Sunday, June 29, 2014

Allen Park's Missing Champaign Park Train

Courtesy of Images of America - Allen Park.

Every time I visit Allen Park, I usually find a reason to drive past the high school and look on with approval at improvements made by the district. The remodeled high school has a pleasing facade, the windows throughout the school have been upgraded, and a Performing Arts Center has been added onto the west end of the building. I only get into town occasionally, but I usually make the pilgrimage and reminisce about the old days.

While I was thinking about my upcoming trip to the Detroit area, I flashed on something I had not thought about for decades. Whatever happened to the steam locomotive and tender car that was once on display in Champaign Park next to the high school? I remember the train having a ten foot high cyclone fence built around it which did little to deter anyone who wanted to climb over. What started out as a public school hands-on exhibit became an attractive nuisance and a public liability risk. 

I looked into the subject further and discovered that the train was built in Buckley, Michigan by Alco and owned and operated by the Detroit Edison Line. It was in service from 1923 until 1961, when it was driven under its own steam power to its display site in Champaign Park. A special track spur was built off a nearby railroad line. The Buckley No. 207 and its coal tender were removed in 1970 because the floor boards were rusting out and kids playing on it often got hurt. Old No. 207 was cutup with torches and hauled out of the park in trucks for scrap, said Arnie Ciupka, formerly of the Allen Park Recreation Department who was an eyewitness to its dismemberment.

On the day of its installation, a crowd of local youth, community members, and dignitaries watched the train roll in. Current Allen Park City Schools Superintendent John Sturock played trumpet at the steam locomotive's dedication when he was in sixth grade.

One of the more notable moments in the train's decade long history in Champaign Park was when it was painted pink by some rapscallions as a Halloween prank in 1965. Two unnamed high school kids from Dearborn Heights and George Jolokai from APHS Class of 1966, decided to turn themselves in and went to the Allen Park Police Station. Reading George's account of the incident makes me wax nostalgic and want to be young and stupid again.

What follows is George Jolokai's reminiscence of the train painting incident in all its charming innocence.


Appropriately, the idea to paint the train in Champaign Park pink came to us while we were sitting on the roof of the engine of the train. It was early October, 1964 and some guys I knew from Dearborn Heights had come by. They were seniors, this was junior year for me. I lived across the street from the park, one house off the corner of Champaign and Buckingham. The train had been moved there a few years earlier and eventually the city put up a fence and locked gate, but going over there, hopping the fence and hanging out was not all that unusual. It was a few weeks before Halloween, somehow the talk had turned to pranks.

The notion of “Hey, we could paint the train!” was obvious and it would have died there except I hadn’t tumbled to the fact that blurting out things that just popped into my brain wasn’t always a good idea. Things like “Hey, my dad’s got a bunch of pink paint down in the basement that he forgot all about!”.

On a Friday night within a week of our rooftop epiphany we did the deed. I grabbed a couple gallons of pink paint and some black paint from our basement and we headed over to the train in the dark. My folks were out of town, I’m sure it was after 10:00 PM when we started. Maybe spent two hours painting at most. We were more into transforming the train and getting a reaction to the whole thing being pink instead of just painting initials or slogans. (An early Heidelberg Project?) We used rollers and big brushes, got a lot done before we ran out of paint, and stuffed all the paint cans in a park trash can.

The reaction after that was kinda cool, but I knew I couldn’t tell anyone, so in school it was a lot of listening to other folks tell me they “knew who really did it.” It ran in the Mellus newspaper, folks came by the park to look and pretty quickly it was just there, no big deal.

Until a few weeks later. My uncle was over, he and my dad were talking in the dining room about it. I was in the kitchen. My uncle was into building Heathkit electronic stuff and figured the guys who did it must have had a police scanner. And a lookout. And a whole bunch of guys painting and they must have worked until almost dawn. He and my dad started talking about tipping over outhouses and what a good prank the painting had been since the train looked better, and at least folks came to look at it now.

They are almost dropping the topic when my uncle says “Hey, so what was George up to that night?” Har, har. Choke, choke in the kitchen when my dad answers, “Oh you don’t have to worry about that kid. He was with us up at…no wait, he was home that weekend. Yeah, but ya don’t have to worry about him.”

