The Ypsilanti Ripper: The Victims of John Norman Collins
In the late 1960’s, women in the Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor area were living in fear as a suspected serial killer terrorized the area. The murderer was targeting young females, often college students, which also gave him the nickname “the co-ed killer”. After two years and at least seven victims, John Norman Collins was arrested and convicted of one of the murders. After his incarceration, the murders stopped. This is the story of the victims of the Ypsilanti Ripper.
John Norman Chapman was born June 17th, 1947, in Windsor, Canada. He had two older siblings, a brother and sister. His father abandoned his mother and the children shortly after John was born. His father was reportedly an abusive alcoholic. When John’s mother married a second time, it was once again to an abusive alcoholic. When John was two, his stepfather threw him across the family vehicle in a fit of rage aimed at John’s mother. On another occasion, his stepfather provoked an argument with another man, who then pulled a gun on him. To defend himself, he used four-year-old John as a human shield.
In 1951, John’s mother left his abuse stepfather and moved with the three children to Detroit, Michigan. She then married William Collins, who adopted all three kids. He was also an alcoholic and frequently became physically abusive. By 1956, John’s mother and William had divorced. Despite his turbulent home life, John was an honor student, captain of the football team, and the star pitcher of his high school baseball team. He was by all accounts popular and successful throughout high school.
Ion 1965, John began studying education at Eastern Michigan University. He was in a fraternity but was kicked out due to suspicion of stealing. He was a successful student and relatively popular on campus. He dated, but the young women he dated often said he was very angry and sexually aggressive. During his sophomore year, his grades started to drop. He was accused of cheating in a class and of petty thefts on campus. Then, in 1966, John learned his sister was pregnant by a man other than her husband. John beat the man until he was unconscious, then beat his sister and called her a tramp.
On July 9th, 1967, nineteen-year-old Eastern Michigan student Mary Terese Fleszar disappeared after a neighbor saw her walking to her apartment. The neighbor reported seeing a man in a blue-grey Chevy pull up to Mary twice, trying to start a conversation with her. She shook her head both times, so the neighbor surmised the driver was asking her if she needed a ride. She was never seen alive again.
On August 7th, 1967, two teenage boys found the nude body of Mary Terese Fleszar on an abandoned farm. Her remains were identified through dental records, confirming her identity. The autopsy showed Mary had been stabbed approximately thirty times in the chest. Her feet and part of one of her hands were missing. She was beaten severely before her death. Due to the advanced decomposition, pathologists were unable to determine if she was sexually assaulted. The scene showed the body had been moved numerous times after being placed in the field.
After the remains were positively identified as Mary Fleszar, a young man arrived at the funeral home that was preparing the young woman’s body. He said he was a friend of Mary’s family and wanted to take a picture of the body as a “keepsake to the family”. The funeral home informed the man this was not possible, to which he responded, “You mean you can’t fix her up enough so I could just get one picture of her?”. He then left the funeral home. The family states they were not aware of who this person was and had not asked him to take a picture of her. He was described as a young white male, handsome, dark hair, and he drove a blue-grey Chevy.
Mary Terese Fleszar was born December 4th, 1947, in Willis, Michigan. She was a graduate of Lincoln High School in 1965 and was attending Eastern Michigan University as an accounting student. She was one of seven children born to Theresa and Chester Fleszar. Her father was a mechanical engineer and her mother a homemaker. Mary accomplished a lot during her high school years, earning membership in the National Honors Society, yearbook editor, and participating in the band, orchestra, chorus, and drama clubs. She was a huge fan of the Beatles! She was young, determined, and full of life until the man who became known as the Ypsilanti Ripper stole her life.
