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Arica Frisbey: There are some anniversaries that just aren’t meant to be celebrated, and some moments in history that people would rather leave in the dark. For us at the Echo, that uncelebrated anniversary is that of John Norman Collins’ arrest 50 years ago, and for my grandparents who happened to be EMU students all those years ago, that bit of history we’d rather leave in the dark is that eight girls, all between the ages of 13 and 23, met violent ends between the summers of 1967 and 1969— and for some of the victims, the identity of their murderer has never been confirmed.
I’m Arica Frisbey, and this week, on the Eastern Echo Podcast, we’re taking a look back on the Michigan Murders.
It’s July 9th, 1967. 19-year-old accounting student Mary Terese Fleszar heads out for a walk near Eastern's campus. She’s approached twice by a man in a blue-grey Chevrolet car, and both times, Mary shakes her head at him, refuses to answer his attempts at conversation, and walks away. That was the last time Mary was seen. She had graduated high school just two years before.
About a month later, on August 15th, two teenage boys stumble upon what no one ever hopes to find - a young woman’s body, left to decompose on an abandoned farm between Geddes and LeForge Roads. The woman’s clothes are clothes piled nearby, giving some credence to investigators’ theory that she had been sexually assaulted. Due to decomposition, the theory could never be confirmed. For the same reason, police have to use dental records to identify the victim. It’s Mary.
She had been stabbed approximately 30 times by her attacker, and her feet had been severed just above the ankle. In addition, she was missing a forearm, a thumb and parts of her fingers. The severed limbs were never found.
Before her death, Mary had been beaten, and after death, her body had been moved three times— first to lie atop a pile of cans and bottles, then five feet away from its originally resting place, and finally, three more feet, into the farm field and out of the elder trees.
Two days after Mary had been found, an attendant at the funeral home holding her body reported that a man driving a blue-grey Chevrolet had come in and asked to take a picture of Mary, claiming to be a family friend. He was refused, and he allegedly answered, “You mean you can't fix her up enough so I could just get one picture of her?” After being refused a second time, he left, and the attendant reported that he was a white man with dark hair and no camera.
For almost a year, investigators were left to puzzle over Mary’s death. After all, there was no indication that this murder was the first in a series— not until the body of EMU art student Joan Elspeth Schell was found on July 5th, 1968, just short of a year since Mary went missing. Joan had been last seen June 30th, trying to hitch a ride near McKenny Hall, which served as the EMU Student Union at the time. She had told her roommate, Susan Kolbe, that she intended to go to Ann Arbor to visit her boyfriend. Susan asked Joan to call her once she reached her boyfriend’s, especially after seeing her enter a red and black Pontiac Bonneville, driven by a twenty-year old, dark haired man with two other male passengers.
Susan reported her roommate missing three hours later after hearing nothing, and Joan was found days later along an Ann Arbor roadside by construction workers. When they found her, she had been stabbed 25 times and her throat was slashed, with her blue miniskirt tied around it. Unlike Mary, Joan’s body was still partially intact, leading investigators to learn that she had been raped.
Two months later, two eyewitnesses came forward to say that they had seen Joan on Emmet Street in the company of a young man. They both identified him as John Norman Collins, Joan’s across-the-street neighbor and a fellow Eastern student. When police went to investigate, Collins denied involvement, claiming to be with his mother during Joan’s disappearance. Police never checked his alibi and took him at his word. After all, they had a murderer on the loose and two dead women to seek justice for.
Eight months pass before another young woman goes missing. On March 20th, 1969, 23-year-old University of Michigan student Jane Louise Mixer is seen alive for the last time. One day later, her body is found in Denton Cemetery. Jane had been seeking a ride home to Muskegon to announce her engagement and move to New York to her family. She had been shot twice in the head and was fully clothed, save for her tights, which had been pulled down to reveal her sanitary pad. Unlike the prior cases, Jane had not been sexually assaulted. Instead, she had been garrotted with a pair of nylon tights that didn’t belong to her. To add onto the curious circumstances, she had been covered with her raincoat, and a copy of the novel “Catch-22” was laid beside her. Despite the differences in the cases, investigators grouped her death alongside Mary and Joan’s.
Four days later, another girl is found dead, her body nude and mutilated, and just a few hundred yards from where Joan’s body had been found. However, unlike the other victims, she isn’t a college student. Maralynn Skelton was a 16-year-old Romulus high school student. She allegedly dealt and abused drugs. But this it didn’t explain the level of viciousness Maralynn’s attacker had unleashed. Maralynn had been whipped with a leather belt. A section of her own shirt had been placed down her throat to muffle her screams. Rather than stabbing, the killer had beaten her with a blunt instrument, resulting in fractures to her skull and face. Worst of all, her attacker had torn off a tree branch and inserted it into her vagina.
At first, investigators hesitated to group Maralynn’s case with those previous because she was so young. But the parallels were clear. Maralynn was last seen hitchhiking, her clothes were piled neatly beside her, and a garter belt had been tied around her neck.
However, upon the April 16th discovery of Dawn Louise Basom, a 13-year-old Ypsilanti middle-schooler, investigators were forced to reassess. Dawn had last been seen walking home from a friend’s house the night before. One friend accompanied her part of the way there before leaving her to travel the five remaining blocks alone.
When investigators found Dawn the next morning, they were greeted by a scene eerily similar to Maralynn’s-- at least, in cruelty. Dawn had been stabbed in the chest and genitals multiple times, with slash marks found across her butt, breasts and stomach. However, the coroner discovered that the cause of death was not the stabbing-- it was strangulation, with the two foot electrical flex still knotted around her neck. Her bra was knotted around her neck. She had a handkerchief in her mouth, presumably to muffle her cries for help, and was only wearing her blouse when found. Investigators could not confirm if she had been sexually assaulted.
100 yards away, in a desolate barn, they found Dawn’s orange sweater, fresh bloodstains, and a length of electrical flex similar to what the killer used. It appeared investigators had found their crime scene, a theory further bolstered a week later when an officer doing a routine check found a piece of Dawn’s blouse, as well as Maralynn’s missing earring. These pieces seemed to be a bold message: the killer was watching, and he wanted to make sure people knew it. After the barn was destroyed by arson weeks later, on May 13th, and five clipped lilies (that’s one for each victim thus far) arranged in front of the barn, that message was heard loud and clear.
On June 9th, less than a month after the barn burned down, the body of another young woman was found by three boys on North Territorial Road. She was found partially nude, with multiple stab and slash wounds present. Her neck had been cut through to the spine. The woman also had two gunshot wounds-- one to her forehead, the other to her right thumb. Investigators believe the latter came from her raising her hand to defend herself from being shot at point-blank range. Like the women slain before her, she had been raped.
The next day, the woman was identified as 21-year-old University of Michigan student, Alice Elizabeth Kalom. She was last seen leaving a friend’s party just after midnight the night before. Police later found the crime scene-- a commercial gravel pit in Northfield Township-- via the discovery of bloodstains and two buttons from her coat.
The gunshot wounds that both Alice and Jane suffered forced investigators to reconsider whether all of these murders really were committed by the same person. But whether there was one murderer or several, no culprit had been found. There was still at least one murderer on the loose in Michigan.
It’s now June, 1969. Six girls between the ages of 13 and 23 have become victims of murders that were outrageously brutal, and just plain bizarre. At this point, investigators aren’t the only ones asking questions. 2 years have gone by since Mary Terese Fleszar had been found on that abandoned farm in Ypsilanti, and her murderer is still on the loose. The panic and outrage surrounding the case reaches a fever pitch. With many of the victims being college students of EMU and U of M, women on both campuses begin taking extra precautions. Some begin carrying knives or tear gas. Others adopt buddy systems when walking across campus, walking with at least three other women or a trusted man. Hitchhiking numbers dwindle, and security lock sales soar. A $42,000 reward is offered for information leading to the murderer’s arrest. As a result, investigators look into more than 1,000 sexual offenders and follow up on 800 tips. No luck.
The search grows urgent. A group of Michigan business leaders raise enough money to bring in a Dutch psychic by the name of Peter Hurkos is brought in from L.A. to generate a profile. Hurkos had many predictions-- that the killer was a strongly built white man under the age of 25, that he had been born outside of the United States and rode a motorcycle, that he would have foreign money in his possession, and that investigators would find a homemade ladder. These all would later prove to be true. However, the prediction that kept investigators paying attention was the psychic’s prediction of the killer striking one last time very soon.
On July 23rd, two days after Hurkos predicted the killer would strike again soon, 18-year-old EMU student, Karen Sue Beineman, is reported missing by her roommate. Three days later, investigators find Karen’s nude body, laying face-down alongside the Huron River parkway. The coroner reported that Karen had died of strangulation, though the blunt force injuries to her head and face would have also proved fatal. She had been tortured, the beating she endured having stripped the skin from some parts of her body to expose the tissue underneath. Chemical burns were found along her neck, breasts, shoulders, and worst of all, inside her throat. The killer had forced her to ingest the caustic substance.
As with the previous victims, Karen had been raped, and a handkerchief had been placed in her mouth. However, this case proved immediately different from the others, as investigators were able to retrieve Karen’s underwear, which had been forced into her vagina after the assault. On the underwear, they found semen and 509 blond hair clippings, hair that did not belong to Karen, a brunette.
Also unlike prior cases, police were able to conduct a successful news blackout. After the barn burning, they knew that the killer was watching, and police wouldn’t allow it. The blackout would enable investigators to stake out the location of Karen’s body, to wait and see if the killer would return to the scene, as he had with Dawn’s. Karen’s body was safely brought to the coroner and replaced at the scene with a mannequin. Undercover police were determined not to miss their shot at catching the Ypsilanti Ripper. At 2 a.m. the following morning, an officer spotted a young man running through heavy rain from the scene at 2 a.m. But with the storm waterlogging his radio, the officer was unable to immediately report the sighting, and so, for a few days longer, the Ripper ran free.
