The “Roaring Twenties” was a decade of much change. Flappers danced the Charleston, and civil rights were beginning to glimmer with promise. Suffragists had won the vote, and women everywhere were shirking conventional mores. It was in this era, Christine Collins found herself a single mother to a son, Walter. Compared to other women of the time Collins had standing. She held a good job as a telephone operator that enabled her to support her son on her own. Also, she was white, and in 1928 that mattered. What she had likely not foreseen was how quickly it could all go bad.
On March 10 Christine Ida Collins, gave her son Walter ten cents to see a movie. Whether he ever made it to the movie or not is anyone’s guess. What we do know is that Walter was last seen by a neighbor at about 5 p.m. in Lincoln Heights.
When Christine made the report the police immediately began a search. Detectives went into action dragging the nearby lake and amassing witness statements. For Christine, the quick action likely gave her hope but it wouldn’t last.
Reports began pouring in. A gas station attendant near San Francisco told police he had seen a boy that looked like Walter. According to him, a couple had pulled in with a young boy “wrapped in newspapers,” in the backseat of their vehicle. The only thing visible was the boys’ head, but he believed it to be Walter. After attempting to give chase he lost the vehicle and nothing came from the tip.
Walter’s father was an inmate in Folsom State Prison and had made enemies on the inside. He told police he thought that his son’s kidnapping might have been out of revenge. He believed that because he’d helped guards enforce the rules he’d angered many of the inmates. Police found nothing that proved his theory.
What was evident was that faith in the L.A.P.D was waning. The department was desperate to get an angry public off their back. This wasn’t the first child abduction to have captivated the area. Besides, the department was battling many allegations of corruption.
Three months before Walter’s disappearance 12-year-old Marion Parker went missing. William Hickman, claiming a family emergency had taken her from school. Hickman knew the family as he had previously worked with Marion’s father. In the days following the kidnapping, he sent ransom letters demanding $1,500 in gold. After meeting up with Marion’s father for the ransom exchange he fled the area. As police gave chase Hickman threw her dismembered body from the vehicle. After several days police finally apprehended him; although the city was aghast at the horrific nature of the crime, they were dealing with much more.
On May 16 of 1928 brothers, Nelson and Louis Winslow went missing on their way home to Pomona, a Los Angeles suburb. The family reported receiving strange letters from the boys immediately following their disappearance. The boys were not heard from again. In La Puente, another L.A. suburb, police had found the headless body of an unidentified Latino boy. With a community growing impatient, police needed to solve the Collins case.
A Cruel Hoax
Five months after her son’s disappearance Christine’s received the call she’d prayed for. L.A.P.D. Captain J.J. Jones contacted her to notify her Illinois police had located Walter. It was a complex story that would only get more bizarre over time.
At first contact, Walter had told police his name was Arthur Kent and he’d run away from home. After temporary placement in a foster family, Kemp admitted he was in fact, Arthur Collins. He’d lied out of fear. With little more information given, the police sent photos of the boy back to California. Those pictures ended up in the hands of Police Capt. J.J. Jones. who showed them to Christine for identification. She immediately said the boy pictured was not her son.
“Just try him out.”-Capt. Jones LAPD
Christine was adamant. The boy looked like her son, but it wasn’t Walter. Capt. Jones would hear none of it. He convinced her the change was due to the horrendous conditions of his time away from home. He said the lack of rest and proper nutrition was why her son looked so different. Hopeful that she was wrong, Christine sent the money for the train fare to bring her son home. At the train station, again Christine immediately told Jones, the boy was not Walter. With pressure mounting from the community to close the case Jones refused to listen. He convinced Collins that she needed to “ just try him out.” Emotionally drained, Collins gave in and took the boy home.
Over the next three weeks, Christine Collins lived a nightmare. She knew the child living with her was not her son, yet he proclaimed to be Walter Collins. Having made no progress convincing Jones, Christine began to seek help. She amassed sworn statements from friends and relatives who knew her son. They all declared the boy was an imposter. Armed with proof, she returned to LAPD for help. She took her son’s dental records and a statement from Walter’s childhood dentist with her to the station. The dentist attested that he had examined the boy and knew he could not be Walter. Walter had several fillings, as his X-rays proved, and the boy in question had none.
It fell on deaf ears. Jones flew into a rage and insisted Collins was trying to “embarrass” the department.
Abuse of Power
“You’re the most cruel-hearted woman I’ve ever known! You are a fool!” Jones reportedly told Collins. The captain didn’t stop there. He accused the grieving mother of trying to shirk her maternal duties. According to Jones, she wanted to be rid of her responsibility to her son. Determined to force her into submission, Jones went further. He had the grieving mother committed to a psychiatric hospital against her will.
Christine Collins remained hospitalized for a total of five days. It was on this day Jones discovered the truth about the boy. He had lied, and Christine Collins had been telling the truth all along; a truth that had fallen on deaf ears.
Upon her release, Collins immediately filed lawsuits against the city, the chief, and Capt. Jones. Thousands of Angelinos packed the new city hall to hear Collins testify. Walter’s dentist testified before the Health and Welfare committee about dental exams he’d performed on both boys. He explained how the differences in their findings pointed to different children. Despite testimony before the police commissioner and a grand jury, Collins would lose. Other than a minor suspension, they refused to discipline him further. He returned to work not long after.
Two years, and two trials later Christine Collins won a civil suit against Jones totaling $10,800. She stated she planned to use the money to fund her continued search for her son. It was money she would never see. Throughout her life, Collins would return to court demanding payment from Jones. He argued that he couldn’t afford the payment and each appearance the city tacked on interest. Still, he never paid.
Ties To A Serial Killer
While battling the Collins case in court, Jones worked another high profile case: The Wineville Chicken Murders. The mother and son duo killed many boys at their Southern California ranch. Jones believed that Walter Collins was among Wineville victims. He was likely right but he had no standing or credibility with Christine. She never believed it to be true. Child killer Gordon Northcott had written to Collins from his prison cell. He promised to give her the details of her son’s death if she visited him before his execution. She made the trip up to San Quentin only to be scoffed at by Northcott as he told her he had no idea what she was talking about. “I’m innocent!” He said.
Northcott’s mother confessed to the police that she and her son had killed Walter. She later recounted her confession. It made no difference to Christine. As a body was never found she remained hopeful she would find Walter until her death in 1964.
So why did Arthur Hutchins pretend to be Walter? What was behind his bizarre actions? It was nothing more than a desire to get away from home. His father had remarried and Arthur was unhappy with his “cruel stepmother.” He’d run away from home and was in an Illinois diner when a stranger approached him. He told Arthur about the case and his uncanny resemblance to Walter. Hutchins said he’d always wanted to see Hollywood and figured it was worth a try. For three weeks he lived as Walter.
If there’s anything the Collins case teaches us, it’s how pervasive abuse of power can be. At individual and systemic levels, Christine Collins was profoundly abused. But she never gave up. She continued her fight. Undoubtedly her’s is a story of strength. The strength of one mother who refused to give up on her son. But also the strength of a system; a system so powerful that a mother’s cries remained unheard for decades.