he told me that some day, John might try the same thing on me, as he did with him.... My Dad was only looking out for me and wanted to let me know that this possibility might happen. And the truth is - it did!"


On another front, the MDOC was getting heat from the press, the public, and the politicians. The MDOC and Marquette's warden, T.H. Koehler, would have liked to trade off their most notorious inmate. The warden was quoted as saying, "John Norman Collins is the only inmate in this prison who has a book about him for sale in the prison gift shop."

On January 20, 1982, MDOC's Deputy Director, Robert Brown Jr., revoked approval of Collins' transfer bid on the grounds that John Norman Collins was a naturalized American citizen raised in the United States, and he has had minimal contact with his few surviving Canadian relatives over the years.

Collins was immediately shuttled by prison van back up to Marquette Branch Prison to serve out the rest of his Life sentence, only to find someone else occupying his former cell. The warden hadn't expected him to return.

For more information on this subject, check out this earlier post: