Michigan Murders: Close calls, haunting roads - life after a suspected serial killer is arrested

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At the end of July 1969, six Michigan women were dead, another was killed in California, and one suspect was in custody.

The man believed to have been responsible for terrorizing Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor would soon be convicted of one murder but has also been linked to six others. Could there have been more?

This is part three of our Michigan Murders series. If you missed part one, you can go and read part one here. You'll find part two here, then come back here for part three.

It's the spring semester of 1969 at Eastern Michigan University. An athletic student chats up 18-year-old freshman Ronna in line at the bank near campus. She heads back to her dorm on foot.

"(John Collins) came up beside me in his car and he was just following me home," she said. "And I just said 'No. No, I'm OK.'"

After a block, Ronna finally gives in and hops in his car. John promises to take her for a ride the next day on his Triumph motorcycle.

"Most of the time I saw him (he) was riding motorcycles. He'd pick me up from class," she said.

There are some women who did not survive motorcycle rides in the late 1960s. Ronna isn't one of them, but she could have been.

Ronna was always with her classmates when John would get her. They thought he seemed nice. He liked to take her riding the back roads past the woods and farms and abandoned barns.

"We were always going down Geddes Road, and we'd stop at this old farmhouse," she said. "I said, 'John, I just saw something. This is where they've been finding bodies'." He said, 'Yeah, I know, you want to go look for some?'"

She said she didn't suspect him of being a killer and went back home to her parents house for the summer.

Then, John was arrested.

"I saw his picture on TV and just said, 'Oh my God, this can't be,'" she said.

Ronna said John never laid a hand on her. Then again, she always had friends around whenever John showed up.

"I thank my lucky stars all the time. I just figure I had someone watching over me," Ronna said.


Pam remembers John as well, but he was no gentleman with her. Pam was a 20-year-old University of Michigan student. One day in the spring of 1969, she was walking near campus.

"A very immaculately clean, shiny blue car cut me off. I noticed the driver immediately and my first impulse was, 'Oh God, it's a frat. I don't want to have anything to do with a short hair' was exactly what I was thinking," Pam said.

Pam had a job after school at the hospital and she had to change her clothes before work. 

"He said, 'C'mon get in the car. Let's go for a ride,' and my big mistake was I pointed right to my house and I said, 'I don't need a ride, I live right there,'" Pam said. "And then he took on a really strange kind of a look. He had very penetrating eyes because as soon as I said no, his demeanor changed."

So she told him to get lost. That's when the driver lost his cool.  

"He said, 'You motherf***ing c***,  aren't you going to get in the car with me?'" she said. "He was furious with me and when I tell you he peeled, he peeled away as fast as he could."

But Pam said the story doesn't end there.

"I took off my hippie clothes to put on my straight clothes to go to work, never thinking anything about what had happened earlier in the afternoon," she said. "And that next morning, I got up, and my hippie clothes were gone."

Pam said after John was arrested for murder, she went to the police, who told her they'd found her clothes in a barn.


John is still reaching out to women, despite being locked in prison for the past 50 years.

When Shannon's husband died of cancer, she was left vulnerable. So three years ago, when a family member told her about a lifelong friend he had in prison that had been "railroaded," Shannon wrote to him. That family friend was John Collins.

"First, I got to know this man that was very charming. Very nice. We talked about sports. I was just a pen pal," Shannon said.

Shannon traveled up to Marquette to the 140-year-old prison to visit John. She'd never been to a prison before. Soon, John started calling, sending her cards, letters and even suggestive love notes.

"He tried to trick me, he tried to romance me, he tried to charm me," she said.

Shannon was entranced.  Remember, John was the guy who talked Karen Beineman into getting on his motorcycle -- he seemed like such an upstanding guy. He was never a suspect 50 years ago, even though he looked just like the composites of the man last seen with some of the victims.

John has always claimed to be innocent. During and after his trial.

It's reported that John said that he never knew Karen Beineman and never spoke to her. He denied taking her to a wig shop or to her uncle's basement. He denied killing her.

But Shannon said the more she researched the murders, the more she realized she was dancing with the devil.

Shannon said he told her what she calls half-truths about everything, so she cut all ties with him last year. But he still tries to reach out to her. She thinks he's guilty.

She said she made a big mistake contacting John, and warns others that he is still stalking women as best as he can from behind bars.

"For a year and a half he had me under his spell is what I call it," she said.


John was charged with murder in California for the strangulation of Roxie Phillips. But after his conviction for murdering Karen Beineman in Michigan, politics kept the killer from ever being extradited.  He was never tried for any of the other girls' murders.  

But everyone FOX 2 spoke with believes without question he was the phantom who lured girls to their deaths one after another.

First, the rookie campus police officer at Eastern Michigan University who identified the man on the motorcycle. Larry Matthewson said he did something good, getting him off the streets.

Next, there's retired Washtenaw County Sheriff  Doug Harvey, who thinks when John was committing each murder, he was really killing his mother.  

"Every girl had long, dangley earrings. His mother always wore long, dangley earrings and so did his sister. That wasn't no coincidence," he said.

And don't forget Kay, who has lived her life without her friend Dawn Basom who was robbed of her life at the age of 13.

"My friend didn't get to be a mom, didn't get to be a great-grandma or even a grandma. And I do - I think about that a lot," Kay said.

And Cheryl, who remembers Dawn playing with her brother in front of her house on Leforge Road.

"They stopped and waved at us and that's my last memory of Dawn," she said.

Then there's Greg Fournier, the last person to see the first victim alive. Greg lived through it all 50 years ago as an Eastern Michigan University student and spent days reliving the crimes with FOX 2.

"(John) quietly drove his car down the road here, Riverside Drive, and opened the trunk of his car. Karen Sue Beineman wrapped in a blanket, grabs the end of the blanket, pulls it back, and she tumbles down the hill," he said, referencing the location where Karen's body was found.

They're no longer finding mutilated bodies of teenagers discarded on the leafy roads of Washtenaw County, but there are still reminders.

Basom's house is still there and it's now a college rental filled with students. Sorority girls now live in what was John Collins' home on Emmet Street. Joan Schell's house, Mary Flezsar's apartments are still there.  

The house where Karen Beineman was tortured and murdered 50 years ago this week may look different, but it's still there. The roads are still there, like scars on landscape.

"Sometimes it's hard for me to drive down Gale Road, " Kay said. "Sometimes it's hard for me to go down Leforge."  

The roads still haunt. No one that lived through the two years of terror in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor has ever truly healed. And how could they?

"So young, Kay said. "They were all young."

Previous stories:

Part One: Michigan Murders: 50 years ago, terror reigned in Ypsilanti
Part Two: Michigan Murders: 50 years ago, terror in Ypsilanti ends