“Ken, two kids just came in with some story about a body out in a field somewhere. Want to go down and see what it’s all about?”
Last True Crime Tuesday, I talked about the still unsolved Robison Family Murders.
One of the theories (however unlikely, and if you read this post you’ll see why) batted around has been that the family fell victim to John Norman Collins, aka the Ypsilanti Ripper, the Michigan Murderer, and the Co-Ed Killer.
Oh shit, I just love those classically cheesy serial killer nicknames.
John Norman Collins beat and strangled seven women to death between 1967 and 1969. Grab a drink, snuggle in and let’s take a longggggggg journey through a savage serial killer’s spree. This is an intense one and probably comes across best if you read it like Keith Morrison is narrating it.
When I first started to learn about John Norman Collins, I was struck by how much he reminded me of Ted Bundy – good looking, “all-American”; a fun, kind and motivated fraternity brother. A normal guy, who aspired to be a school teacher and gave no outward indication of his darker side; a darker side directed towards young university girls.
Collins happened before Bundy. He’s the original co-ed nightmare.
Collins darker side propelled him to petty crime and eventually, to taking the lives of (allegedly) seven young women – between the ages of 13 and 21 – in the Ann Arbor area. Collins beat and raped, then strangled or stabbed his victims to death. Sometimes after death he would mutilate their bodies before discarding their remains within the same 15-mile radius of Washtenaw County.
Collins was arrested one week after his final victim. He was convicted of her death, and charged with the death of one other, but there are other victims attributed to him. He maintains his innocence, to this day.
First Known Victim
Mary Terese Fleszar was a 19-year-old East Michigan University student who was last seen alive on July 9, 1967. A neighbour had seen Fleszar walking towards her Ypsilanti apartment with a blue-grey car slowly driving alongside her. Twice the neighbour observed the car come to a halt and the driver try to speak to Fleszar. Each time, Fleszar would shake her head “no” and walk away from the car.
Four weeks later, on August 7th, two teenage boys found Mary’s body on an abandoned farm. Badly decomposed, she needed to be identified through dental records.
Pathology determined Fleszar had been stabbed 30 times in the chest and abdomen, her feet had been severed above the ankle, her thumb and sections of her fingers were missing from one hand, and the forearm on the other side had been severed from the body. These missing appendages were never found.
Despite the state of decomposition from being exposed to the elements, the pathologist was also able to find multiple abrasions on Fleszar’s chest and torso, indicating that she’d been beaten before her death.
After examination of the crime scene, it was concluded Fleszar had been moved three times before the discovery of her body. First, the body had lain upon a pile of bottles and cans, hidden from view by trees. She was then dragged five feet into a field, where she remained exposed but undiscovered. The murderer returned again and moved the body three more feet, and shortly after the remains were discovered.
Two days later, a young man showed up at the funeral home that was holding Fleszar’s body, readying it for burial. The visitor asked for permission to take a photograph of the body, saying it was a keepsake for Fleszar’s parents. When told no by the funeral home employee, he replied: “You mean you can’t fix her up enough so I could just get one picture of her?” Sternly told no a second time, the young man left wordlessly. Fleszar’s family never confirmed that they’d sent this person.
The funeral home employee could not offer a specific description of the man, saying vaguely that he was handsome and white with dark hair. But added that he didn’t have a camera with him. And he drove a blue-grey car.
One year later…
On July 5, 1968, the body of Joan Elspeth Schell was found by construction workers on an Ann Arbor roadside. She was a 20-year-old art student who was last seen alive by her roommate, Susan Kolbe, at a bus stop on Washtenaw Avenue on June 30th. Schell had been on her way to visit her boyfriend – Kolbe walked her to the stop.
When she realized she’d missed her bus, Schell decided to hitchhike. According to Kolbe, when a red-and-black Pontiac Bonneville containing three young white men slowed to a stop, the driver – aged about 20 with dark hair parted to the side – asked: “Want a ride?” Kolbe tried to dissuade Schell from getting a ride from the guys in the car, but Schell went anyway. Schell promised to call her roommate once she got to her boyfriend’s apartment.
