Monday, December 30, 2013

John Norman Collins Canadian Connection

When I'm speaking to people about the Washtenaw County murders, I am usually asked, "Have you been in contact with John Norman Collins (JNC) or any of his family?"

My answer is always the same, "I've made many attempts without success."

JNC's older brother and sister have been steadfast in their silence about their notorious younger brother. Neither of John's siblings bear any responsibility for what their brother was accused of doing; regardless, they both have paid a heavy personal price and are victims of the collateral damage from the very public court case. They have chosen not to comment, and that is well within their rights.

The Collins' family wall of collective silence is a legacy from their mother, Loretta, the family matriarch. She was the sole ruler and spokesperson for the family during her son's trial and after. Not even John was allowed to speak in his own defense. Now that she is gone, there is no one to speak for the family.

My researcher and I had just about given up establishing contact with anyone in the Collins clan when I received a surprising email from an unexpected and unsought for source. 

"Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is John (Philip) Chapman; I am John Norman Collins' (Canadian) cousin. I have been in contact with my cousin since 1981, 32 years now... and I do have some interesting facts I would be willing to share with you pertaining to John's (Canadian) family history and facts that he has revealed to me. 

"I normally would never get involved, however, after reading your blog post (Treading on the Grief of Others in the John Norman Collins Case), I do agree that 'a debt is owed to history that must be paid'.

"My heart truly goes out to those young women and their families who had their daughters taken away from them too soon. If there is anything I can share with you to help, I would be more than happy to do so."

This was almost too good to be true. John Philip Chapman appeared exactly when we needed him most. My researcher and I had been working for three years to get someone from the Collins family to speak with us about John's childhood and early family history.

We discovered that Chapman had a personal motive for contacting me. His uncle, Richard Chapman, was JNC's Canadian birth father from Windsor, Ontario. 

John Philip Chapman wanted to correct a long held misperception about his Uncle Rich. Previous published accounts of this case have noted and repeated that Mr. Chapman was a drunk who deserted his family.

Richard Chapman in 1944 on motorcycle seen with his friend, Fred Higgins, who saved his life.

"Nothing could be further from the truth. My Uncle Rich lost his left leg in 1944 during the Second World War. He also suffered from Battle Fatigue and other maladies of war. The medication he was on for the rest of his life would not allow him to tolerate alcohol. It would have killed him, yet my uncle lived until 1988."

Staff Sergeant Richard Chapman served in His Majesty's Canadian Services, unit #152. He was a light-infantry officer and an explosives/demolition expert. After his injury, he spent weeks in a military hospital recovering before he was returned home.

"I want to take the opportunity to correct a historical inaccuracy. War changes people, however, my Uncle Rich was never abusive towards his children or my Aunt Marjorie. He never abandoned his children and never would. 

"My Aunt Marjorie's (Loretta Collins) family had money, and they felt that Uncle Rich was not good enough for their daughter. He wasn't Catholic. Her parents didn't like their son-in-law, to say the least, and they offered him money to disappear.... I know for a fact that my Uncle Rich never took the money, but because he didn't want to drag the children through a messy divorce, he gave Aunt Marjorie what she wanted (full custody).

"Uncle Rich loved his children very much... however, due (to) the amount of lies Aunt Marjorie had put in their heads, they didn't want to be bothered by their dad, with the exception of (his daughter). She learned the truth before her Dad had passed away."

If I wanted to learn more about the Chapman side of the family, John Philip suggested I call him or speak with him in person. First, I made a sixty minute phone call to Canada to satisfy myself that he was the real deal. 

Then, my researcher and I arranged to meet with Chapman in Canada on my next trip to Michigan. A month later, in June, we drove across the Ambassador Bridge from Detroit into Windsor to see what we could learn about the early years of JNC's family.

Ryan M. Place and I spent over two hours talking with John Philip and his mother, who was the sister-in-law of Marjorie (Loretta Collins) Chapman, JNC's birth mother. When Loretta was living in Canada, she was known by her middle name, Marjorie.

We had a wonderful afternoon meeting with the Chapmans; they were warm and inviting. John Philip explained to us that he had been writing his cousin John (Collins) in prison since he (Chapman) was seven or eight years old.

"(Collins) is twenty-five years older than me and has always been like a big brother to me. In our letters, he refers to me as 'Little Brother'." 

John Philip Chapman further explained that he was an only child and found comfort in the attentions from his older American cousin who became a virtual 'Big Brother'  to him.