Phew, it’s sounding like I’m in the clear. Until he adds, “Of course I do have all that pink paint down in the basement. Maybe I better count the cans!” Bigger har, har. Blam! The kick to my chest as I realize “of course”, it’s not like my dad was so stockpiled with paint he wouldn’t know the inventory was down by three or four gallons. I just knew he had never used it. It had been there forever bought from some sale at Sears. Duh! How could I have ever thought he had “forgotten” all about it?

Well, my uncle left and I figure I better confess before my dad goes and counts. Predictably dad does his real angry bit. Wants to know who I did the prank with. I wouldn’t tell him, so he made a simple declaration. I either go turn myself in, or I don’t leave the house. Forever. While I knew I might only serve three to five of that “grounded for life” sentence, that was still too bleak.

I called the other guys, told them they didn’t have to come with me, but that I was going to go to the cop shop and turn myself in. They manned up and said they would come with me. Next day, we went down to the Allen Park Police Station, asked for the detective in charge of the case, like they must have had a special inter-departmental task force assigned to it. The guy at the desk asks if we want to give our names or not, thinking we were there to rat someone out. I say “Uh, I think you’ll want our names.”

I seem to recall them not taking it too seriously, until they noticed we were being sort of too casual ourselves. Then the “We’ll turn this over to the D.A.’s office” started. Oh, and since I was fifteen, I was still a juvenile, but the other two guys had already turned sixteen, so “You guys could be in a lot more trouble!”

My friends both glared at me, probably figuring it was a setup all along. One of them had applied to the Air Force Academy, so a possible arrest might not go too well. Then the cops blew their edge when they told us “You know, we were getting pretty close on this case. We had tracked down where you got the paint!”. Wow, ace detecting, that and the ability to read the “SEARS Weather Beater” label on the paint cans.

The city soon contacted our parents, told us to be at the park the next Saturday at 9:00 AM sharp to repaint the train. We spent the next two Saturdays at it, painting all day with some guy supervising us who knew we were saving him a whole lot of work. He made sure we did a job that would last. A few weeks later, they sent my mom a bill for the paint and she went ballistic. No way was she going to pay. The city already had budgeted for the paint, they were going to repaint the train soon anyway, and we saved them the labor. So no way! The guy’s mom who was applying to the Air Force Academy, however, paid it immediately. Case closed.

George is to the right. Photo taken by his brother.

That was it. No repercussions, no arrests, no court records. Simpler times, yeah, but then again it wasn’t like we were out to destroy capitalism or anything. We were just dumb guys with a dumb idea and an overactive sense of mission. The one friend of mine did eventually make it into to the Academy and graduated. I talked to the other guy a few years ago. He had made a career of the Army and had recently retired as a colonel.

Me, I didn’t paint any more trains. It was a fairly thoughtless prank that didn’t take anything to pull off but might have been a whole lot more consequential. We were lucky. The repainting seemed fair, so lesson learned: Do something dumb and you could be held responsible. What a concept! Certainly wasn’t a bad take away lesson…though I still think the train was more interesting when it was pink. // gj

Images of America link:

Monday, June 23, 2014

John Norman Collins Playbook Formula

For over three years, Ryan M. Place and I have been actively looking into the unsolved Washtenaw County Murder cases from 1967-1969. We have interviewed countless numbers of people connected with these cases from friends and family of the victims who allowed us to speak with them, to law enforcement officials who were involved with these cases, to various people drawn into the investigation one way or another, and some few supporters of John Norman Collins.

My contacts with Collins supporters usually take the form of hit and run verbalism because their arguments in his defense are unsustainable. John's ability to inspire loyalty in his supporters says less about him and more about their willing suspension of disbelief on his behalf. It is particularly difficult for his teammates who played high school sports with Collins at St. Clements High School in Center Line, Michigan. It is a shame that this tragedy casts a long shadow.

