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After August 1970, the name John Norman Collins more or less disappears from the headlines and news reports. It’s the end of an era. With Collins behind bars for life, the city can breathe again. Over the next few months, the riveting true-crime story that brought national attention to little Ypsilanti, Michigan gradually fades into history.
But still, something just isn’t quite right. One man was convicted of a horrific act and is rightfully paying the price, yes. But seven families are still left wondering, mourning, and searching for answers. After the trial, the murders of Mary Fleszar, Joan Schell, Jane Mixer, Dawn Basom, Mar alynn Skelton, Alice Kalom, and Roxie Phillips all remain unsolved. That brings us to, well, today. This is Arica Frisbey with the fourth and final segment of The Michigan Murders: The Aftershock.
The names of the first seven victims were the first to begin fading into history. Throughout most of 1969 and 1970, the focus shifted away from the Michigan Murders as a whole and toward two individuals - John Norman Collins and Karen Sue Beineman. If you recall from Part 1, Beineman’s murder was chronologically the last of the Michigan Murders. By then, investigators had caught on to the pattern. They were finally prepared to catch the killer. So after Collins was arrested, all their time, energy, and resources were funneled into solving Beineman’s murder.
By the end of the trial process, an estimated $1.2 million to $2 million dollars had been spent. At its peak, over 60 detectives worked the case at once. The murder was solved, Collins was imprisoned, cased closed. Kind of.
Even during the thick of the trial process, something just didn’t sit right. On Dec. 7, 1969, the Detroit Free Press reported that a group of “poison pen” writers had quit bothering the Collins family. After a young woman named Diana Lynn Black was found murdered in Battle Creek, the group became convinced that the Michigan Murderer was still out there. They quit sending hate mail to Mrs. Collins. On Dec. 9, 19-year-old Gloria Murphy was found stabbed to death near the University of Michigan. Police asserted that her death didn’t seem to be linked to the other Michigan Murders, but people still talked. Given the seven unsolved cases, it really wasn’t so far-fetched to think that a Michigan Murderer might still be out there.
But with all the money that had been spent on Beineman’s case alone, and after everything each family had been through during the two-year investigation, the general consensus was to just let it go. The Free Press reported that the case was “all but officially closed in the minds of police officers close to the investigation.” But one man, Michigan State Trooper Eric Schroder, wasn’t satisfied. He couldn’t “let it go”.
He was unsettled by the fact that Jane Mixer was shot and left in a graveyard. It just wasn’t the same as the other murders. Schroder felt the act suggested that there was “some type of emotional connection with her killer, whereas the other victims had been discarded like trash."
Throughout the early 90s, Schroder continued to look through the case files in his free time. In ‘98, he was reassigned to Lansing and tasked with cataloging evidence for unsolved cases. The new job gave him access to even more evidence linked to the Michigan Murders.
A few years later, during a night over beers, FBI scientists told him about a new technology being used by the FBI. A technology that could change everything when it came to crime investigation - DNA analysis. Schroder went back into the evidence locker, found the stockings that Mixer had been strangled with, and had them checked for DNA.
The results came back with a match. The DNA belonged to Gary Leiterman, a 62-year-old nurse who had lived in Ann Arbor at the time of Mixer’s death. His DNA had been added to the system in 2001 after he was busted for forging prescriptions.
It was a breakthrough in the case. Schroder took up the investigation. As he tugged on the thread that unraveled the story, more and more evidence began turning up: A phone book in a U of M dorm with “Mixer” written inside. Testimony from a former roommate who claims Leiterman owned a .22-caliber gun. On Nov. 24, 2004, Leiterman was brought to court. In 2005, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Jane Mixer’s killer, a second “Michigan Murderer” was finally tracked down, 36 years after her death.
Since Leiterman’s conviction in 2005, police have gone on to revisit the other unsolved cases, focusing on Alice Kalom, who was also shot, Dawn Basom, the youngest of the victims, and Mary Fleszar, the first woman who was killed back in 1967.
Detectives conducted a series of interviews with Collins, and while he never fully broke or confessed to committing any crimes, he was clearly uneasy. When asked about Kalom, he cried. When it came to Beineman, he admitted to giving her a ride on his motorcycle that day at the wig shop. Keep in mind that all through his trial, Collins had insisted that he never met a woman named Karen Sue Beineman.
And then, there are the letters. In his book “Terror in Ypsilanti: John Norman Collins Unmasked,” author Greg Fournier revealed that John Norman Collins and his cousin, John Chapman, had been pen pals. Their correspondence started in 1982, when Chapman was just 10 years old. Collins, at 35 years old, was 12 years into his life sentence.
Chapman’s family lived near Toronto. The two cousins never actually met in person. In fact, Chapman’s parents didn’t fully tell him about the crimes that Collins had been convicted for until he was an adult.
Collins’ letters to his cousin had always been a little unsettling, to say the least. As a teenager, Chapman once asked Collins for dating advice. He replied with explicit sexual instructions, and wrote that some women “like it rough.” Chapman said that many of the letters seemed to express “underlying anger toward his mother.” Nevertheless, they continued to write to each other for three decades. But after two letters that Collins sent in 2013, Chapman never responded again.