Three hours later, Kolbe hadn’t heard from Schell so she filed a missing person’s report.
Schell had been raped, then stabbed 25 times with a knife. Several stab wounds punctured her lungs, liver and carotid artery. An additional wound was found behind her left ear, resulting in a fractured skull. Her throat had been slashed and her mini skirt tied around her neck.
Police sought out the registered owners of more than 150 red-and-black vehicles in the state of Michigan, and established the alibis of numerous men who matched the description of the driver Kolbe had provided. But all leads went cold.
Two months after Schell’s murder, new eyewitnesses turned up. They stated they had seen Schell walking with a young man the evening she disappeared. And although neither student could be certain, both witnesses believed that student to be John Norman Collins. He bore a striking resemblance to the driver of the red-and-black car Kolbe had seen.
Collins was brought in and questioned by police. He outright denied knowing Schell, and provided an alibi for the weekend of her disappearance, saying he was at his mother’s house in the Detroit suburb of Center Line. He claimed to have not returned to Ypsilanti until the morning of July 1st. Police found him to be personable and calm, and took him at his word, never verifying his alibi.
Jane Louise Mixer disappeared on March 20, 1969, after posting a note on a college bulletin board looking for a ride to her hometown of Muskegon. She was a 23-year-old University of Michigan student who needed to meet with her family about imminent plans to move to New York City.
Mixer’s body was found lying across a grave in Denton Cemetery – fully clothed, covered with her own raincoat and with a copy of the novel Catch-22 placed by her side.
Autopsy revealed Mixer had been shot twice in the head with a .22 calibre pistol, then garroted with a nylon stocking that had not belonged to her. The pathologist noted Mixer had not been sexually assaulted – but her tights had been lowered to expose her thighs and subsequently, a menstrual pad. This led investigators to believe the killer had been sexually motivated, but was stopped by Mixer’s period. It was determined that she was killed around 3am on March 21st, and that she had been moved to the cemetery after her death.
Despite the details of murder being somewhat different than those of Felszar and Schell, the suspected intention of rape, her student status, the tying of the nylon around her neck, and the proximity of her abduction and murder to those of Felszar and Schell, caused investigators to consider all three murders were committed by the same person.
Only four days after the discovery of Mixer’s body, on March 25th, a surveyor discovered the nude, mutilated body of a teenage girl behind a vacant house on a remote, rural section of road, just a few hundred yards from where the body of Joan Schell had been discovered eight months previous. The victim was identified as Maralynn Skelton, a 16-year-old high school student. She had disappeared while hitchhiking in Ann Arbor, and was last seen alive outside a drive-in restaurant on Washtenaw Avenue, two days before her body was discovered.
One investigator described the injuries inflicted upon Skelton as the worst he’d ever seen in thirty years of police work. The dramatic increase in violence was noted by the police, and the subsequent autopsy revealed the teenager had died of numerous fractures covering a third of her skull and one side of her face. All of these wounds had been inflicted with a heavy blunt object. Skelton had been excessively beaten and tortured: her killer stuffed a piece of her shirt into her trachea to muffle her screams. A garter belt was tied around her neck, and several deep lacerations on her body were believed to be caused by flogging with a leather strap. A stick was broken off a nearby tree and shoved inside her vagina.
Blood splatter and churned soil close to the crime scene indicated Skelton had been murdered very close to where her body was found, and that she had attempted to escape her attacker.
The fact that Skelton was a known drug user and dealer, as opposed to a university student, cause some junior investigators to speculate that her murder had been drug-related. Despite the questions, Ann Arbor Police Chief Walter Krasny formally linked Skelton’s murder to the other three, and pushed for the formation of a coordinated task force.
