When people looked at John Norman Collins, they did not see a killer. A fraternity brother and an aspiring elementary school teacher, he had the outward appearance of an All-American boy: kind, fun, and motivated. But while the 20-something Michigander seemed normal to those who knew him, something darker lurked inside—and it propelled him to take the lives of over half a dozen victims.
His victims were young women, primarily college students in the Ann Arbor area, whom Collins beat, strangled, stabbed, and sometimes mutilated to death. Eighteen-year-old Mary Terese Fleszar was his first—her nude and battered body discovered on an August day in 1967. Two months had passed since her initial disappearance, but due to the extent of decomposition and body mutilation, she was practically unrecognizable.
John Norman Collins, who was dubbed the "Ypsilanti Ripper," continued his spree until his arrest in 1969, just seven days after killing Karen Sue Beineman. Though he was only charged with this final murder, he is considered responsible for six others—including that of Mary Terese Fleszar.
In his Edgar Award finalist, The Michigan Murders, author Edward Keyes investigates John Norman Collins' crimes, from the first slaying to the trial. The excerpt below describes the day two teenagers stumbled across the body of Mary Terese—whose name has been changed to "Marilyn Pindar" in the book—at a farm in nearby Washtenaw County.
Read on for an excerpt from The Michigan Murders, and then download the book.
Two teen-age boys found it the afternoon of Monday, August 7. They weren’t sure what it was, except that it was something that once had lived.
Gerald Carmody, Jr., sixteen, and John Matthews, fifteen, were tinkering with a balky tractor in a corn field owned by Gerald’s father in rural Superior Township, a couple of miles north of Ypsilanti. The Carmody family had lived on the adjoining property before moving to a larger farm in Saline; but they kept up this stand of corn, as well as a fruit orchard on the far side of the farm. The shabby gray shell of the old farmhouse still stood between the two fields, but the overgrowth of weeds and brush had almost succeeded in screening it off from Geddes Road out front. Now the place had become a somewhat shabby lovers’ retreat.
One of the boys was gassing the tractor and the other testing the spark plugs when they heard a car door slam from the direction of the old homestead. The two boys looked at each other with knowing grins, and Gerald Carmody said: “Let’s sneak over and see what we can see.”
They crept from the cornfield into the thick brush and waited for a moment, listening. There was a sudden rustle of movement beyond their view, then they heard the car door slam again and an engine spinning over. In the several minutes it took them to reach the clearing, the car was gone. They thought they heard an acceleration of power out on Geddes Road, but the road was blocked from their sight.
The boys made their way around to the other side of the dilapidated building. At the curve near the top of the elliptical drive, they discovered a set of fresh tire tracks angling diagonally off deep into two-foot-high underbrush. Their curiosity aroused, the boys followed the tracks through the tangled growth for perhaps twenty feet, before Gerald brought them up short. “Do you smell something?” he asked, his features pinched up.
“John inhaled and let out a breath of distaste. “Phew! Sure do. Smells like … shit.”
Gerald sniffed again. “I don’t know. It could be some kind of dead animal.”
“Have to be dead a long time to smell that bad.”
“Let’s go see. We could bury it.”
A small clearing lay a few yards farther on. Approaching it, Gerald stopped abruptly, and John, behind, heard an odd strangling sound escape from his friend’s throat.
“What’s the matter?” he asked, coming abreast.
Gerald stood frozen, staring across the littered clearing. Ten feet away, amidst a litter of trash, lay a black, misshapen bulk. Flies and insects by the hundreds, thousands maybe, flitted about it, crawled over it and into it. The stench was suffocating. It had to have been some living creature, but what? The thing appeared to have a head, but it was featureless, shapeless, only a rotten mass at the end of an unrecognizable torso. There were four limbs, or what was left of them, but only stumps where paws or hoofs—or God! hands and feet—should have been. John lurched into a bush and retched uncontrollably.
As they stumbled back through the brush, Gerald kept glancing behind him toward the awful scene. When at last they reemerged into the warm, fresh orderliness of the corn field, Gerald paused again and took his friend by the arm.
“Johnny, I think we ought to report that.”