Now forty-one years old, Chapman's personal search for knowledge about his cousin was making him confront his deepest fears. Over the years, Chapman had maintained a "Don't ask - Don't tell" policy regarding his cousin's imprisonment. 

After all, Collins had insisted that he was innocent of the Karen Sue Beineman murder. He also complained in his letters that he was victimized by a rogue cop (Sheriff Douglas Harvey), an overzealous prosecutor (William Delhey), and a corrupt legal system. 

After sharing information with the Chapmans for a while, we went through several family photo albums with faded snapshots and Polaroids from back in the day. It was interesting and vaguely voyeuristic to peer into their family history. 

John Norman Collins (13), his brother (16), and sister (15) - December 30th, 1960 - fifty-three years ago today.

As Ryan and I were getting ready to return to the states, John Philip asked if we would be interested in receiving some of his cousin's prison letters. Chapman had noticed a change in tone and intensity in the letters lately, and he wanted me to take a look at some of them.

We couldn't believe our good fortune - again! Then, John Philip volunteered something unexpected. He offered to see what other information he could find out for us from his cousin about his crimes.

Without JNC's knowledge over the next four months, we received a total of nine prison letters and a half-dozen emails from Collins to his cousin, most only days after Collins had mailed them from Marquette Branch Prison.

The letters average seven pages each and cover a myriad of subjects, but one theme became more and more prevalent as time went on. Collins was pressing for an international prisoner exchange with Canada, once again.

He had tried unsuccessfully in 1981. Collins was born in Canada, which was the basis for his naturalization claim, and he said he had relatives and a support system there. Canada has more liberal sentencing provisions than the United States, so a parole was a very real possibility. 

But both JNC's father and his uncle refused to offer Canadian sponsorship to him after being contacted by authorities on both sides of the Detroit River informing them of the details of John's crimes. The Michigan Department of Corrections summarily revoked Collins' application for an international prisoner exchange.

Thirty-two years later, Collins summoned up the courage to ask his younger first-cousin, his last Canadian blood relative, to sponsor him for another prisoner transfer attempt in hopes of receiving dispensation for timed served. To his way of thinking, all he needed was a relative and a place to stay; then, he would be assigned to a work release program in Canada and be free of his prison cell.

Now, it became clear to Chapman what JNC had been driving at for months; the chicken hawk wanted to come home to roost.

Link to the above mentioned blog post:

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

John Norman Collins Mail Call - Coming Clean With My Readers

For three and a half years, I have focused most of my worldly attention on researching and writing about John Norman Collins (JNC) and the Washtenaw County murders of 1967-1969. 

I would have been finished with The Rainy Day Murders six months ago but for an unforeseen development which I have been holding back from my readers. 

My researcher, Ryan M. Place, and I have privately received over twenty prison letters and a handful of emails from two separate sources that JNC had written to from April 2013 until October 2013.

The first cache of letters we received was from a woman who had been corresponding with JNC for close to a year. Sandra contacted us when Collins agreed to answer some of our questions through a third party, his current girlfriend, Sandra. 

We had written Collins numerous times asking for an interview, but he decided to use Sandra as a virtual "human shield" to play games with us. I am sure he believed that going through her would give him some level of control over the interview, but in reality, it was merely weak dealing.

Collins believed he had a firm grasp on her, but his glib, evasive, and sometimes disturbing answers to our written questions about the young women's murders began to turn her off, and she began to internalize her feelings about the defenseless victims of his carnage. What he said and how he said it was upsetting to her.

He began making lewd remarks in his prison letters. Rather than "charming" her with his sweet talk as he had been doing, he suddenly became vulgar and suggestive which bothered her. 

Finally, Sandra wrote to us saying she was through with Collins. Then she surprised us with an offer we couldn't refuse, "Would you like me to send you some of his prison letters?"


Ryan and I couldn't believe our luck. Here was an exclusive information drop handed to us. Primary resource material is the meat of research, and now we had some prison letters from JNC himself. Sandra sent us twelve personal letters and many pages of notes she had taken from several "collect" phone calls Collins had made to her from the prison yard.

Disgusted with him, Sandra finally told Collins that she had sent us the letters he had written to her. The master manipulator had been double-dealt and he was furious. 

Some days afterwards, in a phone call to me, Sandra said that John had called her back and apologized profusely. He said he had been under a lot of stress lately and needed to talk with her face-to-face, necessitating a visit to Marquette prison. 

"It's URGENT!" he told her. 