These two letters were no exception to Collins’ streak of odd correspondence. They were typed rather than written, and contained plenty of misspelled words. Some words appeared in all caps, like “NO” and “LAST VISIT” and “WHOLE STORY” Both open with, “Hello John, =:),” followed by a smiling emoticon. In the first one, dated Oct. 22, Collins states that he doesn’t “know where to begin.”
From there, Collins lays out everything that happened the day that Beineman went missing. Keep in mind that previously, Collins swore that he never knew anyone named Karen Sue Beineman. Even during the one time he was allowed to speak in court, that was the story he had stood by. But in this letter, he concedes that he met Beineman at a wig shop, and had offered her a ride on his motorbike.
He writes that they rode to his uncle’s home to feed the dog while the family was out on vacation. When they got to the house, Collins made out with Beineman. He claims that he “did not have intercourse with her,” but did ejaculate on her underwear.
After that, he says that his roommate, Arnold Davis, showed up at the house and gave Beineman a ride home. Meanwhile, Collins headed to a bike shop to pay a bill, went out for dinner, and went home.
The next day, Davis told Collins that something - with “SOMETHING” typed in all caps - happened at his uncle’s house. They went to the house together, where Davis led him down to the laundry room in the basement. There, he saw Beineman’s naked, dead body. Collins vomited in the bathtub.
He writes that Beineman had resisted Davis’ advances before he “SNAPPED and choked her.” Here, “SNAPPED” is typed in all caps. Together, Davis and Collins dumped the body and cleaned the house. Collins claimed that Davis forcefully stuffed Beineman’s underwear inside her body, creating a trail that would lead back to Collins.
In the second letter, sent on Oct. 27, he claimed that Davis had a twin brother, and that the brother’s car matched the one Joan Schell was last seen in. Of the eight young women, Schell was the second to go missing back in 1968.
But the main subject of the second letter is Alice Kalom - the sixth victim. Kalom had been shot, like Jane Mixer. Until this letter surfaced, not much has been said of Kalom’s case. After learning that a Leiterman, rather than Collins, had shot Mixer, police opened up to the possibility that someone else had shot Kalom. But Colins’ own letter suggests otherwise.
Collins writes that he and Kalom first met in a bar. They made a date for Saturday morning - Collins said he would take her for a motorcycle ride. On the morning of their date, they met in front of the U of M student Union, and rode out to a spot on the edge of campus where, according to Collins, they had sex.
Kalom later invited Collins to a party. He decided not to go, but claims that his roommate, Davis, did. He also writes that, after Kalom was found dead, Davis confessed to murdering her.
As you may have already picked up, the stories that Collins tells in the two letters are highly suspect, if not unbelievable. The claim that his roommate, Arbold Davis, committed the crimes, is easily disproved. Collins was already convicted of Beinemans murder after a thorough investigation, and new DNA evidence linked Collins to the site of Kalom’s murder.
But the letters do potentially reveal new details to the crimes that, previously, Collins had never admitted to or been tried for. Many believe that the letters are confessions where Collins describes, in detail, the crimes he commited, only to pin them on his roommate.
Even today, 50 years after the Michigan Murders first gripped Ypsilanti with fear, the story continues to unravel. Fournier theorized that the letters were an effort to get revenge on Davis for testifying against him during the trial. John Chapman is convinced that his cousin is guilty of all the murders that he described. He speculates that Collins was angry with his mother, blamed her for his life in a single-parent household, and took his rage out on women who rejected him.
The Detroit Free Press did some digging of their own throughout 2019. Much of this podcast series actually draws on the investigative piece that they released throughout the end of last year. Perhaps the most interesting thing they found was another letter from Collins, not to his cousin, but to the Free Press.
During the process of investigating the case, reporters from the Free Press sent three emails to Collins. One in July, one in August and one in November. Finally, in November, they received a response - one that investigative reporter Frank Witsil describes as “distinctively Collins.” Like the letters to Chapman, it’s scattered with misspelled words and phrases in all-caps. You can read the whole email online - it’s linked on our website. But it’s more of the same from Collins: Sketchy storytelling, attacks on others involved with his story, and insistence that he’s innocent.
As I mentioned earlier, each unsolved case is being revisited. No DNA was found on the evidence connected to Dawn Basom’s murder. The same goes for Mary Fleszar’s case. Evidence from Joan Schell and Maralynn Skelton’s cases have yet to be tested. This summer, the physical files containing tips, reports, and clues pertaining to the Michigan Murders cases were all transferred to MIchigan State Police headquarters. Everything will be re-examined, analyzed, and sorted. The process is expected to take months.
I’m well aware that this is really no way to end a story, but that brings us to the end of the Michigan Murders series. We’ve laid out all the highlights of the case - the crimes, the victims, the main suspect, the trials, and the evidence yet to be examined. In the coming months, maybe there will be another breakthrough in one of the Michigan Murders cases. Or maybe the trail simply goes cold. Whatever you may believe about the decades-old case, you can at least be certain of at least this: some questions will forever be left unanswered.
This has been Arica Frisbey. The Eastern Echo Podcast is produced by Rylee Barnsdale. This episode was written by Ronia-Isabel Cabansag. Special thanks to everyone who has helped to make this series possible: Andrew Lenzo, Heather Weigel, Johnny Thomas, Tyler Gaw, plus our editor-in-chief, Austin Elliot, and our advisor, Kate Mitchell.
The Eastern Echo welcomes thoughtful discussion on all of our stories, but please keep comments civil and on-topic. Read our full guidelines here.