Walter Collins: The Changeling, Conclusion

Gordon Stewart Northcott and his mother, Sarah Jane, fled to Canada to avoid arrest. But they weren’t on the run for long — they were busted in British Columbia. They unsuccessfully fought extradition to the U.S.

Northcott, center, is shown shackled to Constable F. R. Rigby of the Canadian police. At the right is Corporal Walker Cruickshank, also a member of the Canadian police force. Northcott arrived in Los Angeles November 30, 1928, and was placed in the cell Hickman occupied at the County Jail.  [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Northcott, center, is shown shackled to Constable F. R. Rigby of the Canadian police. At the right is Corporal Walker Cruickshank, also a member of the Canadian police force. Northcott arrived in Los Angeles November 30, 1928, and was placed in the cell Hickman occupied at the County Jail. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Prior to being extradited to the U.S. to face murder changes Gordon gave his copyrighted story to the Vancouver Daily Sun, and it was a beaut.

Northcott said:

“There have been a lot of stories circulated about me. They are all untrue. What awful things to say about a man. Some people have been suffering from too much imagination, and a lot of people will be sorry when this case is cleared up.”

"Poor little mother." Sarah Louise Northcott. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

No, it’s not Gordon in drag, it is his “Poor little mother”, Sarah Louise Northcott. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Northcott went on to explain that his disappearance was only meant to shield his “poor little mother”:

“I had to protect poor little mother from this. I simply could not tell her of this. I simply could not tell her of what they were accusing me. If poor little mother had known of these charges it would have killed her.”

Poor little mother?  Visualize for a moment the poor little mother wielding an axe and using the blunt end to bash in Walter Collins’ skull. THAT is the poor little mother to whom Northcott referred.

J. Clark Sellers, criminologist, examines an axe which Sanford Clark says Mrs. Louise Northcott used in Walter Collins' murder. Rex Welsh, police chemist, declares the axe is stained with human blood. It was found in a chicken coop on the ranch. Northcott said he killed the boys with a gun. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

J. Clark Sellers, criminologist, examines an axe which Sanford Clark said Mrs. Louise Northcott used in Walter Collins’ murder.  [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Northcott continued:

“So I kept it all from her, newspapers and everything I was forced to hide them. I wanted to get her away to a safe place. Then I intended to go back alone and fight this thing.”

Northcott’s statements to the press were as self-serving as one might expect, but what was interesting, and rather creepy, was the newspapers physical description of the child-slayer:

“Northcott is a good-looking youth, and has a disarming manner. His fair hair sweeps back in an easy wave from the parting on the left and there is a ready smile on his lips beneath his well-modeled nose. His eyes alone are peculiar. They are deep blue, but possess a fixed, staring quality, as if their owner is in a thrall.”

The papers even gave a description of Northcott’s traveling clothes. What was the well-dressed child serial killer wearing in 1928?

“On the train he wore a smartly cut brown tween suit with a dark brown stripe. His tie was brown with cream colored spots, and there was a thin brown strip in his shirt.”

The reporter failed to note Northcott’s primary accessory, shackles. He was firmly chained to the coach seat of the train that was returning him to California.

Dressed to the nines, and thoroughly enjoying his infamy, Northcott opined to the press on a variety of topics. He was particularly incensed about newspapers and pre-trial publicity:

Northcott sitting in his cell at the Los Angeles County Jail on December 1, 1928, the cell which was occupied by William Edward Hickman, the "Fox". Here he was relentlessly questioned. He said, "I'm a misfit, and once a misfit always a misfit."  [Photo courtesy LAPL]

“I’m a misfit, and once a misfit always a misfit.” [Photo courtesy LAPL]

“The newspapers, especially those in the South, convict a man before he comes to trial. I do not think there should be so much publicity about crimes before the man charged with them goes into court.

I don’t blame the newspapers so much. They are in a competitive business.  But I do blame the administration that permits the practice.”

The Hickman case was cited to him as an example of his contention.

“Oh, that was different,” he said, “Hickman deserved all he got.”

Once Gordon and his poor little mother were back in Los Angeles on U.S. soil, the pair promptly confessed to murder. But, no surprise, each quickly recanted their confessions.

Ironically, upon his return to the L.A. County Jail, Northcott would find himself in Cell No. 1 in Tank 10-B2 — the same cell that had been occupied for several weeks by William Edward Hickman, aka “The Fox”.

The most bizarre twist in the case had to have been when Christine Collins met Gordon Stewart Northcott in the County Jail to confront him about the murder of her son. Christine’s desire to believe that Walter was still alive was apparently so strong that she emerged from her conference with Northcott convinced that his denial to her that he had murdered her 9 year old son was the truth.

Christine would be Northcott’s most unlikely supporter.

...a fool for a client.

A fool for a client.

Arrogance and stupidity ruled the day when Northcott discharged his counsel and chose to represent himself. As with most proverbs it’s difficult to find a precise attribution, but at some point in history a person, certainly an attorney, said: “I hesitate not to pronounce, that every man who is his own lawyer, has a fool for a client.”