“To who? The police? For an old animal carcass? They don’t want to hear about that!”
Gerald breathed deeply. “Suppose it’s not an animal?”
The Michigan State Police post in Ypsilanti was a venerable, narrow two-story white frame building that looked out of place, almost quaint, amidst the neoned auto dealerships and shopping plazas clustered along Michigan Avenue, just east of the city’s commercial hub. The cramped quarters seemed to belie the post’s strategic importance to the well-organized State Police apparatus; it was the second largest in the state and perennially one of the busiest.
A uniformed trooper, Corporal Harold Rowe, was at the desk in the front cage when the two agitated youngsters stumbled through the door around 2:30 Monday afternoon. In a stammering mixture of excitement and timidity they told of having come upon a dead body—of some kind—on an abandoned farm.
The corporal eyed them warily for a possible prank, made some notes, then rang upstairs to the Detective Bureau.
Half of the post’s four detectives were on duty in the two small second-floor offices, Detective Sergeants Ken Taylor and Ken Kraus. The senior of the two, Taylor, took the call. After listening a few seconds he groaned, “Oh, Christ.” Then he sighed and said, “Okay, somebody’ll be down.”
Taylor turned to Kraus at the desk opposite. “Ken, two kids just came in with some story about a body out in a field somewhere. Want to go down and see what it’s all about?”
Taylor was exercising the privilege that went with his unofficial ranking over Kraus. Taylor, aged forty, had seventeen years in the department, seven as a detective. Kraus, though technically of equal rank, was eight years younger, with only eleven years’ service, and had been a detective less than a year. It was understood that the junior officer would submit himself, as required, to the less promising cases.
When Kraus came back upstairs after about fifteen minutes, however, he looked concerned. “I don’t know,” he said to Taylor, “there may be something in this. I think we ought to go over there and check it out.”
“Well, what is it, male, female, what?”
“That’s the problem. They couldn’t tell for sure. Apparently it’s been there for some time—it’s all decomposed.” Kraus quickly summarized the boys’ account.
“I’ll lay odds it’s a dead deer.” Taylor glanced at his schedule log. “Well, okay, it’s a slow day anyway. And Schoonmaker ought to be back soon”—he rose and put on his suit jacket—“so let’s take us a ride in the country.”
The repulsive sight was sobering, and keeping the wide-eyed boys at a distance, the two detectives bent to the task of examining the remains.
Taylor knew at once that it was a human corpse, but it was in such a state of deterioration that there was no immediate way to determine its sex. What was left of its flesh had turned a dark, blackish brown, like stiff leather—it must have lain baking for weeks under the hot summer sun. There were no distinguishing features whatever. A number of punctures in the torso could have been stab wounds. The corpse had no feet, but it was impossible to tell whether they had been cut off or eaten away by animals. One of the hands also was missing, and the fingers of the other were barely stumps. No articles of clothing were evident in the vicinity.
The detectives, sweating, breathless from the stench, stood up and walked a few feet away, distastefully wiping off their hands with their handkerchiefs. “Not a hell of a lot to work with, is there?” Taylor grimaced.
“What a mess,” Kraus agreed. “Want me to call it in?”
“Yeah. Have them run down all the ‘missings’ the past month or so. And you’d better have the county prosecutor’s office alerted.”
Within twenty minutes, other police cars began arriving, responding to the State Police bulletin that, as was customary, had been monitored by other law enforcement agencies throughout the area. Among the first newcomers to reach the location in an unmarked Ypsi P.D. car was a grim Lieutenant Vern Howard.
As soon as Howard had learned of the discovery, he’d felt a stab of premonition that the corpse had to be Marilyn Pindar. When he viewed the unidentifiable thing that lay there, he wanted to be wrong. He was a cop and had seen much of the ugliness that can afflict mankind, and he’d hardened himself as well as any cop must against personal reaction to it; but now all he could think of was the Pindar family and how they’d prayed for their daughter’s recovery at least unviolated, alive or dead, and how this would destroy them.
Instinctively, Howard peered about, and then began to prowl the immediate area, searching for some sign of the victim’s clothing. The one article that he was particularly alert for was an orange dress with white polka dots.
