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Posted on Sun, Jan 2, 2011 : 1:26 p.m.

'The Michigan Murders' is one of those rare books you re-read because the suspense remains

By Paula Gardner

Review copies of books arrive with little fanfare in the newsroom, quietly making their way to a pile where we donate them toward charitable causes.

But that’s not what happened when the newly re-printed version of “The Michigan Murders” was passed into the vicinity of my desk, along with comments that agreed: This book was interesting, and its tale of one of Washtenaw County’s most notorious crime sprees deserved mention.

All of my colleagues had a story about the book — some had read it. Some wanted to. Most wondered about the central character and how he fared today.

My take was this: “The Michigan Murders” is one of those rare books that you re-read because the suspense remains even in the retelling. And in ways that I find hard to describe, my connections to that book — simply as a reader — feel life-altering.


It influenced how I consider personal safety. How I trust people. The ways I do my job and for what reasons. My understanding of this community, in the decades before I lived here and today.

“The Michigan Murders” tells the story from 1967 to 1970, when seven young women were abducted and killed in Washtenaw County. The youngest was 13; many were college students; all had been brutalized.

The discoveries of the bodies, as the pace of the killing accelerated in early 1969, panicked the community.

And all of that ceases to be distant history thanks to the research and storytelling in “The Michigan Murders,” which has kept memorable the details of the crimes and investigations — and reactions of this community — for decades.

At the time of its release, it garnered much attention for its writing style. The author, Edward Keyes, had a successful track record by co-authoring “The French Connection,” and the world of true crime writing could claim classics like “In Cold Blood” but far fewer churned-out, mass market paperbacks.

But the book also fell out of print, leaving dated copies on library shelves and resulting in random finds for yard sale and resale store shoppers.

Today, a new generation of readers are exposed to the story, thanks to the book’s reissue by the University of Michigan Press. The event took place quietly this fall, after editors searched for the right cover art and writers for the new prologue and epilogue. Both roadmap the journey of the book and John Norman Collins, who was convicted of one of the murders and linked to six of them, in the years after the original 1976 publication date.

“The Michigan Murders” merited a reissue because it resonates with readers. That’s particularly true in Washtenaw County, as Heather Newman, a staff member of the UMP, told me when I asked recently for more information.


The book chilled me when I first read it as a 7th grader who loved mysteries and stumbled upon it on a library shelf. Ann Arbor seemed so distant, but the ages of the victims — one just 13 — touched me. So did references to places familiar to my childhood in western Wayne County: Detroit Metropolitan Airport, I-94, Westland Mall.

As a newshound since I learned how to read, I knew the name John Norman Collins. But there always were plenty of other news stories to worry about, sometimes close to home and sometimes not.


John Norman Collins

File photo

And while reading continued as my primary hobby, over time, other true crime stories — which I read as light fare amid more intellectual pursuits in high school and later at the University of Michigan — overshadowed Keyes’ work in my memory and I forgot about it.

Years later, as a new, part-time police reporter at the now-closed Ypsilanti Press, I rediscovered the book.

The interest was fueled in part by a colleague on the police beat who approached the job with at least as much enthusiasm as I did. We listened to police scanners, and we listened to police stories as we both turned into familiar faces at crime scenes and ‘cop shops.’

Somehow, I ended up owning my own copy of “The Michigan Murders.” And my first summer on the police beat — a hot summer full of brush fires when I learned to talk to teenage witnesses to stabbings and parents who’d lost their children to accidents and violence — I reread it in a single sitting. It was a night in my sublet apartment near South University when my roommate was out of town, and it started out well. But soon I was unable to put it down, despite the terror I felt at being alone there that night.

My colleague read the book that summer, too, and we were mesmerized by our proximity to the horror and all of the places and actions that played a role in it 20 years earlier.

Those connections cemented the story in my memory. Times like the conversation with a state police diver who’s been mentioned in the book. The time when someone showed me a scrap book on the crimes, when the pseudonyms in the books turned into real women and girls, thanks to the names and photos in the yellowed newspaper clippings. The trip to the basement of the Michigan State Police post on Whittaker Road, where the sealed file cabinets held reports from investigators and witnesses.

We worked in the newsroom where Ypsilanti Press reporter John Cobb wrote the breaking coverage of the stores and parked where police searched his car when he showed up too early at scenes, sparking distrust.

We talked to police and attorneys and routinely wrote about judges and officials who’d had a role in the case.

We drove past the scenes of the crimes and the locations mentioned in the book and tried to imagine: What was it like back then?


