John Norman Collins may not be a name that comes as quickly to mind as Charlie Manson, but Collins’s alleged reign of terror in Michigan between 1967 and 1969 is not one that many will ever forget.
In the summer of 1967, Collins began to strike fear into college campuses in Ypsilanti, Michigan. It all began when Mary Fleszar disappeared from the Eastern Michigan University campus. When her body was finally found a few weeks later, it had been hacked to pieces after someone stabbed her to death. A red flag should have gone up when a young man reportedly appeared at the mortuary asking to take pictures of what was left of Fleszar. The request was quickly denied, but when employees were asked to describe him to police, they couldn’t.
In 1968, another student disappeared. Joan Schell’s body was found five days after she vanished. There was evidence that she had been raped before someone stabbed her at least 47 times. She had last been seen with one John Norman Collins, but when police questioned him, they determined that his alibi was acceptable. Unfortunately, that might have been a fatal error. Eight months later, police found the body of Jane Mixer. Mixer had been strangled and shot in the head.
A few days after that, construction workers near the place where Schell’s body had been found discovered the body of Maralynn Skelton. Skelton had been bludgeoned to death, flogged with what was described as a heavy strap, and was the victim of a brutal sexual assault. Then came the murder of Dawn Basom, who was just 13 years of age. Basom was stripped half-naked and strangled with an electrical cord. With the Basom murder, however, the killer began to taunt police. When officials arrived for a second search of the farmhouse just a few days later, there were clothes there that hadn’t been there before. Within days of that incident, a building on the same property was burnt to the ground. The final laugh in the face of authorities came when police found five clipped lilac blossoms lined up across a driveway on the property, one for each of the outstanding murders. Just a few weeks after Basom’s body was discovered, a small group of teenage boys found the body of Alice Kalom in a vacant field near Ypsilanti. She had also been raped and stabbed multiple times before the killer shot her in the head and slit her throat.
The final victim in the chain was Karen Beineman. Beineman was found in a gully. Like the others, she had been brutally beaten and sexually violated. This time, however, the killer had left a little bit of themselves behind. Officials found dark hairs on Beineman’s underwear, and they weren’t hers. Those hairs were linked to John Norman Collins, and that got him sentenced to life in prison with a minimum of 20 years.
It was his own uncle who helped clinch his arrest, as his suspicion that Collins had been up to no good in his basement while dog-sitting for him led him to turn into police some tufts of dark hair he’d found near a questionable stain on his basement floor.
Collins remains behind bars to this day, but has not been tried in the other murders, which officially remain unsolved. It has long been believed that the Collins case might have garnered national attention if not for the fact that at the same time as the Beineman case was going to trial, the Manson Family murders grabbed the nation by the collective collar.A new book from author Gregory A. Fournier explores the case of John Norman Collins. Terror in Ypsilanti: John Norman Collins Unmasked tells the story of the victims that are still suspected to have been connected to Collins, but whose murders could not be immediately linked at the time to take him to trial for them. Fournier then goes on to recount John Norman Collins’s murder trial, including how Collins’s attorney had appealed the conviction up to the Supreme Court. Once Collins’s appeals had run out, the trial transcripts were purged from the courthouse files, and lost forever. Using newspaper articles from the time, as well as some related official documents, Fournier believes that he has pieced together the lost details of Collins’s trial. Fournier’s work stays as true to the established facts as he could manage without turning into sensationalist journalism, using his first-hand knowledge of the area and the time (he lived just one block away from Collins’s home at the time of the murders, and shared connections with the killer as well as friends of the victims) to bring the details of the Ypsilanti murders to life. Fournier has placed a considerable portion of his research online at Fornology.
Main photo: Book cover courtesy of Gregory A. Fournier. Mugshot from the Michigan Department of Corrections