Soon there were a dozen official cars at the scene, lined up along Geddes Road outside the abandoned farm. Uniformed state troopers kept traffic, which was light, moving steadily past, not permitting the curious even to slow. There were several deputies from the Sheriff’s Department and Sergeants Herb Smith and Don Howell of the Ypsi P.D., as well as Chief John Hayes and Lieutenant Mel Fuller of the E.M.U. campus police, who were deputized to assist local civil authorities in any investigation that might involve students or faculty members. Assistant Prosecutor Booker T. Williams arrived, a slight, soft-spoken, light-skinned black who directed the Ypsilanti office of Washtenaw County Prosecutor William F. Delhey, whose own headquarters was in the county seat, Ann Arbor.
Finally the county medical examiner, Dr. H. A. Scovill of Ypsilanti, came and, after a rapid examination of the cadaver, ordered a postmortem to be performed at the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor. Dr. Scovill was peppered with questions:
“How long is it dead?”
“I’d say several weeks at least Maybe a month.”
“Is it male or female?”
“Appears to be female.”
“No way to tell at this time.”
“Can’t say yet.”
“Cause of death?”
“The autopsy should tell us that—I hope.”
After the remains had been removed, the police reconstructed what few facts they had. The body of the presumed female had been found on the deserted Carmody farm at a point 192 feet north of Geddes Road and three-tenths of a mile west of LaForge Road. The odds seemed strongly against accidental or natural death in such a remote location. She could have been killed there, or anywhere and dumped there. The absence so far of any of her clothes might support the latter probability.
The consensus was that in any event, from indications on the ground and in the trash in which it lay, the corpse had been moved a number of times during the month or so that it probably had been there—five or six feet each time, in several different directions. This could be attributed to the tugging of voracious animals, or it could be that the killer had returned periodically to inspect his (or her) victim, perhaps to ascertain whether the body had been discovered, perhaps out of sheer perverseness. The investigators could not discount the two boys’ story of having heard a car in the vicinity just prior to their stumbling upon the cadaver. If only they’d got a glimpse of that car. Nonetheless, this line of theory suggested that the killer might live or work in the area, close enough at any rate to be drawn back to the death site more than once.
“About 4:30, one of the troopers who, with the detectives, had fanned out over the area to thrash laboriously through the wild growth let out a cry. Among thick weeds near the innermost curve of the driveway, some fifty yards from where the body had lain, he’d found a female’s sandal. It was of leather with a kind of straw weave and, when cleaned off, looked relatively new. Its string laces were still tied in a bow. The instep was labeled “Qualicraft Casual—6½B.” It was for a right foot. There was no mate.
As the detectives considered this find, Vern Howard’s heart sank. After examining the sandal, he said to Ken Taylor: “You know the ‘missing’ case I’ve been on—the E.M.U. coed?”
“Yes.” Taylor eyed the older man. “You think this might be something?”
Howard studied the sandal again. “She was wearing something like this.” He reflected a moment, then said: “I think the girl’s family better be given a look.” It sounded as though that was the last thing he wanted to do.
“You want me to go with you?”
“Would you?” Howard said, his eyes grateful. “It’s the first thing that’s turned up in a month.…” His gruff voice trailed off.
Charles and Margaret Pindar were seated silently on lawn chairs under a tree at the rear of their house in Willis, relaxing before dinner. A chill swept through them when they recognized Lieutenant Howard pulling into their driveway. Howard introduced Detective Sergeant Taylor of the State Police. Howard appeared ill at ease, as if unsure what to say. He seemed to be hoping that Sergeant Taylor would do the talking.
“Mr. and Mrs. Pindar,” Taylor said, clearing his throat, “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but we’ve found—a body. A woman, we think. She’s been dead about a month, and we found something near the body…”
Taylor turned to Howard, who produced the lone sandal. Mrs. Pindar turned it over and over in fluttering hands, then clutched it lovingly and stared at her husband. He put his arm around her shoulders.
“It’s … Marilyn’s,” she said at last in a small voice.
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