When I'm speaking to people about the Washtenaw County murders, I am usually asked, "Have you been in contact with any of John Norman Collins family?" My answer is always the same, "I've made several attempts without success."
JNC's older brother and his late sister were steadfast in their silence about their notorious younger brother. Neither of John's siblings bear any responsibility for what their brother did; regardless, they both have paid a heavy personal price and are victims of the collateral damage from the very public and notorious court case. They chose not to comment, and that was 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 afterward. Not even John was allowed to speak in his own defense. Now that Loretta is gone, there is no one to speak for the family.
My researcher Ryan M. Place 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 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 have some interesting facts I would be willing to share with you pertaining to John's (Canadian) family history and facts 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. Afterward, he 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.
According to Chapman, "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 not wanting to drag their children through a bitter 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 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 passed away."
If I wanted to learn more about the Chapman side of the family, John Philip suggested I call 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--he was.
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 and then the Toronto area to see what we could learn about the early years of JNC's family.
Ryan M. Place and I spent several hours talking with John Philip and his mother about Marjorie (Loretta Collins) Chapman, JNC's birth mother. When Loretta was living in Canada, she went by her middle name, Marjorie.
We had a wonderful afternoon meeting the Chapmans; they were warm and inviting. John Philip explained 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. Somehow, Chapman managed to remain largely ignorant of his older cousin's crimes.
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 that was looking for a scapegoat.
After sharing our information with the Chapmans, 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.|
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 us 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.
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. JNC 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 Collins's 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 Marquette Branch 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: