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Arica Frisbey: On July 29th, 1969, EMU student John Norman Collins was arrested for the murder of Karen Sue Beineman. Beineman was the final victim in a series of murders that plagued Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor, and the surrounding area through the late 1960s.
The first woman murdered was found in the summer of 1967, and eyewitnesses identified Collins about a year later. So how did Collins manage to completely avoid police attention for nearly a full year? And what was he doing in the two-year span between his first crime and his arrest?
Today, on Part 2 of The Michigan Murders, we take a closer look at the Co-Ed Killer, the Ypsilanti Ripper, the Michigan Murderer himself, and why no one expected that it would be John Norman Collins. I’m Arica Frisbey, and you’re listening to the Eastern Echo Podcast.
If you listened to Part 1 of this series, you may already be convinced that Collins is guilty. Maybe it’s clear to you how the blonde hair clippings and the bloodstained basement tie back to Collins. But you have to understand - this wasn’t the public consensus at the time.
Eight years after Collins’ conviction, a movie titled “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep” began production. The movie was meant to show the impact that the murders had on the Ypsilanti community. Actor Bob Purvey would play Collins, Channel 7 anchor Bill Bonds would appear as himself, and psychic Peter Hurkos would also play himself. But things got complicated when protestors began appearing on set. They believed that Collins was wrongly accused, and that filmmakers were exploiting the case and the city for Hollywood glory. Protestors shouted at the actors, and the Detroit Free Press reported that one man poked a finger in the director’s chest and said, “You’re dead. We’ll kill you.” Production was halted for good.
As our writing team sifted through the research, we began to see why so many believed Collins wasn’t a killer. One report quite accurately described John Norman Collins as “an all-American boy”. A Michigan native, Collins grew up just north of Detroit in Center Line. He lived with two older siblings, Jerry and Gail, and their mother, Loretta. She supported the family, working as a waitress. The children were told that their father had abandoned them. Loretta went on to marry William Collins and took his last name, but would later divorce him, leaving the Collins children to spend most of their lives in a single-parent home.
Collins attended St. Clement High School, a small Catholic school where, according to Fox 2 Detroit investigative reporter Rob Wolcheck, he was well-liked by the nuns. He earned good grades and served as captain of the football team, and even had a girlfriend, Burnadetta Hudak. Burnadetta would later tell the Detroit Free Press that Collins had “manners galore,” and that he would open doors for girls and stand when an elderly person or woman walked into the room. But she also described his oddly grim disposition, saying he was, quote, “mad most of the time.”
Collins actually began college at Central Michigan University, but later transferred to Eastern. He was part of the teacher prep program. According to the Free Press, he joined Theta Chi fraternity, “drank beer” and “dated often.” As a college student, he wrestled, skied, and played basketball, baseball, and football. His athleticism showed, as he did some modeling and appeared in a bodybuilding magazine.
In addition to being sporty, nearly every source we’ve looked into has made note of the fact that Collins loved motorcycles. He was known for riding his own around campus and the surrounding area. When State Police detectives would visit him in prison for an interview years after his arrest, they would bring him a photo of his Triumph motorcycle. It seemed to make him happy, so they allowed him to keep it. It was the same motorbike that Karen Beineman was last seen on as she left that wig shop. The same bike that Alice Kalom rode when Collins took her out on a date days before she was found dead. At least, that’s the story that he told investigators. It’s also the same bike that a woman named Ronna rode with Collins in the spring semester of ‘69 - just months before Collins’ conviction.
In a feature report broadcast in July of this year, Wolcheck interviewed a woman named Ronna. She spent her second semester of college getting to know Collins, riding around Ypsi with him on that motorbike. But after she went home for the summer and turned on the TV to see John in handcuffs, she realized how lucky she was to be alive.
It’s the winter semester of 1969. Ronna is 18 years old, a freshman. She’s in line at the bank when a brown haired, square-jawed, muscular upperclassman begins to make conversation with her. It’s Collins. They both finish their business at the bank, and she begins to walk back to her dorm on campus, but she turns around to see him following her in his car. She insists that she doesn’t need a ride - “No, no. I’m okay.” But after he continues to follow her for a block, Ronna gives in and gets in the car. Collins drops her off at her dorm and promises to take her for a ride on his motorbike. Sure enough, John is there the next day, ready to take her for a ride. Throughout the semester, he continues to drive her around on his motorbike, often picking her up from class.
Ronna was always with classmate when Collins came to get her, which she now considers to be an extremely lucky coincidence. Things may have ended differently had she been alone. Collins like to take her on back roads, past woods, fields, and abandoned farms, sometimes stopping at a run-down barn along Geddes Road. During one such excursion, she turned to him and said something about the bodies that had been found in the area.
To this, Collins replied, “Yeah, I know. You want to go look for some?”
Ronna went home for the summer and thought nothing of it, probably laughing it off. Nothing had ever made her suspect that John, the polite, athletic, future teacher she had met in line at the bank, would be convicted of murder. But then she saw his picture on TV. Collins had been arrested. In the interview, she told Wolcheck, quote, “I thank my lucky stars all the time. I just figure I had someone watching over me.”
Ronna wasn’t the only one charmed by Collins. His attorneys, Neil Fink and Joseph Louisell, refused to let him speak at his trial for fear that he would confess everything. But according to the Free Press, Fink’s wife, Kimberly Stout, thought Collins was “charming, bright, and not guilty.” Today, she’s 58, and while they don’t communicate often, she’s still in touch with Collins. Stout recently told the Free Press, quote, “I always think they should try to exonerate someone if it's at all possible and there's a thought of it, especially if there's evidence to the contrary. . . And I also think that families need answers, too.”