Although Collins' high school girlfriend has denied this to me, I've discovered from several unrelated sources, Collins himself for one, that she has been corresponding with him since he was imprisoned. He speaks about her with adoration in some of the prison letters I have obtained. In any case, she has shown John loyalty and refused to speak with me about her on again/off again relationship with Collins. After all these years, he still exerts some influence over her. She is only one of a number of people who still grant John Norman Collins a certain amount of power and control over them.

In a Facebook message I received on March 25, 2014, someone named Marcy Miller asked me if I had emailed her last year about John Norman Collins. I thought that sounded weird. I had no memory of contacting her, so I asked my Rainy Day Murders researcher to check his records of our contacts. Ryan was certain neither of us had made so much as a courtesy call to Marcy Miller, nor had her name ever come up in any of our research. That in itself made her contact with me interesting. Who is this mystery woman and what is her interest in this case?

But as I read on, I saw a pattern emerge from her message that I recognized from reading a number of Collins' prison letters from other people who have written to him. Collins was attempting to solidify his diminishing number of supporters and obfuscate the facts of his case with his own talking points. She began with an if this/than that statement setting me up for a straw man argument:

"Remember when I told you that (Collins) sends me a birthday card every year? [No!] Well, John said that you said some not so nice things about me. I can't imagine what you could have said to hurt my reputation. [Me either.]"

Not for the first time has John Norman Collins used a woman for a third-party proxy to shield himself from our direct inquiries and poison the well of truth. What Marcy wrote next put things in some perspective for me:

"When you said you were a friend of John [Those words have never left my lips.], you misrepresented yourself. [Really?] "(John) says you are not a friend and that I should stay away from you [Now I really want to meet her.] because you only want to do harm and not give your readers the option to think otherwise."

From reading Collins' prison letters I have been able to discern a formula that he uses in his personal correspondence. It is the only way he can vicariously assert himself into the lives of his supporters to perpetuate the mythology of his innocence and persecution at the hands of the State of Michigan.

"I also told you [I still don't remember.] that we [Who?] got a hold of Ted Bundy's attorney before his (Ted's) execution, and he admitted that he (Bundy) was in Ann Arbor during the time of the murders, but he didn't admit to any of them (the murders)."

Now I had something concrete to dispute with her. There is evidence that Ted Bundy did cruise through Ann Arbor one weekend in 1974 while evading law enforcement out West. But Collins had been behind bars since July 31, 1969. That's a five year gap, yet this myth still circulates out in cyberspace. Marcy also asserted that the murders didn't end with Collins. They just moved over to Oakland County. This is another Playbook myth that Collins takes every opportunity to perpetuate. After her two bogus examples, I was amused by her next sentence, "Are you sure you have all your facts straight? Call me!"

So I did. Marcy Miller and I spoke on the phone for about twenty minutes that morning. The conversation was cordial, and I found out some background. She was not an ex-girlfriend as I had suspected, but she was dating Collins when he was arrested. Marcy met Collins at a local Michigan lake when she was sixteen and vacationing with her family. Her parents thought John was a nice guy, and he soon attached himself loosely to their family.

When the Miller family discovered that Collins had been arrested as the prime suspect in the unsolved Washtenaw County murders, they fell into denial. It couldn't be John, he was so nice. I didn't hear from Marcy for almost three months, but on June 14, 2014, I got another message from her. She had checked out some of my blog posts on Collins and began to realize that what he had been telling her for over forty years was not strictly factual. Not even close.

"John sent me a birthday letter in March warning me about you. I have not written him back since we last talked. Knowing the truth is terrifying. I spent over forty years wondering. Fifty percent of me thought they had the wrong man. I knew in my heart that one day I would know the truth. I prayed for that day.

"I spent years talking to him about Jesus and how he would be set free if he only believed, but John just didn't get it. That's when I slowed down and only wrote him once a year. When DNA testing came out, I was so excited, but John didn't want to have anything to do with it. He said they would use it against him [Isn't that an indirect admission?] and mix it all up. After that, he was lucky to get a letter from me every five years. I talked to an old boyfriend who was locked up with him. He told me John was strange, but I defended him. Boy was I an idiot!"

"(John) called me LC for Linda Carter (TV's Wonder Woman). I looked like her clone. I heard that from everybody, but he really knew how to charm me. Even after forty years, I'm still his LC. I just want to thank you for writing this book, doing this investigation, and setting me free."