Now, 40-some years after the crimes, I no longer wonder that. I’m older and I know this community far better, and as I re-read the book, I’m satisfied that I have a sense of what it was like.

Instead, my questions center on the victims: Who were they? And who remembers them today, for the people they were, people with real names that were protected by the author who told the last tales of their deaths?

And I wonder: How would the world respond if this had happened today?

It’s the type of serial crime, rooted in ongoing mystery — Why did he do it? Why were there so few clues in the other killings? — that could catch an author’s imagination today, too, and lead to re-telling.

Yet, today, serial crime can barely register on any meter of social awareness. There are TV talk shows. True crime television. “Mystery” programs crafted to keep a viewer entertained with dramatic narrative and real photos, and sometimes crime scene photos that, like so much in mainstream culture, just seem to push too far and reveal too much about the horrors behind the crime.


The scene of one of the crimes.

In re-reading “The Michigan Murders” yet again, I’m struck by the drama, and yes, the mystery.

But there’s also the fear that the book evokes by telling the story through the eyes of those involved. And in not trying too hard to make the point that this community was terrified and these victims endured horror, Keyes perfectly delivers. By the time he’s detailing the shock of a police family realizing that a notorious murder had been committed in their Ypsilanti basement, by their own loved one, readers are feeling it, too.


I once thought that I’d discovered something special in this book, something that struck me personally in both the storytelling and the proximity to my own life.

What I’m learning with this new offering is that I’m not alone — this is a story that’s built a reputation behind it, holding onto many readers as it did me.

That started at the time of Collins’ arrest. In 1969, an Ypsilanti Press headline proclaimed, “Murder probe attracts newsmen around world,” as they descended upon Ypsilanti as news of the arrest spread and his preliminary examination — the first official unveiling of evidence behind the charges — was scheduled for the former courthouse at 206 N. Huron.

Three years later, in May 1972, another headline touched upon the murders: “Author of ‘French Connection’ probing coed murders.’

The former newspaper writer had researched the book later made into a popular 1970s film and by 1972 had a publishing contract to look into the Washtenaw County crimes. He interviewed the local investigators, and he researched the newspaper clippings.

According to the story about his visit to Ypsilanti: “The book will be an account of the ‘frightening and baffling murders’ and how they grabbed the community, Keyes said.”

Forty years later, it’s not always obvious how they grabbed the community.

Many locations in the book have changed dramatically: The murder scene on Earhart Road is an established subdivision. The rooming house on Emmet Street where Collins was arrested has housed generations of students since that time. Arborland has been reborn, and Inn America is now a memory, razed for a Washtenaw Avenue office building.

It may be true that many here have forgotten the crimes. And it’s certain that many newcomers to the community over the past four decades have no idea that they even occurred.

But the book still stands, as a story of suspense; as a cautionary tale for a trusting world; as a detailed piece of history in Washtenaw County.

Paula Gardner is Business News Director of Contact her at 734-623-2586 or by email. Sign up for the weekly Business Review newsletter, distributed every Thursday, here.



Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 11:45 p.m.

Detroit WXYZ Channel 7's - Kelly &amp; Company - John Norman Collins In Five Parts: 1.) <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> 2.) <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> 3.) <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> 4.) <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> 5.) <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a>


Sun, Jan 9, 2011 : 9:47 p.m.

Ypsilivin', that is not true. Michigan became a state in Jan. 1837 and the death penalty wasn't outlawed in Michigan until 1846. Also, the death penalty for treason remained on the books until 1963. It IS true, however, that Michigan has not executed anyone since statehood. Interesting sidenote: Michigan was the first English-speaking government in the world to abolish totally the death penalty for ordinary crimes. It was done because of an innocent man, a Detroiter, Patrick Fitzpatrick, was hung for a rape/murder that he did not commit in Sandwich, Ontario, (now Windsor) in 1828. In 1835, his former roommate confessed to the murder on his deathbed, in order to clear his conscience. There's only been one execution in Michigan, when Anthony Chebatoris was hanged in Milan in 1938, for a murder he had committed while robbing a bank in Midland. This was a federal execution, outside of the state's jurisdiction and the last one to be committed in Michigan. I take personal pride in the fact that Michigan would rather abolish the death penalty than allow one innocent man to be killed. Unlike Texas, which has executed at least two innocent people in recent times. Just to set the record straight. And i am appalled that some people here wish to bring the shame of execution to Michigan. May you never find yourself accused and convicted falsely of any crime, much less one that carries the death penalty. If you want that, I suggest you move to Texas and good riddance.