At this point, you may be wondering, “What about John Norman Collins? When does he figure in?” Despite being identified by witnesses to Joan Elspeth Schell’s disappearance just a year prior, Collins somehow avoided police’s attention. That is, until Karen Beineman’s death and subsequent investigation. With Karen being last seen at a downtown wig shop, police questioned the owner, Diana Goshe, as well as a cashier. Both reported seeing a young man with dark hair waiting for Karen outside, on his motorcycle. Karen had reportedly pointed the boy out, saying to the owner: "I've got to be either the bravest or the dumbest girl alive, because I've just accepted a ride from this guy.”
Patrolman Larry Matthewson heard the employees’ description of the suspect and immediately wondered if it was John Norman Collins. Collins was known for zipping around EMU on his motorcycle, and he had been seen doing so on the day Karen had gone missing. When asked, Collins admitted that he had been riding his motorcycle that day, but he had an alibi-- he had gone to see a former girlfriend. But when Matthewson obtained photos of Collins from that former girlfriend and brought the photos to the wig shop, the cashier and the owner insisted that Collins was who they saw.
From there, the circumstantial case against Collins deepened, with classmates, coworkers and former fraternity brothers recounting how Collins was a thief and aggressive with women, once allegedly going so far as to rape a woman who rejected his advances. Female coworkers reported that that he eerily found joy in in recounting graphic details of the recent murders. Collins later claimed that he only knew these details from his uncle, police sergeant David Leik-- but Leik denied ever talking to his nephew about the murders. Leik’s denial, coupled with the fact that investigators found links between Collins and each of the victims, was hard to ignore.
At an in-person police lineup, Mrs. Goshe again positively identified Collins as the boy waiting for Karen. Police proceeded to visit Collins and his roommate, Arnold Davis, at their Emmett Street apartment on July 27. To remind you of the timeline, this is the day after Karen’s body was found. During the visit, Collins insisted on his innocence, but turned down the offer of a polygraph test. But Davis would later report that, after the police had left, he noticed his roommate leaving their apartment with a blanket covered box, which allegedly contained a burlap purse, a woman’s purple shoe, and rolled up denim-like material. When Collins returned, the box was gone, and he insisted to Davis that he simply decided to get rid of it.
Yet, it wasn’t until two days later that things quickly fell apart for Collins. Police sergeant David Leik and his wife returned to their home from a vacation. A reminder - Leik is Collins’ uncle, and he had already denied discussing details of the murders that Collins somehow knew and openly discussed with his female coworkers. The Leiks had asked Collins to housesit while they were away, and upon their return, they found items missing from the house, including black spray paint, ammonia, and washing powder. They also found numerous paint marks across their basement floor. Initially, David Leik said nothing of this to the police when he was informed of Collins’ suspected involvement-- but this changed after he scraped some of the paint off the floor and discovered several suspicious stains.
The suspicious stains were found to only be varnish stains, but that certainly didn’t explain away the small bloodstains police found in nine different areas of the basement, as well as more of those familiar blond hair clippings. Tests performed later the same day showed that the hair clippings came from a slew of pre-vacation haircuts Mrs. Leik had given to her children, and that the bloodstains were Type A blood, the same type as Karen.
The afternoon of the basement search, investigators confronted Collins about the findings in his uncle’s basement. At first, he burst into tears, but then composed himself and began insisting once more that he knew nothing of Karen’s death-- even if the evidence all but cemented her presence in the basement of the house he had promised to watch over.
On July 29th, 1969, 2 years and 20 days after 19-year-old Mary Terese Fleszar went missing, John Norman Collins was arrested for the murder of Karen Sue Beineman, bringing an end to the murder spree that had stretched over three years and had claimed the lives of seven young women.
One man’s acts all those years ago hang over a city’s head today. Ypsilanti’s reputation as a crooked college town where you shouldn’t walk alone at night? You can blame that, in part, on John Norman Collins. Far before Ted Bundy was arrested, it was Collins taking the stand.
As police searched Collins’ car and apartment, there was no way they could have known what was to come next in this story-- not the public reaction, not the existence of one more victim all the way in California, and certainly not the evidence that wouldn’t reach public knowledge until 2019.
This was part one of our Michigan Murder series. On December 19th, we’ll release our second segment, where we’ll focus on John Norman Collins himself, what he was up to before he was arraigned, and why so many believed he was not, in fact the Michigan Murderer. If you liked this episode, please share and subscribe to the Eastern Echo podcast, where we cover the latest local news on Mondays and special topics on Thursdays. Any questions or comments? Please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next time, this is Arica Frisbey, signing off.
Ronia-Isabel Cabansag: The Eastern Echo Podcast is directed by Ronia-Isabel Cabansag and produced by Rylee Barnsdale. This episode was written by Arica Frisbey.