Stock Photograph - Depicts High Security, Non-Contact Visitation

For some unspecified reason, she recanted and drove several hundred miles up to Michigan's Upper Peninsula to finally face the prison inmate she had been writing for months. Although I wasn't made privy to their entire conversation, I do know this, JNC asked Sandra to marry him.

That is the last thing we have heard from Sandra. Her phone is still connected, but she isn't answering our calls.

Then something even more remarkable happened. In May of 2013, I received an email from a person who claimed to be JNC's last living Canadian blood relative. He had been investigating the internet for information on his infamous cousin and read several of my recent blog posts about him. 

The Canadian emailer wanted to correct the mistaken perceptions concerning his Uncle Rich, the Canadian birth father of John Norman Collins. What had been previously printed about his uncle was blatantly inaccurate, and he wanted me to set the record straight in The Rainy Day Murders.

More about the JNC Canadian family connection in my next post.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Grande Ballroom - Is There a Future For Detroit's Former Rock and Roll Mecca?

The Grande Ballroom as it exists in ruins today.

In the mid to late sixties, the Grande Ballroom was the place to be on the weekends in Detroit. The Motor City had no shortage of high energy, head banging garage bands competing with one another in frequent "Battle of the Bands" events. Local groups like MC5 (Motor City 5), SRC (my fav), Frost, The Stooges with Iggy Pop, The Amboy Dukes, Bob Seger, Grand Funk Railroad, and many others each had a dedicated following.

Top-shelf bands from around the country, and from England in particular, saw Detroit's Grande Ballroom as the undisputed rock
and roll Mecca of the Midwest. The Jefferson Airplane, Cream with Eric Clapton, Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, Jethro Tull, The Spirit, The Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Savoy Brown, The Moody Blues, and many others played on the Grande stage that once hosted the Glenn Miller Band, Benny Goodman, the Dorsey brothers, and other swing dance era big bands. There was a lot of music history made within these walls.

During the turbulent Sixties, the Grande Ballroom served up an uneasy mixture of high energy music and counter culture propaganda centered around Detroit's self-proclaimed hippie guru, John Sinclair. John managed some local Detroit bands and led a group called Trans Love Energies, which morphed into the White Panther Party when the group moved to Ann Arbor because of police harassment.
Is there a future for a restored Grande Ballroom in the new Detroit? Some people think so. Check out the link for more discussion of restoring this landmark which holds so many memories for inner-city and suburban Detroiters.

For more on the Grande Ballroom:

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Tuesday, December 10th, "A New Kind of Monster" on Investigation Discovery

Early in 2013, I was asked by XCON Productions if I would be interested in appearing on an episode of a new true crime series they were doing called A Crime To Remember. 

One of their staffers had seen my blog posts on the Washtenaw County Murders of 1967-1969 and their presumed killer, John Norman Collins. 

I say "presumed" because Collins was only charged with one of the seven local murders before being sentenced to "Life" in prison. With his arrest and conviction, the series of grisly sex-slayings in the Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, Michigan ended.

The episode entitled "A New Kind of Monster" will air this Tuesday, December 10th, at 10:00 PM Eastern time. Other people appearing on the program will be Dr. Katherine Ramsland, forensic psychologist; Larry Mathewson, former Eastern Michigan University policeman; Douglas Harvey, former Washtenaw County Sheriff; and others. 

Re-enactments using the actual names of the people involved in these matters will be a feature of this program, which is a thumbnail sketch of an extremely complicated, controversial, and convoluted case.

I was put on the program because of the strength of my blog posts on the subject at large. For the last three and a half years, my researcher, Ryan M. Place and I have been working tirelessly on these other cases which have remained officially unsolved. 

Soon, I will be finished with the first draft of The Rainy Day Murders. My treatment of the subject benefits from forty-five years of hindsight and the living history of people who have had some direct connection with these events. 

Once my true crime account goes through revision and editing, I hope to get it published sometime next year. 

In addition to giving the latest information known about each of the murders and recreating the "lost" court case, which the Washtenaw County Courthouse has "purged" from their records, my book will cover for the first time ever, John Norman Collins' prison years and his efforts to get out of prison.

When Ryan and I started this project almost four years ago, we could not have imagined where it would lead. Many thanks to all the individuals who have come forward with information on these cases and also to the many people in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor affected by this dark period in Washtenaw County's history who were willing to share their stories with us. 

William Treml  (1929 - 2013)
And a special thanks needs to go out to all the reporters who covered these murders and the subsequent trial, especially William Treml of The Ann Arbor News, who died last month. 