Sat, Jan 8, 2011 : 9:51 p.m.

Haven't read this book, and previously didn't know the chronology of events all that well. But after reading this thoughtful review, as well as the previous comments, I made a quick visit to Wikipedia looking for more details on Collins' known personal history: What drove this failing EMU undergrad to coerce women into paying the ultimate price for placing basic trust in him? Before becoming a murder suspect, Collins was already known for difficult and sometimes violent behavior. He had reportedly once attacked his own sister. During the time period of the murders, he was kicked out of an EMU fraternity. He could also be bullying toward other rooming house residents. From these limited details, one wonders further about his formative years growing up in a Detroit suburb. What was his general home environment like? Who were his parents, friends, schoolmates and neighbors? What was the full background for someone like Collins, who would later choose to unfold his own life as a grisly tale worthy of comparison to Norman Bates?


Wed, Jan 5, 2011 : 8:41 p.m.

About 15 years ago I visited one of the body dump sites located on Geddes 1/4 mile West LeForge on the North side of the road. Time has not changed the area much except the barn is gone and a part foundation remained. I wonder how it looks today? It was an intriguing book when I read it in 1980. John Norman Collins today...&gt;&gt;&gt;

Michigan Reader

Tue, Jan 4, 2011 : 7:58 p.m.

@lumberg48108--It was the same blood type, which was all they could determine at that time. Couple that with the testimony of the wig shop clerk that she saw Karen Beinemen get on Collins' motorcyle, and her comment that she accepted a ride with a stranger, throw in some probable bias (the murders had stopped after his arrest)and other testimony, and you get a conviction. Circumstantial evidence can add up. It's not as good as a smoking gun, but in this case it was good enough.

mike from saline

Tue, Jan 4, 2011 : 7:18 p.m.

@lumberg48108 How were they able to determine that any blood found in the basement, MATCHED THE VICTIM? DNA technology didn't exist at the time! What other hard evidence you got? I'll stand by my original comment.


Mon, Jan 3, 2011 : 10:58 p.m.

last time anyone checked, collins changed his name, never spoke to reporters and maintained his innocence; so there is not much to dig up as far as what he offers if i recall, there was physical evidence - blood on the floor of a basement that matched the victim - the house belonged to Collins' uncle who was in law enforcement! the house is just south of washtenaw and just west of Oakwood near EMU campus... Collins even tried to clean the blood but forensics nailed him - so there was much more than circumstantial evidence


Mon, Jan 3, 2011 : 5:08 p.m.

I recall that the Jane Mixer murder did not fit into any of the Collins murder profile. Her only connection was the general time frame and not any of the circumstantial evidence connected to the Michigan Murders. JNC repeatedly denied any link to mixer. DNA evidence linked her murder to a former nurse, I think back in 2005. Why not do a report/follow-up on John Norman Collins? I re-call him being in the Marquette prison for a time and wasn't he in Jackson for a while? I think he changed his name to avoid notoriety. Does he still profess innocence?

Carl Duncan

Mon, Jan 3, 2011 : 3:24 p.m.

It was Gary Earl Leiterman who was convicted in 2005 of the Jane Mixer murder. She lived 10 houses down from me in Muskegon, MI. I remember clearly state police cars in the driveway of Mixer residence there in Muskegon at the time of the murder as we walked to school. Little did we know until later why they were there. Her brother, Scott was a residence of Ann Arbor as well. Scott was killed in a traffic accident in Muskegon by a drunk driver. Look at the childrens play area at Fuller Park. A bronzed rock sits there and dedicates the play area to the memory of Scott Mixer in the name of "Scott Fuller Park."


Mon, Jan 3, 2011 : 1:25 p.m.

magnumpi, You can find the book in the stores now; it was re-issued in September 2010.


Mon, Jan 3, 2011 : 9:23 a.m.

@lumberg, i had to reread your line "when things are very slow and people have time to kill" a few times to realize you meant "time to waste", lol. i may have missed it in the story, but when does the book hit the stores?

mike from saline

Mon, Jan 3, 2011 : 8:41 a.m.

lots of circumstanial evidence in this case. Hard evidence? Not so much. I remember most people holding their breath, waiting for the verdict. It was hardly a "slam dunk."


Mon, Jan 3, 2011 : 8:34 a.m.

