Michigan Murders: 50 years ago, terror in Ypsilanti ends

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By July 23, 1969, panic is in the hot, muggy, southeast Michigan air. A killer is on the loose, five women in southeast Michigan are dead, and a sixth is missing. 

This is part two of our Michigan Murders series. If you missed part one, stop reading right now and go to part one here. Then come back here for part two.

Five different police agencies frantically searched for Karen Sue Beineman on July 23, 1969. They combed the 100 square miles of side roads between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti for the 18-year-old who was last seen getting on a motorcycle with a stranger in Ypsilanti.

Karen was the latest girl in a two-year stretch to go missing. There have been six before her, five in southeast Michigan and one in California - though that one was not connected at the time. All had been killed and then dumped on back roads.


They were all shot, strangled, stabbed or subjected to terrible acts. Almost all of them had been raped and mutilated, as Washtenaw County Sheriff Doug Harvey explains.

"A lot of the girls were beaten about the face, and so on, let alone the stab wounds," Harvey said.

Author Greg Fournier later wrote a book about the killings. He's believed to be the last person to see the first victim alive.

"The town collectively went into shock," Fournier said. "And nobody wanted to say anything to anybody because it was very obvious by that time that there was a serial killer working this area."

The first victim, Mary Fleszar, disappeared in July 1967. More than two years later, Karen Beineman disappeared. It was July 23rd, 1969.

Karen had left to walk to a wig shop in downtown Ypsilanti, yet she arrived on the back of a motorcycle. The owner of the wig shop, Joan Goeshe, and her assistant stepped out to watch the young girl on the bike. 

They saw a clean-cut man sitting on a Triumph motorcycle and got a good look at him before he turned away.

The clerk at the chocolate shop next door was a motorcycle enthusiast and also noticed the bike and the handsome man sitting on it.


By July 24, every cop in Washtenaw County was issued a Be On the Lookout (BOLO) for the bike and biker.

Among those cops was a rookie campus police officer at Eastern Michigan University: Larry Matthewson. He remembered something from the day before.

"I was on patrol the afternoon of the 23rd of July, and turned the corner down by Sill Hall on the campus and there was John Collins. I didn't even know his name at the time," Larry said.

Larry was still a senior in college and, though he may not have known his name, he recognized his face.

"He knew me, and I knew him. Just basically...fraternity rivals and that."

The two played intramural football. Larry said John was memorable because he was a great athlete. On the day Karen disappeared, Larry said John was sitting on a motorcycle, flirting with pretty college girls.

Fournier said Karen was the only one to get on the bike.

"There were seven women that he tried to get on that motorcycle before Beineman got on it," Fournier said.

The rookie cop soon found out his football fraternity's rival: it was John Norman Collins.


Collins rented a room on the second floor of a Ypsilanti building on Emmet Street. It was across the street from where the second victim, Joan Schell, lived.

Larry thought he was onto something and, when he found Collins getting ready to put a new license plate on a Triumph bike behind the house, he got nervous. But Collins was a bit bigger than Larry.

"He was probably 20 or 30 pounds heavier that I was. He lifted weights and I didn't," Larry said.

Larry turned to one of the girls he saw Collins flirting with to see if he was the same man that drove off with Karen in downtown Ypsilanti.

"She asked me if he was in any trouble and I said 'not that I'm aware of, but if you had a picture I probably could (clear him)'," Larry said.

The girl gave him a picture, which he put in a photo lineup and went to the chocolate shop to look for the employee.

"They said she was in the basement having lunch so I went down there and talked with her. I said 'would you look at these pictures for me' and she said sure.  And she looked at them and I don't know, the third or fourth picture was Collins and when she saw it she just dropped her sandwich in her lap and said 'oh shit, that's him!'" Larry said.

At that point, Karen was only missing. That would change the next day.

"When the doctor and his wife came down here to the end of the street to get the mail, his wife looked down and said 'there's a body down there," Fournier said. 

Karen had been tortured before her death, beaten on the head, had been strangled to death and dumped, naked, off Riverside Drive. 

Her underwear had been inserted into the area of her vagina - which police say was one of the killer's signatures. But they also found something unusual, more than 500 short clipped blonde hairs.

By that point, Larry had been brought in to share what he had with Michigan State Police, the Washtenaw County Sheriff, and other agencies. They had set up a task force at an old seminary.


Aside from being the last person seen with Karen and living directly across the street from Joan Schell, there was more to link John Collins to the murders.

The first victim, Mary Fleszar was last seen being cut off by a guy in a shiny car just a block from Collins' room.  That car matched a car registered to his mother.  