On June 30th, 1968, twenty-year-old Joan Schell was traveling to Ann Arbor to visit her boyfriend but missed the bus. She decided to hitchhike. Her roommate said a vehicle stopped to pick her up and the driver was a young male, around twenty years old, with clean cut and short dark hair. He matched the description of Joan’s neighbor, John Norman Collins. Her body was bound on July 5th, 1968. She had been mutilated and placed on a roadside in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The body was identified as Joan Schell. Her autopsy showed she had been raped and stabbed at least twenty-five times with a knife. The wounds punctured her lungs, liver, and carotid artery. Her throat had also been slit. The lack of blood underneath her body led investigators to believe that her body hadn’t been along the roadside long and was placed there after she was killed. While part of her body was preserved, her upper torso and head were badly decomposed, leading investigators to believe her killer tried to preserve her body. The wounds were very similar to those that Mary Fleszar had suffered, leading authorities to believe the murders were committed by the same man.
Joan Elspeth Schell was born on December 1st, 1947, in New Paris, Wisconsin. Her family later moved to Plymouth, Michigan. She was an art student at Eastern Michigan University. Her roommate begged her not to accept the ride that night, and when she failed to check in a few hours later, her roommate reported her missing. Her roommate’s instincts were spot on.
Police were told that the man seen picking Joan up looked very similar to her neighbor John Norman Collins. He was matched the sketch of the man who asked to take pictures of Mary Flaszer at the funeral home. Police questioned him, and he denied knowing Joan. He said he spent the weekend Joan disappeared with his mother in Center Line, Michigan. Police believed the young man and didn’t verify his alibi.
On March 20th, 1969, twenty-three-year-old University of Michigan law student Jane Louise Mixer disappeared. She had posted a note on the college bulletin board asking for a ride across Michigan to her hometown of Muskegon. She had recently become engaged and was traveling to tell her parents of her engagement and plan to move to New York. Her body was discovered in Denton Cemetery in Van Buren Township.
Jane’s autopsy and murder scene revealed many differences from the murders of Mary and Joan. Jane was found fully clothed, and she had been shot twice in the head. There were no signs of sexual assault in this case. She had a garment tied around her neck and just like the first two victims, was menstruating at the time of her death. For this reason, police connected Jane’s murder to that of Mary and Joan, indicating a serial killer was on the loose. This was before the names of Ted Bundy, Jefferey Dahmer, and John Wayne Gacy made the term serial killer widely known.
Jane Louise Mixer was born February 23rd, 1946, in Muskegon, Michigan. Jane, who was known to be brilliant and passionate, was studying law. She was driven, independent, and a proud feminist. Jane had been her high school valedictorian, giving a fiery speech about social justice. She wanted to change the world, and probably would have.
Four days after Jane’s body was found, police found yet another victim’s remains. The nude and severely mutilated body of a teenage girl was found behind a vacant house in a rural area. In fact, the body was found just a few hundred yards from where police found Joan Schell months earlier. The victim was identified as sixteen-year-old Maralynn Skelton.
Maralynn’s autopsy and crime scene was so horrific that investigators said it was the worse crime they had ever seen. She had numerous fractures covering one-third of her skull and one side of her face. She had been severely beaten and tortured before her death. Her shirt was stuffed into her throat, likely to muffle her screams. Lacerations on her body led authorities to believe she had been beaten with a leather strap. A tree branch had been violently inserted into her vagina. She too was menstruating at the time of her murder.
Maralynn Skelton was a sixteen-year-old student at Romulus High School. Maralynn was born March 4th, 1953, in Wayne County, Michigan. She had last been seen outside a restaurant near Ann Arbor two days before her body was discovered. Maralynn was known as a drug user, dealer, and occasional drug informant. While the similarities between her murder and the others connected all four, police were entirely sure this was not a drug-related crime.
Following the discovery of Maralynn’s body, authorities formed a coordinated task force from five different jurisdictions. Young girls lived in fear of the serial killer terrorizing Michigan. The task force identified that all the victims were brunette Caucasian females who had been menstruating at the time of their deaths. Police found that all victims had similar wounds and had something tied around their necks, linking all four murders together.
On April 16th, 1969, another body was found. This time, it was identified as thirteen-year-old Dawn Louise Basom, and she was found on a desolate road in Ypsilanti. She was dressed only in her blouse and bra, which was pushed up around her neck. She had been stabbed numerous times in her chest and genitals. She had slash wounds on her torso, breasts, and buttocks. She was also strangled with electrical cord and a handkerchief was placed in her mouth. There was no conclusive evidence of sexual assault.
