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John Norman Collins was arrested for the murder of Karen Sue Beineman in July of 1969. The subsequent legal process dragged on for months, but the case was far from straightforward. Today, on the third installment of our Michigan Murders Series, we follow Collins to the end of the line. I’m Arica Frisbey and you’re listening to The Eastern Echo Podcast.
A quick recap of the arrest: Collins’ uncle, State Police Sergeant David Leik, asked him to house-sit while the Leik family went on vacation. When they got back, multiple items were found missing, including black spray paint, ammonia, and washing powder. They also found paint marks and stains across their basement floor. At first, Leik said nothing of this to the police, but they later confirmed that some of the stains were bloodstains - Type A, the same as Karen Sue Beineman. Police also found blonde hair clippings that matched the strands found in Karen’s underwear. Evidence piled up in Leik’s basement, and Collins was arrested.
The next few months go by without much incident. In August, Collins attends a pretrial hearing at Ypsilanti District Court. After 6 hours of testimony from 9 witnesses, Collins is formally ordered to stand trial for Beineman’s murder.
At a second hearing in September, Judge John Conlin orders an innocent plea on Collins’ behalf. Collins’ attorney Richard Ryan formally requests that the case be dismissed, saying much of the evidence was seized with faulty warrants.
In October, Judge Conlin rejects the motion, saying Collins’ arrest had been on the reasonable grounds that Collins had committed a felony.
But in November, Ryan suggests that Collins take a polygraph test. Collins agrees, and prosecutors allow the test to be off-record and totally confidential. But former Washtenaw County Sheriff Douglass Harvey recently told Fox 2 News Detroit that the polygraph test was never conducted.
Instead, on the day that Collins is scheduled to take it, Ryan asks to speak with his client in private. 45 minutes later, the two come out, and Sheriff Harvey directs them to the polygraph machine. But Ryan refuses. He tells the sheriff, “Take him back to jail.”
Harvey told reporter Rob Wolcheck, “It didn't take a scientist to figure out what transpired. I know for a fact that John confessed to him.”
Ryan tells Collins’ family that a “diminished capacity” defense is their best bet at freeing John. In other words, he would argue that John Norman Collins was so mentally unstable that he simply wasn’t capable of committing the crime. John’s mother, Loretta, won’t have it. She dismisses Ryan as John’s attorney.
On November 28th, Neil Fink and Joseph Louisell, partners at one of Detroit’s highest-priced law firms, agree to take over as defense attorneys. A Detroit Free Press article from the time notes that Collins’ mother reportedly “received a large sum of money in exchange for exclusive rights to her son’s story.” Another source reported that she remortgaged her home to afford their services - an estimated cost of $110,000.
Because of the change in defense attorneys, the entire trial is postponed until spring. A pre-trial hearing is set for January, but after that, the case will essentially go untouched for several months while Fink and Louisell work to catch up and build a case.
Save for an incident where a visibly upset Collins throws a punch at a TV cameraman outside of the courthouse, the press is relatively silent on the issue for the next five months. During this time, Fink and Louisell attempt to get the trial moved out of Washtenaw County.
Their argument? Collins is too famous. The pretrial publicity had tarnished Collins’ name so much that his attorneys believe there’s no way they could assemble an unbiased jury for an unbiased trial. At least, not in Washtenaw County. Fink said Collins had received “more adverse pretrial publicity than any defendant in the state in history.”
But their appeal is denied, and the trial process finally begins on June 2nd. Jury selection is projected to take just two weeks, but a Detroit Free Press headline from June 23rd reads, “No Progress in Jury for Collins.” At this point, a total of 170 individuals have been turned away from the jury panel.
June comes and goes. Still no luck on assembling a jury.
On July 3rd, the Free Press reports that Collins stands in court looking absolutely undisturbed. His mother jokes with him from across the room - “Why don’t you come home with us tonight?” Collins even jokes with a police deputy, who laughs and says, “See you tomorrow, John.” That day, the Free Press prints the headline “Five More Dismissed as Collins Jurors.”