But around the same time that Ronna met Collins, another woman, Pam, got to know another side of him. A side that left her with no doubt that the man was guilty. She recounted her brief but alarming interaction with Collins to Wolcheck in the same feature report.
It’s spring, 1969. Pam is a 20-year-old University of Michigan student. She’s on her way home to change out of her day clothes and into her work uniform for her job at the hospital. As she’s walking, a clean, shiny blue car pulls up, cutting her off. It’s Collins. Her first assumption is that it’s a frat boy, and she wants nothing to do with him. The boy, Collins, urges her to get in the car, but she adamantly refuses. Today, Pam says that what she did next was a mistake. She points down the street to her house and says, “I don’t need a ride, I live right there.” And when she turns Collins down, something in him changes. Pam recalls that he had “penetrating eyes,” and that his demeanor changed noticeably, as if a switch had been flipped. Collins cracks. He looks at Pam and says, “You motherfucking ugly cunt, aren’t you going to get in the fucking car with me?” Then, he speeds away.
Pam goes on with her day. She goes home, changes into her uniform, and heads to the hospital for work. The day’s earlier events eventually slip from her memory. That is, until the next morning. She wakes up to find that the day clothes she had changed out of the day before are gone.
Later that year, upon learning that Collins has been arrested for murder, Pam brings her story to the police. They tell Pam her clothes had been found. Investigators had found her outfit in a barn.
Pam’s description of Collins aligns with what attorneys and investigators observed after his arrest. Collins was given time to speak during his first day on trial. In a voice that the Free Press described as soft and high-pitched, Collins told the similarly-named judge John Conlin, quote, “Your honor, I have two things to say. The first is that I honestly feel the community conscientiously tried to give me a fair trial. . . But, things were blown way out of proportion. A travesty of justice took place in this courtroom during the past six or seven weeks. I hope this error will someday be corrected.” Here, Collins comes off as polite, charming, level-headed - just like the John Collins that Ronna met. The John that would pick her up from class and take her on motorcycle joyrides.
But one investigator remembers the John Collins that Pam met - the one that was capable of intense outbursts. Now-retired Sergeant Eric Schroeder questioned Collins in prison decades after his conviction. Schroeder told the Free Press, quote, “Most of the time, he was under great control. But if you said the right thing at the right time, that switch flipped.” One can only imagine the man that Mary Fleszar, Joan Schell, Jane Mixer, Maralynn Skelton, Dawn Basom, Alice Kalom, and Karen Beineman encountered. During the trial, investigators learned that an eighth woman was unfortunate enough to see Collins’ violent side.
Shortly after Alice Kalom was found dead, Collins and a friend took a road trip to Salinas, California with a stolen camper in tow. While they were there, Collins offered a 17-year-old girl a ride and made a date with her. The next day, one of the girl’s friends, 17-year-old Roxie Ann Phillips, disappeared. Roxie walked down the street, about a block away from her house, to mail a letter. The letter was mailed and received, but Roxie never returned home. She was last seen in a car. Collins never showed up for his date with the other girl.
Within days, Roxie’s body was found naked in a patch of poison oak. She had been strangled. Collins left California, but not before being treated by a local doctor for poison oak.
After returning to Michigan, Collins was arrested. The car he took to California, his mother’s Oldsmobile Cutlass, was impounded and taken apart. According to “Terror in Ypsilanti” author Greg Fournier, investigators found a piece of fabric the size of a dime. It was a perfect match to what Roxie had been wearing.
This last account of Collins comes from another woman who told her story to Wolcheck of Fox 2. Shanon, a widow, had the unfortunate experience of interacting with Collins, not in the 60s, but just three years ago.
After Shannon’s husband passed due to a battle with cancer, a family member suggested that she reconnect with an old family friend who had been in prison. She took their advice and wrote a letter to the friend - John Norman Collins. The two became “pen pals,” often talking about sports. Eventually, she decided to meet her seemingly harmless pen-pal face-to-face. She made the drive to the prison in Marquette where Collins was being held. Shanon says that she and Collins talked about everything - his mother, Ann Arbor. Collins also, quote, “swore up and down that he’s an honest man.”
After their visit, Collins wouldn’t leave her alone. He began sending her cards and letters, but not the kind that you would expect from a pen pal. One note featured a traced image of his hand. On the palm, Collins had written, “I’ve always got your back...And neck, and legs, and butt, and face, and smile and… your Boo!!!”
Shannon cut ties with Collins last year. She says that he always told her, quote, “half-truths” about everything, and there’s no doubt in her mind that Collins is guilty of murder.
Here we have the pieced-together image of the man that was aressted for the murder of Karen Sue Beineman so many years ago. Some are convinced he murdered all eight women. Others are convinced that police got the wrong guy. Whatever you believe about his connection to the Michigan Murders, John Norman Collins was arrested and put on trial. In Part Three of The Michigan Murders, we’ll walk you through the trial, the conviction, and the reasons why only one of the eight cases was truly solved.
Because we want you to have an uplifting holiday season, that segment will be released in the new year. If you like what you’ve heard so far, be sure to subscribe so that you’ll be notified when Part 3 is released. Any questions, comments, or feedback? Please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next year, this is Arica Frisbey and the Eastern Echo Podcast team, signing off.
The Eastern Echo Podcast is produced by Rylee Barnsdale. This episode was written and directed by Ronia-Isabel Cabansag. Special thanks to Andrew Lenzo for providing the voice of John Norman Collins.