Books: The Michigan Murders, by Edward Keyes

Edward Keyes' book chronicles a serial killer’s violent spree


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She was last seen in July of 1967 wearing an orange tent dress with white polka dots.

A month later, that dress, ripped in front from the neckline to nearly the hem, was found under a piece of corrugated paneling on a deserted farm in rural Superior Township. Nearby lay her badly decomposed and nude body, which was discovered by two teenage boys. Mary Fleszar, a 19-year-old Eastern Michigan University (EMU) student, had been stabbed about 30 times, her feet and one hand severed, and she had likely been beaten and possibly raped.

That was just the beginning of a terror that clutched Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor between 1967 and 1969. As more bodies were found, the case came to be known as “the coed killings,” because some victims were students at EMU and the University of Michigan. Still, the appellation was a misnomer, because two girls were younger than college age — one 13, another 16. Outstate, the homicides were often dubbed “The Michigan Murders.”

The killings soon grabbed headlines in the Detroit dailies, and the grim news spread to national-news outlets. Frustrated police departments in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, as well as the Michigan State Police, had few clues, and they came under seething criticism from the public and the media, who demanded an end to the killing spree and the climate of fear. Even celebrity psychic Peter Hurkos offered his services, which were negligible.

 After Fleszar, there would be six more slayings before EMU student John Norman Collins was arrested. However, he was convicted only for the murder of Karen Sue Beineman, his last victim, and much of the evidence that condemned him was circumstantial. But it was enough to send him to prison without the possibility of parole. Collins, who has steadfastly maintained his innocence, is now 63 and incarcerated at Marquette Branch Prison, from which he and six other prisoners tried to escape in 1979. He was also indicted by a California grand jury for the 1969 murder of a young woman in that state.

Dovetailing with the 40th anniversary of his 1970 conviction is the re-publication of The Michigan Murders, by Edward Keyes (University of Michigan Press, $22.95). Originally published in 1976, and out of print for more than a decade, the book includes an updated prologue and epilogue. The prologue mentions that Collins changed his last name to Chapman (his mother’s maiden name) in the 1980s, and that he tried unsuccessfully to be transferred to a Canadian prison, where the idea of “no possibility of parole” doesn’t exist. Collins was born in Windsor, Ontario, but grew up in Center Line.

And we learn that in 2005 Collins was absolved of the murder of University of Michigan law student Jane Mixer. DNA evidence helped convict another man.

Keyes, a New York journalist who died in 2002, presents an eerily suspenseful chronicle of Collins’ brutal rampage (the murders were all marked by unspeakable savagery), and he re-creates the panic of the time almost palpably.

Keyes covers four of the five journalistic W’s — who, what, when, and where, but he comes up short on the fifth W — why.

Granted, there was no gut-spilling confession from the accused, but Keyes does a merely serviceable job of delving into Collins’ past. We’re told that his father abandoned the family when Collins was a baby, and that his mother had a knack for marrying violent alcoholics. Collins once beat his sister and her lover, sending her to the ER. The girls he dated found him charming, but were put off by his sexual aggression. However, there’s precious little psychological probing in this book.

Why did a high-school honor’s student turn into a sadistic monster, or was he an ogre-in-the-making even then? Why was he brimming with such wild rage? Why did he appear to have no remorse? Why did he despise women? And why was there a yearlong gap between the first and second murders? Psychiatrists could have been interviewed to possibly explain these questions.

Although his intention is noble in sparing the victims’ families further heartache, Keyes just makes it confusing for the reader by ascribing pseudonyms to the murdered women. Not only are their names part of the public record, they’re also familiar to anyone even remotely familiar with the case.

One can understand Keyes’ position on that score, but he inexplicably changes the name of John Norman Collins to James Armstrong — as if anyone doesn’t know that name, at least in Michigan.

Despite these flaws, The Michigan Murders is still a harrowingly compulsive story, and best read well before bedtime.

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