A mother will always recognize her own child, yes? When it came to Christine Collins and the tragic 1928 disappearance of her son, police in Los Angeles didn’t think so.
On March 10, 1928, Christine Collins' young son Walter left to see a movie. He never returned. The disappearance triggered a massive manhunt, with the LAPD fielding hundreds of leads and dead ends. As days passed and Walter remained missing, public opinion turned on the police department. Where was the child? Why wasn't he back in the arms of his mother?
Then, five months after that fateful day in March, there was a break in the case.
News came in from DeKalb, Illinois about a boy who said he was Walter. Authorities established communication between the child and Christine Collins. Travel arrangements were made; the boy would be brought to Los Angeles.
Police were certainly looking looking forward to the reunion, as they hoped it would offset the negative press they had been receiving. Yet nothing compared to the anticipation of Christine Collins, who wished with all her heart to see her son again.
There was just one problem: the boy from Dekalb wasn't her son. While he did resemble the missing Walter Collins, when Christine finally met the boy in Los Angeles, she knew immediately he was not her child.
The distraught mother pleaded with the police; the boy they were attempting to return to her was not her Walter. Incredibly, the police did not believe her. This was supposed to be the cheery ending to a headline-grabbing disappearance case. Christine Collins wasn’t playing her part. They encouraged her to take the child home and “try him out for a couple of weeks.”
Christine agreed, reluctantly. Three weeks later, she returned with Walter’s dental records to prove that the boy was an imposter. Once again, police refused to believe her. Instead of resuming their search, they actually had her committed to a mental hospital.
While she was locked up, police interviewed the child, who eventually revealed the truth: He was a 12-year-old runaway named Arthur Hutchins, Jr. A man at a roadside cafe had told Hutchins how much he looked like the missing Walter Collins, and Hutchins decided to impersonate him to see if it could get him to California.
The Missing Boy
So, what happened to the real Walter Collins? That story, sadly, is very dark.
It begins in 1924, when a Saskatchewan man named Gordon Stewart Northcott moved with his family to the Los Angles area. Two years later, a 19-year-old Northcott convinced his father to purchase a parcel of land in what was then known as Wineville, California, a region an hour and a half east of Los Angeles known today as Mira Loma and the Jurupa Valley. Northcott planned to start a chicken ranch on the newly purchased property. But he would need help. So he arranged to have his young nephew Sanford Clark brought down from Saskatchewan to live on the ranch.
Not long after Sanford arrived, Northcott's dark side emerged.
Northcott regularly beat and sexually abused his nephew. In 1928, two years into his ordeal at the chicken ranch, Sanford’s older sister, Jessie, came for a visit. One night, while Northcott slept, Sanford revealed the horrors he had suffered at the hands of his uncle. Then his revelations turned to homicide: Northcott, with the help of Northcott's mother, Sarah Northcott, had murdered four boys. Sanford told his sister he was afraid for his own life.
Jessie raised the alarm. On August 31, 1928, authorities descended upon Northcott’s chicken ranch. There they found young Sanford Clark. Northcott, however, was nowhere to be found.
Turns out, Northcott had spotted the agents approaching his ranch and fled. He and his mother managed to escape California. They made it all the way to Vernon, British Columbia before finally being apprehended on September 19, 1928.
Sanford Clark told police that his uncle had forced him to assist in the murder of three boys at the Wineville chicken ranch. He also told them his uncle had killed a fourth boy in Mexico. Police found shallow graves on the ranch, but the complete bodies were missing; the graves only contained pieces of bodies. It seems Northcott had dug up the remains in the weeks before the raid and took them out to the desert to be burned.
Still, there was enough evidence to confirm that murder had occurred on the Wineville chicken ranch—and one of the victims was nine-year-old Walter Collins. Northcott's mother revealed the chilling details of the slaying. Her son had kidnapped young Walter and kept him locked in a chicken coop. Upon discovering this, Sarah convinced her son that Walter would be able to identify them if he were freed. So the group decided to murder the boy—with Gordon Northcott, Sarah Northcott, and Sanford Clark all participating so no one could incriminate the other.
Gordon Northcott was sentenced to death and his mother to life in prison. Northcott was hanged in 1930 at the age of 23. Police say the pair may have been responsible for the murders of many other boys who were never found.
Because Christine Collins never recovered the body of her son, she never completely accepted that he was dead. She continued the search for her son for the rest of her life. That sad story was the subject of the 2008 film Changeling, starring Angelina Jolie.
Christine Collins was awarded more than $10,000 in a lawsuit against the LAPD, who had committed her to a mental hospital when she insisted the boy they found was not her son. The settlement—more than $150,000 in today’s dollars—was never paid.
Feature photo of Gordon Northcott: Murderpedia