I read this book many years ago - about ten years ago I looked for a copy of the book as I had lent mine out and never saw it again. The only place I could find it was at the library and even their copy was missing. Glad to know it's been reprinted - I'm definitely going to get my hands on a new copy. But I'm not lending it to anyone!

Steve Pepple

Mon, Jan 3, 2011 : 7:24 a.m.

A comment that violated our conversation guidelines was removed.


Mon, Jan 3, 2011 : 1:50 a.m.

Wasn't Ted Bundy thought to have been through this area around the same time? I remember at the time that females in all surrounding counties around Ypsi/AA were being urged NOT to hitchhike.

Oscar Lavista

Mon, Jan 3, 2011 : 1:18 a.m.

Great suggestion Paula. I picked up the book today and can hardly put it down. I knew the general story before, but not in such detail. It would be great if Contributor Rich Kinsey could provide his insight on the case... That would be fascinating.


Mon, Jan 3, 2011 : 12:36 a.m.

@Doug Boynton WAAM Radio did an excellent retrospective in 1996 for the 25 year anniversary, interviewing the original participants and talking to reporters who covered the story and the prosecutor. Ted Heusel was on the air when it all happened and 25 years later he had interesting comments to make. He claimed someone was shooting a movie about it later but it never was completed. One of the reasons many think there was no movie or why Collins was not more well known was because he never admitted to the crimes, making his legend less that others. Someone should contact them and see if they still have the documentary; perhaps they can put it online for readers to listen too? When I went to EMU 20 years ago the book was required reading and I have an original hardcopy version. While serial killers do capture our imagination what makes me think fondly of the book was that the author captured the era so well (this was the 60s and things were different) and also how people wander and make friends in the summer on campus when things are very slow and people have time to kill and often hang out with people out of common boredom - which happened to several of the victims. The author was able to recreate that atmosphere that I was living at the time; making it more enjoyable. @mjc Its been 40 years - its history! While writers always try to protect the victims this story was about the BOOK - not the murders themselves. After 40 years the writers should not have to worry about being "insenstive" - especially for a case that was very mainstream at the time. Get over it!


Sun, Jan 2, 2011 : 11:46 p.m.

Collins traveled to California and is a suspect in at least one murder out there. Ms. Gardner, there are some interesting books on this type of crime in regard to the behavioral aspects of offenders. I recommend anything by John Douglas and Roy Hazelwood, both were early pioneers at the FBI behavioral science unit and have authored several books.


Sun, Jan 2, 2011 : 10:53 p.m.

The accusation that the cover is disrespectful and sexist was clearly written by someone who was not around at the time. As another reader pointed out, Collins used female hitchhikers as his prey. Kids of both genders routinely hitchhiked between Ypsi and Ann Arbor. Hitchhiking was in vogue at the time; in fact the Premier of Canada urged young folks to hitchhike across the country. Here many gals and guys had shocking and bad experiences hitchhiking, but I recall the police URGING young women not to hitchhike during the Collins days, yet many continued to do so. I can see how today one would see the cover that way, but it was totally appropriate for the wild and crazy sixties.


Sun, Jan 2, 2011 : 10:29 p.m.

Davidian, A handful of executions took place in Michigan before it became a state, including the one to which you refer (see the link below). Michigan abolished the death penalty by statute in 1846 as one of the Legislature's first official acts, but between its admission as a state in 1837 and 1846, it neither sentenced anyone to death nor executed any person for any crime. The federal execution in Milan occurred in 1938, despite the strenuous objection of Gov. Frank Murphy, who argued that the federal government should execute their prisoner in a state where the death penalty was legal. The Sheriff of Midland County acted as the executioner in that case.


Sun, Jan 2, 2011 : 9:48 p.m.

Oldrustynail said: And although John Collins was to be executed, he is still in Michigan prison system. ***Not sure where this comes from, since Michigan has never had the death penalty.**** Ypsi, that's not exactly true. There were two executions under state law. The last, in 1846, went like this: a drunkard tavern owner was hanged for beating his wife to death. The hanging was promoted as an exciting event and thousands descended on Detroit to witness the execution. Right before the hanging, he sang a hymn that deeply resonated with the crowd. The scene was described as horrific--both because the hymn gave him humanity, and because the actual death was fairly gruesome. The death penalty was abolished in short order. However, a statute for execution for treason remained on the books until the 1960's. Also, you can be executed for federal offenses in Michigan. The last in Michigan was in 1936, and just this year it was on the table for the ATM murders. But this wasn't a federal offense, and you are correct, Collins never received the death penalty as his sentence.