The Task Force
Five separate jurisdictions where girls had been abducted, or their bodies found, combined resources following Skelton’s murder. By early April, each of these law enforcement agencies had collectively assigned 20 investigators to work exclusively on the four homicides.
Little physical evidence existed beyond eyewitness descriptions, but police continued to note common denominators:
- all of the victims had been brunette white girls
- each (excluding Mixer) had been beaten with a blunt and/or bladed object
- each victim was found within a 15-mile radius of Washtenaw County
- each victim (excluding Mixer) had knife wounds to the neck
- each victim had an article of clothing tied around their neck
- each woman had been menstruating at the time of her death
Police publicly announced that at least three of the victims had been killed by the same person.
On April 16th, the body of Dawn Louise Basom was found on a desolate road in Ypsilanti. She was 13-years-old and last seen alive at 7:30pm the night before, walking home from a friend’s house.
She was found wearing only a white blouse and bra, which had been pushed up around her neck. She’d been repeatedly stabbed in the chest and genitals, slashed across the breasts, buttocks and stomach, then strangled to death with a two-foot electrical flex, left knotted around her neck. A handkerchief was found stuffed into her throat.
An orange mohair sweater that belonged to Basom was found in a deserted farmhouse some 100 yards from where her body was found. Glass particles from inside the basement of the farmhouse were consistent to those found in the soles of Basom’s shoes. Another article of her clothing, a length of electrical flex and fresh blood stains were found in the house, and police determined this to be the murder location. An earring later determined to belong to Maralynn Skelton was also found in the basement, deliberately placed and further linking the crimes.
On May 13th, the farmhouse was destroyed in an act of arson.
Five clipped lilacs were found in an even line across the driveway to the house, a message, investigators believed, placed there by the murderer to symbolize each victim.
Less than three months later, on June 9, three teenage boys discovered the partially nude body of a young woman in a field close to the burned down farmhouse. She was identified as 21-year-old Alice Elizabeth Kalom. A University of Michigan graduate student, who had disappeared shortly after midnight on June 8th. She was last seen walking towards her apartment, after leaving a friend’s party. Several dried blood stains and two buttons missing from the Kalom’s raincoat were found in a commercial gravel pit, indicating the location of the murder.
Kalom had multiple stab wounds to her body, including two that punctured her heart. She was shot in the head before her neck was slashed – a cut so deep it severed her spine. There was a gunshot wound to Kalom’s right thumb, suggesting she raised her hands to protect herself before the killer shot her at point-blank range. She had been raped, and her clothing had been scattered around her body, minus one of her shoes that was never recovered.
The Last Victim
By July 1969, the task force had investigated and eliminated more than 1000 convicted sex offenders as suspects, had sorted through over 800 tips from informants, and had conducted several thousand interviews.
Despite the focus on the case by law enforcement, public outcry reached an all-time high. University students armed themselves and adopted a buddy system where they refused to walk anywhere without one trusted male friend, or at least three other girls. Sales of tear gas, knives, and security locks increased. And hitchhiking became a rarity.
Then, on July 23, 1969, 18-year-old Karen Sue Beineman, an Eastern Michigan University student, disappeared. She was reported missing by her roommate when she didn’t show up to their room after curfew. She’d last been seen alive heading downtown to a wig shop in the afternoon.
Three days later, Beineman’s body was found, nude and face down in a wooded gully alongside a parkway. She’d been extensively beaten, with some lacerations so severe sections of her skin had come off, exposing subcutaneous tissue. She had skull fractures and brain injuries, caused by a blunt instrument. Her neck, shoulders, nipples and breasts had been burned by a caustic agent, which she was then forced to drink. As with the others, a section of her clothing had been placed inside her throat.
The official cause of death was listed as strangulation, though the injuries to her skull and brain would have ended up being fatal given time. She had been raped prior to her murder, with her torn underwear place inside her vagina.
The underwear contained human semen and human hair clippings. The hair clippings were predominantly blond, not matching the victim’s dark brown hair colour.