Dawn Louise Basom was born on November 28th, 1955, in Ypsilanti. She was a middle-school student at the time of her death. She had been last seen the night before her body was found, walking home from a friend’s house less than a mile from her home. Her sweater and other items of clothing were later located in an abandoned farmhouse near where her body was found. In the farmhouse, police also found fresh human blood stains, indicating the murder had occurred here and her body later dumped.
While searching the house, Maralynn Skelton’s earring was also found, linking the cases. In May of that year, an arsonist set fire to the house. Five clipped lilacs were laying near the burnt down house, thought to symbolize the five victims that had lost their lives there. Police were no closer to finding the person responsible for these heinous crimes.
Two months later, three teenage boys discovered a sixth body. The body was identified as twenty-one-year-old Alice Kalom. Her body was partially nude and beaten severely. Her body was found in a field near a different abandoned farmhouse. She was stabbed several times, two times piercing her heart. She had also been shot in the forehead and then her neck slashed so severely it cut through her spine. Her had been raped and one of her shoes was missing.
Alice Elizabeth Kalom was born December 25th, 1947, in Middlebury, Indiana. Alice was a graduate student at the University of Michigan. She was last seen June 8th, 1969, walking home after a party at a friend’s house. She was a quiet girl who was interested in photography, often developing her own photos. She was quiet, studious, and very serious about her studies. She had a degree in fine arts and was an excellent student.
With the increase in murders across the campuses of Eastern Michigan University and Michigan University, female students were beginning to panic. It was believed that the killer was likely a student. Girls were using a “buddy system” while walking anywhere, careful to not be alone. Sales of tear gas, knives, and security locks skyrocketed in the area. Hitchhiking, once popular, became rare and dangerous. A reward of $42,000 was offered, which would be about $321,750 today.
By July of 1969, over a thousand sex offenders had been questions and over 800 tips investigated, but no suspect arrested. Police even asked a psychic named Peter Hurkos to assist in the investigation. He predicted that the murderer was a strongly built white male under twenty-five years of age, he was born outside the United States, and he rode a motorcycle. He revealed details of the murders to police that had not been previously released. He also predicted that the killer would strike one more time and soon.
On July 23rd, 1969, eighteen-year-old Karen Sue Beineman was reported missing by her roommate after she failed to return after curfew. She was a student at Eastern Michigan University. She was last seen around noon on her way to a wig shop downtown. Three days later, her body was discovered nude and face down in a wooded gulley. The autopsy revealed she had been beaten extensively and had lacerations so severe that nearly all the skin on her breast had been removed, revealing subcutaneous tissue. She had severe skull fractures and brain injuries. She had also been burned on her breasts and had a piece of cloth in her throat. She ultimately died of strangulation. Karen had been raped before she was murdered and her torn under garments were found inside her vagina. On those panties, authorities collected human semen and hair clippings. Police also noticed that Karen was a brunette and was menstruating at the time of her murder.
Karen Sue Beineman was born February 10th, 1951, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She was a college freshman and told the clerk at the wig shop the day she disappeared that she had two firsts that day: buying a wig and riding on the back of a motorcycle. The clerk described the man as about twenty-two years old with dark brown hair.
Police decided they had to set up a decoy to find this killer. He was known to return to the body after the crime, so police did not immediate release that they had found Karen’s body. Instead, they placed a mannequin in place of the body that they bought at JC Penny. Around midnight, police noticed a young man running from the sight where the decoy was lying. Due to heavy rain, they were unable to capture or identify him.
While investigating Karen’s murder, police thought the description of the man Karen rode with on the motorcycle matched a description of John Norman Collins. He had been seen riding his motorcycle around Eastern Michigan University on the afternoon of July 23rd. When shown photos of John Norman Collins, the clerk positively identified him as the man with Karen that day.
While investigation Collins, they learned that several of his former girlfriends reported he had been angry, sexually aggressive, and became enraged when they were menstruating. He even said he could tell when women were menstruating because he could smell it. His co-workers said he frequently talked about the murders, giving graphic details not released to the public. He later said his uncle, who was a police officer, provided him with these details. His uncle denied sharing any of these details with John.