Peter Finamore

Sun, Jan 2, 2011 : 9:45 p.m.

This brings back memories of a scary period. I remember in Aug 67 - sitting in the first floor living room of my girlfriends apt and hearing a noise at the window -- thinking it was the cat -- when I got up and pulled back the drapes - I startled a guy that had just cut the screen door - he fled immediately and I never got a look. This was only blocks away ( near Geddes rd) from where one of the girls was from. I was also on Jury selection panel for the J N Collins trial. I was de-selected by the defense. Another item that I remember -- Our department manager's 85 year old mother rented rooms to Collins in '69 and recalled that she found a California license (Collins) plate and womens clothing in her trash -- I do not remember if that was ever part of the evidence trail. --- PF


Sun, Jan 2, 2011 : 9:35 p.m.

Oldrustynail said: And although John Collins was to be executed, he is still in Michigan prison system. Not sure where this comes from, since Michigan has never had the death penalty.


Sun, Jan 2, 2011 : 8:57 p.m.

I remember being a kid of 9 or 10 and my Mom taking us down the murder road. And it always freaked me out but I wonder if that is why I always read true murder crime books as a young adult. Did that plant the seed to be interested in that genre?

David Briegel

Sun, Jan 2, 2011 : 8:15 p.m.

I started employment at St Joe's in July of 69. The Hospital Employee picnic was a couple weeks later and an employee invited John Collins and they had arrived on his motorcycle! He was arrested shortly thereafter. There was shock that he had actually been to our event!


Sun, Jan 2, 2011 : 8:07 p.m.

I was going to EMU at the time, and like most EMU students at that time, the crimes left a permanet mark of my college days. My girlfriend who lived across the street from John Collins, gave him haircuts. He was a clean-cut well-liked kid on campus. In that spring, I went out to Leforge Road with a co-ed to take pictures of an old barn. Twenty minutes into the picture shooting, a county sheriff rolled up, told us to leave. He had been watching me to see if I was going to try to attack the girl. He informed us that one of the murders had occured at that barn. I am sure many others on campus during that time also have stories. And although John Collins was to be executed, he is still in Michigan prison system.


Sun, Jan 2, 2011 : 6:44 p.m.

I also remember this book like no other; mainly because I lived so near some of the places mentioned in the book but also because it was so pivotal in inspiring me to go into criminal justice. I snatched up a copy of the new edition at the Kerrytown Bookfest this year.

Urban Sombrero

Sun, Jan 2, 2011 : 6:35 p.m.

I really enjoyed this book when I read it, several years ago. It s true, it's one you don't want to put down. I found out later that my father was good friends with one of the victims (the lady from Muskegon). They'd graduated together and had hung out in the same social circle. It was a shock for him to find out she'd been murdered.

Matt Cooper

Sun, Jan 2, 2011 : 5:11 p.m.

I don't think the cover implies any such thing, as most of the victims were taken while hitchiking. It was Collins' theme.

Doug Boynton

Sun, Jan 2, 2011 : 5:05 p.m.

So many stories behind this story. Keyes touched on some, and hinted at others. And that's no mere "detective" looking under the sheet - that's Sheriff Doug Harvey himself, a whole other story. It would be interesting to talk to the living players in this tale before they're all gone. But that story probably wouldn't sell many books these days. Nice piece, Ms. Gardner.


Sun, Jan 2, 2011 : 4:25 p.m.

"...after editors searched for the right cover art" I don't see anything "right" about the book's new cover (nor would I call it art). Showing a woman hitch-hiking gives the FALSE impression that each of the victims may have been responsible for her own fate. And did seriously have to reprint the photo of a detective supposedly inspecting the body of one of these poor young women? Where's the respect for the victims who had their lives so brutally stolen away all these years ago? May they rest in peace.


Sun, Jan 2, 2011 : 3:22 p.m.

Certainly an upsetting time. I'd suggest another Michigan murder mystery from 1968 which remains unsolved, "When Evil Came to Goodhart".


Sun, Jan 2, 2011 : 3 p.m.

Just a little eerie that while searching my basement last week, found my copy of this book and started re-reading it. Between the book and my youthful memory of the case as it was ongoing, you're right. I could not put it down until I was done.


Sun, Jan 2, 2011 : 2:47 p.m.

Well written article, nice job!


Sun, Jan 2, 2011 : 2:45 p.m.

Another book along the same true story line is "Why Did They Kill". Written by John Bartlow Martin it looks at a shocking crime from the 1950's in the Ypsi-A2 area.