It would seem unlikely he didn't know Mary.

"Mary worked at the university. She worked across the hall from where Collins had a student job," Fournier said.

As for the youngest victim, 13-year-old Dawn Basom, he was connected to her too: he had friends that lived in the apartment building near Dawn's home.

"He had several fraternity brothers that rented an apartment there," Fournier said.

The apartments have a perfect view of Dawn's home.

As for Alice Kalom, who disappeared after a party in Ann Arbor, she got on a motorcycle. 

"This source that I have says he saw Alice on the back of Collins' motorcycle, driving away," Fournier said.


The evidence that sealed Collins' fate came from a home owned by a Michigan State Trooper.

Corporal David Leik had just returned from vacation when he noticed things were amiss in the basement.

Before they left for vacation, Leik's wife gave his kids haircuts in the basement. The clippings were swept into neat piles when they left. But as Leik walked into the basement, he found a mess of the hair and there was blood on the basement floor. 

"That was tough on Leik. To go down into his basement and say 'whoa, something's different here'," Sheriff Harvey said.

Karen disappeared and was killed when Leik and his family were on vacation, but the home wasn't empty. His nephew had stayed at the home: John Norman Collins.

"The Leik children, the three boys were all white blonde little guys and that hair, color wise, the first original look at it, seemed to be a fit," Larry said.

The tiny hairs in Karen's underwear were a fit to the hairs in the basement. With the mounting evidence, Collins was arrested on July 31, 1969.


John Collins grew up in Center Line, north of Detroit. He was a letterman at the Catholic High School and was a sports hero. His mother worked as a waitress and told John and his siblings that their father had abandoned them. 

By '69, he was a senior at Eastern Michigan University, studying to be a teacher. He was polite and handsome, but the boy next door image was a farce. Fournier said his frat brothers learned that the hard way when he was thrown out because of theft.

In fact, the motorcycle he picked up Karen on was cobbled together stolen parts.


If police in Michigan were doubting Collins as their man, they got more evidence a few thousand miles away.

"I knew we had a good case but it was going to be a lengthy trial. And here's California - and they've got a better case than us, and they've got the death penalty," Sheriff Harvey said.

Right after Alice Kalom was killed in June '69, Collins and a friends took a road trip to Salinas, California. In the few days he was in southern California, 17-year-old Roxie Phillips disappeared.

"Roxie is walking down the street, mailed a letter a block away from her house. The letter was mailed so they knew she got that far. And John picked her up and he had a nice car...that was his mother's car," Fournier said.

The car had Michigan plates. Two people saw Roxie get in the car. 

Before Collins left the Golden State, he saw a doctor for a case of poison oak.

A few days later, Roxie was found in Pecadero Canyon outside of Salinas. She had been beaten and strangled and then dumped in a patch of poison oak in the canyon.

After his Michigan arrest, the car he drove to California was impounded where they found some important evidence for the California murder.

"They took the car apart and they found under one of the seats, a swatch of fabric, I think was about the size of a dime. It was the same pattern, same floral pattern, and save weave of dress. Everything matched the belt and that swatch, which connected the two," Fournier said.


Collins claimed he never killed anyone and he even agreed to take a polygraph test.  Sheriff Harvey said, just before the test, John met in private with his attorney.  

"He was in with John for about 45 minutes. He comes out and said 'take him back to jail.' (I said) 'the polygraph is sitting over here'. (He said) 'take him back to jail.'  It didn't take a scientist to figure out what transpired.  I know for a fact that John confessed to him," Sheriff Harvey said.

In 1970, John Collins was tried for the murder of Karen Beineman. His mother attended every single day of the trial.

"Her and the daughter both had miniskirts on and with the boots, all the way up, and long, dangly earrings. But they were striking.  They stood out," Sheriff Harvey said.

During the trial, Collins sat more relaxed than before: He smiled at attorneys, his mother, and his family.

Despite exuding confidence, evidence was overwhelming. The hairs found in Karen's underwear matched hair in his uncle's basement - which is where she was believed to have been killed.

On August 17, 1970, John Normans Collins was found guilty by a jury. He has ordered to life without parole in prison.


Collins has been locked up for 50 years - but that doesn't erase the pain. 

In part three of our special series, we'll meet the women who had close calls with the killer, including one woman who says he's still luring women into his clutches today, from his prison cell.

Go back and read Part One here: Michigan Murders: 50 years ago, terror reigned in Ypsilanti

Continue reading Part Three here: Michigan Murders: Close calls, haunting roads - life after a suspected serial killer is arrested