Mindful that the killer had returned to the location of his other victim’s before their discovery, police theorized the killer would also attempt to return to the location of Beineman’s body. Police enforced a media blackout, as to not tip off the killer that they’d found his latest victim. Beineman’s body was replaced with a tailor’s mannequin as police monitored the gully.
At 2 a.m. the next morning, in the midst of a heavy rainstorm, an officer observed a young man, with dark hair, running away from the gully.
Store clerks from the wig shop Beineman stopped at the day she disappeared, recalled her saying, as she purchased her new wig: “I’ve got to be either the bravest or the dumbest girl alive because I’ve just accepted a ride from this guy.” Beineman left the shop and climbed into the back a motorcycle driven by a young man with short, side-parted dark hair. He drove a blue Triumph motorcycle.
The description of the young man whom Beineman drove off with was heard by patrolman Larry Matthewson, who believed the person described to be John Norman Collins, a former fraternity brother of his, who he had seen riding a blue motorcycle around the university campus on the afternoon Beineman went missing. Matthewson followed up, questioning Collins who confirmed he was in the area riding his bike.
Taking photographs of Collins back to the wig shop clerks, both women were convinced that the man in the pictures was the same man with whom Beineman was last seen alive outside their store.
John Norman Collins was a motorcycle enthusiast, who owned several bikes, including a blue Triumph. He held a part-time job as an inspector at a manufacturing firm, and was enrolled in elementary education at Eastern Michigan University. Prior to his post-secondary career, he had been a honour student and the football co-captain.
Collins had a reputation among his peers at the university as a thief. He’d been evicted from his fraternity following allegations that he’s been stealing from his roommates. And despite friends and casual female acquaintances saying he was polite around women, females who had become closer to him described him as an aggressive, short-tempered, oversexed individual who had engaged in violence against women, including one instance where he raped a woman who had resisted his advances.
Several of these women who knew him better explained that Collins would become enraged when he’d learn a woman was menstruating. One woman revealed to police that while Collins was groping her breasts, she put a stop to the encounter by revealing she was on her period. Collins had yelled, “that’s really disgusting!”, and then angrily left her apartment.
During the police investigation into Collins, authorities interviewed his co-workers who said Collins took delight in describing the details of each victim linked to the Michigan Murderer to his female colleagues. He told the colleagues the details of the crimes had been told to him by an uncle, David Leik, who served as a sergeant in the state police. The details of the murders, as recounted by Collins, were consistent with reality, even the parts that were not released to the press. Leik adamantly denies that he ever told his nephew information about the murders.
Investigators were able to confirm Collins had either known or been acquainted with most of the victims. He’d been a neighbour of Mary Fleszar and Joan Schell, had worked in an office across the hallways from Fleszar and had dated a girl who lived across the road from Dawn Basom.
On July 27, police arrived at the apartment Collins shared with his roommate, Arnold Davis. They wanted Collins to come down to the station to take a polygraph test. Despite insisting on his innocence, Collins refused to take the polygraph test. Later, Davis asked Collins why he was getting rid of a box that held random objects in the middle of the night. Davis observed a shoe, rolled up jean-like material and a burlap purse inside the box. Collins told Davis he just “decided to get rid of” the box.
Collins’ uncle, State Police Sergeant David Leik, had been on vacation with his family at the time of Beineman’s disappearance, and returned home three days after the discovery of her body. During this time away, Collins had been temporarily residing in the Leik family’s Ypsilanti home to dog sit their German shepherd.
Despite acknowledging that the evidence against his nephew was compelling, Leik refused to believe in Collins’ guilt. That is until scraping away black paint that Collins had applied to the basement to reveal a stain which Leik thought appeared to be blood. He reported his findings, and soon found his home was the subject of intense forensic examination.