Finally, about six weeks after the process began, a jury is assembled. In the end, the process cost Washtenaw County $12,615.
Witness testimonies are set to begin on July 20th - almost an exact year to the day that Karen Sue Beineman went missing. All eyes are on Prosecutor William F. Delhey, defense attorneys Neil Fink and Joseph Louisell, Judge John Conlin, a highly educated jury, 56 witnesses, and, of course, the defendant - John Norman Collins.
It’s a Monday morning. All 60 seats in the courthouse are filled - mostly by journalists. Delhey makes his opening statement, and claims that the evidence will prove Collins was with Beineman when she was last seen at the wig shop. He’ll prove that Collins took her to his uncle’s home, where he had tortured her, beaten her, and strangled her to death before discarding the body and and persuading his roommate to provide him with a false alibi. The sentence that he suggests to the judge? Life imprisonment without parole.
But of course, Fink and Louisell, Collin’s very costly attorneys, outline their plans for an equally convincing case. They say that although the murder of Beineman was a "vicious, sadistic attack" which had degraded her body "almost beyond human comprehension," the prosecution's case was a weak one at best. They claim damning evidence of their own, saying that the witnesses were unreliable, the testing conducted on the hair samples was unreliable, and that the witnesses had been harrassed by police. They also stated plans to bring forth several witnesses who would provide an alibi for Collins.
Despite the bold opening statements of both sides, the atmosphere in the courtroom isn’t particularly hostile. One of the female jurors had entered with a full smile on her face. Loretta Collins, clad in a black skirt and yellow jacket, jokes with a few journalists. A bailiff even offers her a couple pillows to sit on. Throughout the day, Collins himself occasionally smiles at Fink, Louisell, and family members in the audience. But the courtroom quickly heats up as dozens of witnesses deliver their testimonies over the coming days.
A lot of witnesses speak as some of the last people who saw Karen Sue Beineman and John Norman Collins in the days before Beineman was found dead - these include her roommates, a few people who saw Collins riding his bike around town, and the couple who found Beinaman’s mutilated body in the ravine. Suspense builds as each witness brings new insight to the case, but we’ll go through a few key testimonies from key experts and witnesses.
Two medical examiners testify to the fact that Beineman’s body had only lain in the ravine only 24 hours before it was discovered, and the exact date of her death was unclear. But a yellow cloth had been stuffed down her throat, her wrists and ankles were bound, and patches of missing skin were found on her body.
Sheriff Harvey - the sheriff who watched Collins and his former attorney walk away from the polygraph test months ago - testifies as well, saying he obtained a sketch of the suspect that Beineman was last seen with at the wig shop. That wig shop’s owner, Joan Goshe, and her employee Patricia Spaulding, both agree that the composite looks accurate.
But during 45 minutes of questioning, Sheriff Harvey admits to driving Goshe and Spaulding to East Lansing to view the updated drawing. He also admits to showing photographs of various suspects, including Collins, to Goshe prior to her formally identifying Collins in the lineup.
Despite facing defense attorney Neil Fink, who seemed intent on proving her statements to be fabrications, Mrs. Goshe insists that it was Collins who was waiting for Beineman outside of the shop. Fink asks what the motorcycle’s model was. She replies that she believed it to be a Honda 350. She’s wrong. Later, Mrs. Goshe admits that she had lied under oath on two previous occasions, with one of them being related to this trial.
Several days following Mrs. Goshe’s testimony, Collins’ roommate and self- proclaimed “best friend”, Arnold Davis, takes the stand. Davis claims at trial that he was with Collins before Beineman’s death, and that he saw Collins removing a cardboard box from the apartment. If you recall from part one, you’ll know that this is the box that allegedly contained a pair of high-heeled shoes, other clothing, jewelry, and possibly a purse-- a box that was never seen again.