John Norman Collins had been acquainted with most of the victims or had lived nearby. A former girlfriend lived in the same apartment complex as young Dawn Basom and confirmed that John had met the young girl on multiple occasions. After being identified in a line up, Collins refused a polygraph test. His roommate said after he became suspect, Collins destroyed a box with shoes, a purse, and other items believed to be missing items from the murder scenes.
While John Collins’ uncle, the police officer, was on vacation, John stayed at his house. This was during the same time that Karen Beineman disappeared. Upon his return, he notified his colleagues that he found numerous red stains he believed to be blood. Upon investigation, it was determined to be paint. However, while searching the home police found numerous hair clippings that matched those found on Karen’s body. The clippings were not John Norman Collins’ or Karen’s but matched his uncle’s small children whose hair was cut in the basement shortly before vacation. They also found small blood stains in the basement that matched the blood type of Karen. A neighbor recalled witnessing Collins leaving his uncle’s home with a deluxe laundry detergent box and hearing muffled screams the night before.
Confronted with the evidence against him, Collins burst into tears but continued to deny he was involved in any of the murders. However, with the hairs matching and other evidence led John Norman Collins to be arrested and charged with Karen Beineman’s murder. While awaiting trial, police learned of another possible victim in California. On June 30th, 1969, seventeen-year-old Roxie Ann Phillips was murdered in Salinas, California. Roxie had informed friends she had a friend named John who attended Eastern Michigan University. Upon investigation, it was determined that John and his roommate had traveled to Salinas, California on June 29th. Roxie’s nude body was found in a ravine with a dress around her neck. She had been strangled and one earring was missing. John was formally charged with Roxie Phillips’ murder in April of 1970.
John went to trial for the murder of Karen Beineman on June 2nd, 1970, in Ann Arbor. Collins chose not to take the stand in his own defense. The primary evidence against him included the clerk’s identification of him with Karen, the blood in his uncle’s home, and the hairs of his cousins found in her panties. The defense claimed the forensics were unreliable and police were guilty of harassing Collins. On August 19th, 1970, John Norman Collins was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.
During the trial, police realized that most of the victims resembled Collins’ mother. They also noted that the murders stopped after his arrest. His mother and sister defended him, insisting he was innocent and railroaded. Collins has appealed his conviction several times, all unsuccessfully. Police found more evidence that Collins was guilty of killing the other victims, although he was never charged. For example, Collins and Fleszar were working in the same building at the time she died. Another witness said he saw Schell with Collins the night of her disappearance. Another witness claimed Collins had an argument with Alice Kalom shortly before she was killed. A boot print on her body matched Collins’ boots. Around the time of Roxie Phillips’ murder, John was treated in California for anaphylaxis caused by poison oak, and Roxie’s body was found in a patch of poison oak.
In 1980, John changed his last name to Chapman, the last name of his biological father. As he is a dual citizen of the United States and Canada, he requested transfer to a prison in Canada. This request was originally granted but reversed in the wake of public outrage when the public learned that Canada would likely parole him. He has been in trouble in prison for contraband violations. He refuses to give interviews for the most part but continues to insist he is innocent.
In July of 2005, DNA evidence from the murder of Jane Mixer identified that John Norman Collins was likely not her killer. Sixty-two-year-old Gary Leiterman, a former nurse, was identified as the killer and charged with her murder. Jane’s murder was significant different from the others as she was found clothed and shot. Leiterman was convicted and sentenced to life without parole. He is not considered a suspect in any of the other murders.
Since the advancements in DNA technology, more evidence from the other murders has come to light. DNA on Alice Kalom’s clothing was a positive match for John Norman Collins. John Norman Collins continues to deny his involvement in the crimes but has exhausted all his appeals. He rarely gives interviews or answers questions but requested that everyone leave his mother out of it. It’s now been more than fifty years since the reign of terror stopped in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, and John Collins remains in prison in Michigan to this day.
McIntyre, B. (1969) Will arrest bring an end to murders? Battle Creek Enquirer. 03 Aug 1969