What prompted me to write and share this post was a contact I had last week with a Collins family associate who accused me of exploiting the family's pain for profit and insisted that Ryan and my efforts are harmful and will do nothing to help anyone.

Really? I have received many thank yous from people who didn't have a platform or a community to share their memories about this terrible time. Some are now able to articulate their feelings and come to grips with these cases and John Norman Collins.

Rather than run every piece of correspondence I get, I chose to post remarks from this one because it clearly shows the formula Collins uses in his correspondence to his dwindling numbers of followers. I wrote Marcy asking if I could run her story and use her name.

"Marcy, can I use your recent responses in a blog post? Your remarks will resonant with some women and maybe help someone else break free from Collins' grip. He has a letter writing formula which your posts clearly depict. I would like to reveal that equation to my readers because he uses the same approach with everyone."

"Yes, use my name and photo. My family and friends will be glad I finally came to my senses. I normally would never believe an inmate, but I knew him before he went in. I was a fool."

"Thanks, Marcy. There are people who suspect and accuse me of making this stuff up."

After reading many of Collins letters and/or speaking with people he has written to, a definite pattern emerges from his correspondence. First, he creates an exclusive nickname for his pen pals which creates a unique identity and a special bond with them. Marcy was called "LC" for Linda Carter. A woman he was courting by mail called Sandra was given the pseudonym of "My Georgia Peach." A British woman named Katie who wrote Collins for some time was given the sobriquet, "My Wild Irish Rose." A woman from Australia was called "Vix", and Collins' Canadian cousin was rechristened "Little Brother."

Collins always finds a way to interject himself vicariously into the personal lives and affairs of the people he is writing. He never misses sending people birthday cards/letters and Christmas greetings. They seem to be hooks that bind people to his claustrophobic circle of personal intimacy. He plays on their sympathies and complains about his prison treatment, the food, poor healthcare, the prison store, his family that doesn't write him anymore, and how he never has any money.

Within the last year or so, my researcher and I have been mentioned as bad guys to be avoided at all costs. Collins told his recent pen pal, Sandra, that my researcher Ryan had threatened John's Canadian cousin with a beating. I immediately called the cousin and told him what I had learned. He laughed and said, "Where does my cousin come up with this stuff?

It amazes me that some people still allow John Norman Collins the power to influence what they say and do. I can faithfully report that their numbers are declining as is his ability to manipulate people.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Staying in the Writing Zone

An entrepreneur from another age came up with an ingenious invention for eliminating distractions for writers called the Isolator. As the above photograph depicts, there was a mechanical solution for even the most human of behaviors, our inherent distractability. I had to laugh when I saw this product and wished I could go on the Internet and order it.

Whether this photo was originally a sight gag or a serious attempt to keep the writer distraction free and focused, the thinking behind the Isolator is as true today as it was in the past. Writing requires intense concentration over sustained periods of time. Even the slightest distractions can derail a writer's train of thought.

When writers are deep into the creation process, time and space seem to disappear, their creative juices begin to flow, and they write as if they could go on forever poring wisdom and enlightenment from the ends of their keyboard tapping fingers.

Then the doorbell rings, a telemarketer calls, or the neighbor's dogs start barking nonstop and the spell is broken. Being in the writing groove is nothing less than sacrosanct for writers. Not every writer is lucky enough to have a sanctum sanctorum immune from such distractions.

The image of the pastoral poet who creates beautiful verse next to a babbling brook amid warbling songbirds is stereotypical. Most of those cavalier love songs were written in noisy taverns by young bloods under the influence of the local grog. My point is that most writers create amid the distractions and cacophony of everyday life. 

As much as writers try to control life around them, writing doesn't happen in a vacuum. Dealing with interruption is a part of life and unavoidable. As annoying as distractions are, it is too easy for writers to get lost in their manuscripts and forget the greater world around them. For serious writers, the act of writing is a solitary obsession.

What drives every serious writer is the knowledge that when the muse strikes, she better find you working. Passion for the work trumps everything else. Without that, it doesn't matter what you write or how long you have worked on it.