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.