Although experts would later conclude that the blood-like stain was actually a red varnish, investigators did discover numerous hair clippings in the basement. Leik told investigators his wife regularly cut their blonde children’s hair in the basement, and had done so before they left for vacation. Bloodstains were also discovered in nine areas of the basement. They were Type A – the same blood type as Karen Beineman.
The hairs found in Beineman’s underwear and the hair recovered from the basement of the Leik home were subjected to a detailed forensic neutron analysis and were concluded to be a match.
Despite Collin’s protests that he didn’t know Beineman at all, evidence concluded that she had been in the Leik basement at the time of, or shortly before, her murder. A neighbour of Leik’s recalled hearing muffled screams of a young woman coming from the Leik household on the evening of Beineman’s disappearance.
A thorough search of Collins’ apartment and vehicles turned up many stolen items which his roommate Arnold Davis said Collins stole with a former roommate Andrew Manuel, but none that linked him to Beineman or the other Michigan Murderer victims. Davis also informed police that two days before his arrest, he’d seen Collins carrying a box full of women’s clothing and jewelry from the apartment towards his car.
On August 1, 1969, John Norman Collins was formally arraigned for the murder of Karen Sue Beineman. And a short while later, investigators were contacted by their counterparts in Salinas, California. They stated they had reason to believe a Michigan individual name John was possibly responsible for the June 30th death of a 17-year-old girl name Roxie Ann Phillips. Two Washtenaw County detectives travelled to Salinas Police Department to determine a connection between Phillips murder and Collins.
Prior to her disappearance, Phillips told a close friend that she’d become acquainted with an Eastern Michigan University student named John, who drove a grey-blue car and was temporarily living with a friend in a camper-trailer. Upon tracing Collins movements, police discovered that on June 21st, Collins and his old roommate Andrew Manuel had travelled to Monterey in Collin’s blue-grey car, which the pair used to tow a camper-trailer they had rented under false names, and had paid for with a stolen cheque. Collins returned to Michigan alone in his car; Manuel would later be located in Arizona following Collins arrest.
Through interviewing acquaintances of Phillips, police established that she’d met Collins through another 17-year-old friend, Nancy Ann Albrecht. Nancy described “John from Michigan” as being 5′,11″, clean cut with dark hair parted to the side, and who described himself as an Eastern Michigan University student with aspirations to become a teacher.
Phillips nude, battered body was found in a ravine on July 13th, with a belt belonging to her dress knotted around her neck. She had been strangled to death, and as with several of the Michigan victims, one earring was missing. Several of Phillips’ personal possessions would later be found strewn along State Route 68.
The trailer in which Collins and Manuel had resided in California was found in Salinas County, behind the home of Andrew Manuel’s grandfather. A forensic examination of the trailer revealed it had been completely wiped of prints. Manuel’s grandfather told police that Andrew and a friend, one John Collins, had resided in the trailer, but had abandoned it and returned (he thought) to Michigan.
Investigators looked all the information and agreed there was enough evidence to definitively link the murder of Roxie Phillips to the Michigan Murders. An FBI warrant was issued against Andrew Manuel, who was extensively questioned about his potential involvement in the Phillips murder, and to those committed in Michigan. On December 18th, 1969, the prosecutor’s office announced it was satisfied that Manuel had “no knowledge of the murders.”
John Norman Collins was officially indicted for the murder of Roxie Phillips on April 1970. Evidence pertaining to the indictment was ordered to be sealed until after the trial of Collins for the murder of Karen Beineman.
On June 2, 1970, Collins’ trial for the murder of only Beineman began. Upon recommendation from his lawyers, Collins chose not to testify in his own defence. Forty-seven witnesses appeared on behalf of the prosecution, including Collin’s roommate Arnold Davis and the wig shop clerks. Five witnesses appeared on behalf of the defence, four of whom were intended to give Collins an alibi for the afternoon Beineman disappeared.
Court concluded on August 19, 1970, when John Norman Collins was unanimously found guilty of the first-degree murder of Karen Beineman. He remained impassive when the verdict was announced, although many spectators gasped audibly, and Collin’s mother and sister broke down in tears. Collins was sentenced to life with hard labour, in solitary confinement, without the possibility of parole, at Southern Michigan Prison.
