Wednesday, February 12, 2014

My Personal Motivation For Writing About John Norman Collins

The events detailed in this post happened in Ypsilanti, Michigan, just two blocks beyond the green lights of this photograph.

Last winter, I was asked by a Detroit News reporter if writing about John Norman Collins and the Washtenaw County killings of the late Sixties was personal for me. Without missing a beat, my answer was "Hell yes, it's personal!"

When a community is held hostage by their fear of an unknown serial killer in their midst for two years, suddenly it becomes very personal for everyone.

Murder is the greatest violation of an individual and almost every culture has strictures against it because it strikes at the heart and well-being of society. What is most difficult for people to understand is how someone can murder impersonally without provocation or conscience.


Throughout John Norman Collins' reign of terror, I lived at 127 College Place, a block up the street from the boarding house on Emmet St. where Collins rented a second story room. Like many other people coming and going to classes at Eastern Michigan University, I walked passed that house twice a day

It was only after the two year ordeal, when Collins was arrested and the murders stopped, that people were able to contextualize their experiences. Like so many other people in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, I saw his photograph on the front pages of The Ypsilanti Press and The Detroit Free Press. I recognized him immediately though I didn't know his name until I read it.

John Norman Collins' Perp Walk at Arraignment in Ypsilanti


My first encounter with Collins happened on Sunday, July 30th, 1968. It was after 9:00 PM. I was walking home on Emmet St. with my girlfriend, Kristi Kurtz, after going to the party store on W. Cross St. for some groceries. 

In front of the Arm of Honor frat house, a convertible with three guys in it pulled up along side us. The driver who was wearing an EMU shirt asked Kristi if she would like to hang out with some real men.

With a full bag of groceries in my arms, I spoke up, "Hey, guys. She's with me." Then I was crudely threatened with an impromptu ass kicking. I saw for the first time what many people have since described to me as "the (Collins) look."

Kristi was having none of it. She burst forth verbally and impugned their manhood with a string of well-chosen profanities. The driver, who I didn't know but got to see his face, hit the gas pedal and peeled away screeching his tires in frustration. (See the link below for more details.)

It was over a year later when I connected that incident with the disappearance of Joan Schell. Later the same night, Collins and his two buddies picked up Joan hitchhiking in front of McKenny Union on the campus of Eastern Michigan University. She was reported missing the next day - August 1st.

Incidentally, Miss Schell shared a rented apartment on Emmet St. with a girlfriend, directly across College Place St. from the room Collins rented at the boarding house. He could look out his window directly at Schell's apartment house.

The same evening Miss Schell disappeared, three witnesses saw Collins and Schell cross College Place at about 11:30 PM, and one of the young men in the car that picked up Miss Schell testified in open court that he was in the car with Collins that fateful night when they gave Joan a ride.


Some time later on another occasion in the early evening, I was waiting for a pizza at Fazi's shop on College Place St. a half block from the EMU campus. It was the local hangout in our neighborhood with a couple of pinball machines that could be set for free plays, so people liked to hang out there.

It was warm in the shop, so I went outside. Around the side of the building, I saw two guys trying to break into a car that was parked there. They tried the doors, they tried the trunk, they tried to pop the hood. What struck me most about them was that they did this with impunity. They vaguely noticed me watching but studiously ignored me.

I went into the pizza shop and asked if the car parked next to the building belonged to anyone there. It didn't. I walked out of the shop and saw the two guys walking shoulder to shoulder towards where I was standing. One of them was a lean six feet tall and the other guy was taller, heavier, and Hispanic looking.

When they were about to pass me, the lanky one raised his stiffened right arm and tried to clothesline me in the face. I dunked and swung around in a defensive position expecting a tussle. But the two of them walked on like nothing had happened. 

I watched them walk half a block up College Place and then crossover to the corner house on Emmet St. I didn't connect the two experiences yet, but I saw where they went. Collins' face was now familiar to me, but I still didn't know his name.

I was pissed and went into the shop to get my pizza. A friend of mine asked what had just happened?

"Some guy just took a swing at me."

"I know. I just saw. Why?"

"They were trying to break into the car parked outside and I saw them. Do you know who they are?"

"Not really, they're just a couple of assholes who live in the neighborhood."

Great, I thought. I walk passed that house at least twice a day to get to classes. Swell!


My attic apartment at 127 College Place St.
My final encounter with John Norman Collins occurred in a most unlikely place, my third story attic apartment. The large house I lived in was built in the late nineteenth century and had been subdivided into five apartments sometime over the years. It was a broken down hovel, centrally located in what we called the student ghetto. It was affordable and it was home.

Late one Saturday night, my roommate and I came home and walked up the narrow staircase leading to our attic apartment. We noticed something peculiar. Our door was locked. 

Most of the people who lived in the house were freaks (hippies) and had lived there for a couple of years. Everyone knew everyone else and got along well, so there was a communal atmosphere of trust in the house. But recently, some new people had moved into the large ground floor apartment.

I fumbled in my pocket for my key and unlocked the door. I flipped on the light in the efficiency kitchen and heard some rustling in our darkened attic apartment. My twin bed was wedged inside a small alcove to the left of the main living space. 

A person several inches taller than me suddenly blocked the doorway putting on his sports coat and shielding the young woman he was with. She hastily straightened up her disheveled clothing. When his jacket was on, he stepped towards me and we were face to face. Once again, I saw "the look." 

It was the same guy who took a swing at me in front of Fazi's pizza shop. He stopped in his tracks when he finally saw my roommate who was six feet, three inches tall, and very powerfully built. He was a highway construction worker.

To defuse the situation, I apologized for disturbing them and explained that this was a private apartment. All he said was "sorry" as he and the embarrassed girl carrying her purse slinked out. It was suddenly clear what had happened. 

The new tenants in the ground floor apartment were some fraternity guys having a house warming party. At some point after they had a couple of drinks, Collins searched for a quiet spot to take this young woman, and he settled into my vacant apartment uninvited. He locked the door for privacy. 

By now, I knew this guy by sight. Several months later, like so many other people in the area, I saw his picture on the front page and finally learned his name. Little did I imagine that over forty years later, I would be writing about John Norman Collins and those frightening days.