Throughout his roommate’s testimony Collins becomes visibly uneasy. He silently shakes his occasionally mouthing the word “no.”
The prosecution believes that Beineman’s blue jeans were inside of that box, but their request to question Davis is denied. Collins’ attorneys insisted that, as he was only on trial for one murder, this line of questioning would just feed into speculation that Collins committed the other Michigan murders. The judge agrees with them, leaving questions about the mysterious box unanswered.
A woman named Majorie Barnes is next to testify. She tells the jury how she had seen Collins leave his uncle’s home with a box similar to the one seen by Arnold Davis. Collins’ aunt confirms that Collins was given a key to the Leik’s home so he could feed their German Shepherd while the family was on vacation. Mrs. Leik also says she had cut her children’s hair in the basement days before they left for vacation. When she returned, she noticed multiple things were moved or missing, and that a wet, soiled cloth containing hair had appeared beside the laundry tub.
One missing item that was particularly troubling? A nearly full bottle of ammonia. The chemical is often used for cleaning up stains -- especially blood.
The same day that Mrs. Leik testifies, the head of the state police’s crime laboratory shares results from forensic tests done in the Leik’s basement. Blood was found in four different areas of the basement. But he also admits that, aside from prints from the Leik family, no full fingerprints were found.
Forensic experts Walter Holz and Dr. Vincent P. Guinn testify at the end of the month. Holz notes the match between the hair found in Beineman’s underwear and the hair from the pre-vacation haircuts Mrs. Leik had talked about. This confirms that the basement is where the crime was committed. Guinn reaffirms Holz’s findings, saying that the hairs had a “remarkable similarity” to those found in the Leik’s home. Chances of a false match are low. Guinn is the last witness brought in by the prosecution. Fink and Louisell are up.
They bring in several witnesses to affirm his whereabouts around the time of Beineman’s disappearance and death. Four of them work at a motorcycle shop, and testify to seeing Collins there the afternoon of the disappearance. According to them, Collins was there between noon and 2 p.m. that day. Two of the employees had signed statements saying that Collins arrived at the store at 2 p.m. One of the workers describes being harassed by an Ann Arbor Police sergeant repeatedly for the time of Collins’ arrival.
They also bring in a neutron analyst who believes that tests conducted on the hair samples were inaccurate. Ten chemical components needed to be present to form a secure match. Forensic experts had only used five. Private consultant Auseklis Perkons backs the argument, saying that the hair found in Beineman's underwear was of a "different origin" than the hair samples from the Leiks' basement. Forensic expert Dr. Samuel Goulb chimes in on the hair samples as well, saying he had only found one fiber of hair on Beineman’s underwear, and that it was unlikely that it would have been picked up from a basement floor.
Dr. Walter Holz, the man who confirmed the match between the hair samples, presents a rebuttal on August 12, saying he took 20 magnified photo slides of the underwear samples to Dr. Golub to analyze. The sample had included a number of man-made fibers -- strands that could have come from the wig Beineman bought.
All 56 witness testimonies are finally complete. John Norman Collins is never called to the stand. When the press asks why, his attorney simply says that “the prosecution’s case is riddled with inconsistencies. . . I feel at this point that we have won the case.”
On Friday and Saturday, August 13 and 14, both sides present their closing arguments. Delhey reminds the jury of the defense’s attempt to get rid of other evidence by Collins. He turns to the jury and asks, “In applying common sense or reasonable doubt, is it possible there could be two men who are identical, riding the same blue Triumph motorcycle in the (EMU) campus area on July 23, 1969, and having access to a house where barbering is done and where Type A blood was found?”
But the defense describes their client as “young victim of circumstances” and a man “innocent in both truth and fact.” Fink and Louisell deliver two separate statements. During his 1 hour and 40-minute statement, Louisell states that Collins’ arrest was premature.