Before the judge imposed his sentence, he gave Collins a chance to address the court:
I have two things to say: I think they [the jury] conscientiously tried to give me a fair trial. The jury did not take its task lightly, but, I think things were blown out of proportion. The circumstances surrounding this case prevented me from getting a fair trial. It was a travesty of justice that took place in this courtroom. I hope someday it will be corrected; second, I never knew a girl named Karen Sue Beineman; I never had a conversation with her. I never took her to a wig shop; I never took her to my uncle’s home. I never took her life.
In January 1972, California authorities waived all extradition proceedings against Collins for Roxie Phillip’s murder. Their reason being, Collins was already serving a life sentence and would be returned to Michigan to serve his sentence anyway, if convicted.
Collins has never been tried for the murders of Fleszar, Schell, Skelton, Basom, Kalom or Phillips, but physical and circumstantial evidence exists in each case and authorities consider Collins the only person of interest in their murders.
In the years following his conviction, Collins’ mother and siblings, and several of his friends remained steadfast in their belief of his innocence, claiming he has been the victim of a miscarriage of justice. The family avoids all contact with the Leiks.
Collins granted his first interview six years after his incarceration. In it he denied any involvement with any of the Michigan murders or Roxie Phillips. He asserted that key evidence attesting to his innocence had been suppressed by the prosecution, that the jury had been biased, and that the scientific testimony related to blood and hair comparisons were invalid.
In October 1977, Collins was moved from Southern Michigan Prison to Marquette Branch Prison, due to his repeated dealings in contraband drugs, and conspiring with a fellow inmate to escape. The planned escape attempt was successful, but Collins didn’t participate because of a broken foot. Later, at Marquette in 1979, he planned another escape, which was thwarted. He and his co-conspirators were transferred to a more secure cell block.
In 1981, Collins requested a transfer to a Canadian prison, with the belief that this would facilitate his prospects of being released eventually. Collins holds dual citizenship and under Canadian law, he would have (at the time) been eligible for release after serving nine years of his sentence. His application was initially approved, but was then reversed due to public outrage. He repeatedly appealed the reversal, but lost.
On July 11, 2005, a 62-year-old former nurse name Gary Earl Leiterman was charged with the murder of Jane Louise Mixer, who was once considered a possible third victim of the Michigan Murderer. Leiterman was sentenced to life without parole after DNA evidence was discovered when the case was reopened in 2001.
Collins is currently serving his life sentence in Administrative Segregation at the Marquette Branch Prison. He continues to maintain his innocence of the murder of Karen Beineman, as well as the other murders linked to the Michigan Murderer, despite having refused multiple offers for a public polygraph test.
Whooooo that was a long one…but these classic serial killers tales can be so interesting. These guys used to be so brazen, so unapologetic, and so in your face; creating mass hysteria. I mean, can you imagine living in a city with a curfew because there was a guy out there killing all the women in your town? That would be so surreal, but it was a reality, even as little as 20 years ago – before technology and scientific advancement forced them to hide, or be smarter about how they kill.
John Douglas, a former Chief of the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit and author of Mind Hunter (which the Netflix show is based on) says, “A very conservative estimate is that there are between 35-50 active serial killers in the United States” at any given time.
But if that’s not enough to scare you, read this: Thousands of Serial Killers in the United States, says Scientist.
Good thing I’m in Canada, eh?
But, what do you think true crime lovers – was the evidence against Collins strong enough to convict him of the murder of Karen Beineman? If you were in the jury would you have voted “guilty”? Do you believe he is the Michigan Murderer, guilt of all seven women linked to him?
I often watch shows like Dateline, and am amazed at how little evidence is required to convict a person to life in prison. Or even death. The bar seems so low in the American court system.
Until next time, Booknerds…