Without their efforts, this story would have been lost to time and institutional neglect. A debt needs to be paid to history, and its on their shoulders I stand.

Check this link for more information about the press and these cases:

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Roxie Ann Phillips California Case. Did John Norman Collins Act Alone?

In August of 1969 after working on a recent unsolved murder case in Salinas, California for two frustrating weeks, a tired police investigator sat down to dinner in front of his television to watch the national news. 

A break had been made in the Michigan murder case of Karen Sue Beineman. An unlikely suspect by the name of John Norman Collins, a student at Eastern Michigan University had been arrested.

The story went on to say that Collins had recently returned from a short vacation in California. The network showed a picture of him taking a perp walk into the Washtenaw County Courthouse in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Mention was also made in the story that a silver Oldsmobile Cutlass was believed to have been used to dump the coed's body. 

Other circumstances of the crimes were eerily similar. Both women died of strangulation, both were sexually violated, both were dumped in secluded areas, and both were wearing only their sandals. 

The Salinas Police Department contacted the Michigan State Police to share information. When the MSP were told that the Salinas police had found an abandoned house trailer thought to be the murder site, Detective Tom Nasser and Sergeant Kennard Christensen from the Plymouth Crime Center flew out to Salinas to help with their investigation. Both men testified before the Monterey County Grand Jury inquest.

Among other damning evidence presented before the grand jury, an eyewitness placed a young man at the scene of seventeen year old Roxie Ann Phillips' abduction. She saw Roxie get into a silver-gray Olds Cutlass with Michigan plates. Then he sped away, running a red light and making a hard right turn. The witness remembered the red flowered outfit Roxie was wearing that day.

A Monterey County California Grand Jury indicted Collins for the murder of Roxy Ann Phillips, a recent visitor to California from Milwaulkie, Oregon. After some bureaucratic squabbling between each state's Attorney General, Michigan Governor Milliken rejected California Governor Ronald Reagan's request for extradition. 

Vice President George Bush, President Gerald Ford, California Governor Ronald Reagan, and Michigan Governor William Milliken

California had a stronger case than Michigan, and it was a death penalty state. But because of the community impact that the seven unsolved murders of young women had in Washtenaw County, Governor Milliken had no choice but to try Collins in Michigan for the Beineman murder. "Life" behind bars was the maximum prison sentence a Michigan judge could levy.


Accompanying Collins on his fateful trip to California was his Motor Wheel work buddy and housemate, Andrew Manuel. There had been six unsolved murders in the area. Police from five departments were swarming over the area, and both men were also feeling some heat for a spate of break-ins and burglaries in the city.

Andrew was from Salinas, California and thought a month away from Ypsilanti might do them both some good. Collins and Manuel fraudulently rented a 17' long house trailer in Ypsilanti and towed it behind a silver Olds Cutlass, a new car belonging to Collins' mother, Loretta.

In their investigation of Roxie Ann Phillips' murder, the Salinas police reported finding an abandoned house trailer behind the home of Andrew Manuel's grandparents, the Salinas forensic team went to work. It was discovered that every fingerprint inside and outside the trailer had been wiped clean. When Andrew's grandparents were interviewed, they complained that the boys didn't even say goodbye before they left.

The evidence against Collins for the murder of Roxie Ann Phillips was the strongest case against him. But the detailing and abandoning of a house trailer doesn't make Andrew Manuel his accomplice in her murderer. It is apparent at the very least that he was fully aware of what his buddy had done, and he helped Collins cover it up by destroying evidence.  He may also have been an accessory after the fact by helping Collins dump the body.

Why then would these guys cut their trip in half, fully detail a 17' house trailer, and then abandon it? One can only wonder what the conversation between them was on their trip back to Michigan.


After Collins and Manuel returned, Andrew disappeared immediately and was eventually arrested in Phoenix by the FBI. He was extradited from Arizona and returned to Michigan where he took and passed several lie detector tests clearing him of the murders of Roxy Ann Phillips and Karen Sue Beineman. 

Manuel was arrested for "theft by conversion" of the house trailer and selling stolen jewelry from an Ypsilanti break-in. He was given one year probation and a $100 fine, on the understanding that he would testify for the prosecution in the case against Collins. 

Andrew was given immunity. He violated his probation agreement and fled the area, only to be arrested to serve out his term in the Washtenaw County Jail. On the stand at the Collins trial, Manuel became "Helen Keller." He saw and heard nothing.