Tension grows in the courtroom as the year-long case begins to come to a close. Throughout Delhey’s statement, Collins can be seen shaking his head or whispering to Fink or Louisell. Collins sits through the final day of statements with a light blue sport coat, dark blue slacks, black dress shoes, and blue shirt, and a striped tie. He appears fairly calm - possibly just tired of all the courtroom discourse. His attorneys tell the press that he was nervous but “in good spirits.” But his mother dons all-black attire and a string of pearls. After Judge Conlin’s final statement, she breaks down in tears and is escorted to a restroom. Her sobs can be heard down the hallway.
Finally, the jury is tasked with deliver either one of two verdicts: not guilty, or guilty of first degree murder. They spend the next three days in deliberation. During this time, Collins’ mother, sister, and aunt can be found in a nearby Catholic church, praying and weeping.
On Aug. 19, 1970, the weary-looking jury presents their verdict: Collins is guilty of Beineman’s murder. Mrs. Roland Beineman, Karen Sue’s mother, says, “God was on the jury. I’m convinced he was the main member of the jury.” After a long and painful year, her family finally sees justice served. Someone will finally face punishment for the brutal murder of her little girl. Conversely, Mrs. Collins and her sister leave the courtroom in tears. John Norman Collins sits quietly, calm and expressionless. On Aug. 28, he is sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.
If you recall from our second episode, it was then that Collins spoke for the first time in court, rising from his chair and saying, “I have two things to say: I think they 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.”
Judge Conlin assures Collins that, if the verdict is truly wrong, if he is truly innocent, he would get his justice another day through an appeal. He hands down the formal sentence: solitary confinement and hard labor at Southern Michigan Prison. Fink and Louisell express plans to appeal, and Loretta Collins tells the press, “I’m not going to let them keep my son. I want John home with me.” Some civilians want to see Collins freed, as well. On Aug. 23, an anonymous sender writes a letter to the editor of the Detroit Free Press asking how they can help donate to Mrs. Collin’s cause.
But the first appeal is denied on Oct. 24, 1972.
Meanwhile, across the country, a grand jury in California indicts Collins for the June 1969 murder of Roxie Ann Phillips. Unlike the six other murders in the Michigan series, Roxie Ann’s murder had stronger evidence -- both physical and circumstantial -- tying Collins to the case. Californian authorities attempted several times to extradite Collins so he could stand trial in Monterey. Collins’ attorney, Neil Fink, successfully delayed these attempts, both in 1970 and 1971.
In the end, Collins never did stand trial for Roxie Ann Phillips, nor did he succeed with his attempts at appeal between 1972 and 1976. The only change the appeals brought was the striking of Dr. Guinn’s testimony from the record. Authorities in California only planned to push for extradition again if Collins succeeded with his appeals in Michigan. Since he didn’t, Roxie Ann Phillips’ case was dropped. Collins was already serving time for Karen Sue Beineman’s death. They figured that justice had been indirectly -- but proportionally -- served.
The aftermath of the trial was definitive, with Collins’ family never speaking to their relatives, the Leiks, again. Collins attempted to seek freedom twice. The first was planned prison escape. The second time, he attempted to get transferred to a Canadian prison, where he would legally be up for parole despite his sentencing. Both attempts failed.
After his plans to escape were discovered, and after authorities found that he had been dealing contraband drugs while in incarceration, Collins was later transferred to the Marquette Branch Prison. To this day, he still claims he’s innocent, be it through letters to loved ones or formal interviews.
Though the book is shut on Karen Sue Beineman’s murder, it’s still very much open on the rest of the murders in the series. In our next and final episode, we will be taking a look at developments in those cases, including the public presentation of unseen evidence for the first time, 50 years after the crimes.
If you like what you’ve heard so far, be sure to subscribe so that you’ll be notified when Part 4 is released. Any questions, comments, or feedback? Please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next time, 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 by Ronia-Isabel Cabansag, Arica Frisbey, and Tyler Gaw, and directed by Ronia-Isabel Cabansag. Special thanks to Austin Elliot, Johnny Thomas, and Heather Weigel for providing additional voice-overs for this episode.