Jessie Clark. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Jessie Clark. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Northcott’s inept cross-examination of Sanford Clark was so detrimental to his own case that the prosecution never once offered any objections. Despite his abysmal peformance Northcott was supremely pleased with himself:

“I am not such a bad attorney after all, am I?” he asked reporters.


Gordon’s mother, Sarah Louise, surprised everyone when she suddenly decided to plead guilty to slaying Walter Collins! She seemed ready and willing to take responsibility for all of the atrocities committed in the Wineville chicken coop — but nobody ever believed that she was the sole villain behind the crimes; she was clearly attempting to save her son. Sarah was sentenced to life in San Quentin for Walter’s murder.

Sarah Northcott on her way to prison. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Sarah Northcott on her way to prison. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Gordon’s trial continued but the outcome was a foregone conclusion; Gordon Stewart Northcott was found guilty of the murders of Lewis and Nelson Winslow and the so-called “headless Mexican” boy, and was sentenced to the gallows.

Northcott was hanged on October 2, 1930 at San Quentin. It’s said that he had to be supported during his climb up the thirteen steps, and then collapsed on the gallows.  He was more or less rolled through the trapdoor where he strangled to death at the end of the noose. If that’s true it was no less than he deserved.


Gordon Stewart Northcott was convicted of three murders, but was suspected of as many as twenty. The children he kidnapped, sexually abused and murdered were killed in a chicken coop on his Wineville, California farm — which is why the slayings are often referred to as The Wineville Chicken Coop Murders.

Chicken coops on the murder farm. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Chicken coops on the murder farm. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Christine Collins won a judgement of $10,800 [equivalent to $150,535.83 in current USD] against Captain J.J. Jones as a result of his having sent her to the psych ward when she refused to accept an impostor as her son. Collins would try more than once to collect from Jones — he would never pay her.

In fact, Captain Jones got off easy — the LAPD suspended him for four months without pay, and that was the extent of his punishment for what he’d done to Christine Collins.

Christine  never stopped searching for Walter.

Arthur Hutchins, Jr., the faux Walter Collins, spent part of his adulthood selling concessions at carnivals. He eventually moved back to California as a horse trainer and jockey. He died of a blood clot in 1954, leaving behind a wife and young daughter, Carol. According to Carol Hutchins, “My dad was full of adventure. In my mind, he could do no wrong.

Sanford Clark.  [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Sanford Clark. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Sarah Louise Northcott, Gordon’s mother, was sentenced to life in prison but was paroled in  May 1940.  She died in 1944.

Sanford Clark, Northcott’s nephew, was never tried for any of the crimes at the farm.  If he participated in any of the killings it was under the extreme coercion of his  uncle.

Sanford was sent to Whittier Boy’s School for about two years. He impressed the staff with his desire to lead a productive life upon his release — which he did. He served in WWII, worked for the Canadian Postal Service, married and had children. He died in 1991 at the age of 78.

Wineville was so traumatized by the connection to Northcott that the city changed its name to Mira Loma on November 1, 1930, only a month after Northcott’s execution. However as recently as 2009 the house in which Gordon Stewart Northcott had lived was still there.

Northcott home.

Northcott home.

POSTSCRIPT: This story of the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders is so twisted and  complex that it is impossible to tell it all in just a few blog posts. I’ve covered it as well as I could given my constraints.

For Sanford Clark’s harrowing tale you may want to read THE ROAD OUT OF HELL. Another book on Gordon Stewart Northcott is NOTHING IS STRANGE WITH YOU. Be forewarned, any book that relates the full story is going to be a very tough read. The details are horrendous. A friend of mine is currently working on a book about the Northcott case, so there is more to come.

Walter Collins: The Changeling, Part 3


Christine Collins [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

By mid-May 1928, Christine Collins had been going through the motions of living for weeks as she waited for word of her missing son Walter. Her job as a telephone operator kept her busy during the day, but at night all she could do was lie in bed and stare at the ceiling.

If Christine read the newspapers she may have seen a story about two boys who had gone missing from Pomona. The boys, Nelson and Lewis Winslow, had vanished after attending a meeting of the Pomona Model Yacht Club.

Nelson was described as: 10 years of age, light hair, blue eyes, 4 feet in height, dressed in a blue shirt and knickers. Lewis was described as: 12 years of age, 4 feet 3 inches in height, light hair, blue eyes, dressed in a regulation Boy Scout uniform — it was also noted that Lewis had a nervous temperament.

According to their family the boys had not been in any trouble and there was no reason for them to have run away from home.

Lewis and Nelson Winslow [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Lewis and Nelson Winslow [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Nelson and Lewis had been gone for a couple of weeks before the Winslows finally received a note from them written on a flyleaf torn from a book issued by the Pomona Public Library. The note said that they’d left Pomona and were off to Mexico to find gold. Pomona cops sent telegrams to border authorities asking them to detain the boys if they were found attempting to cross into Mexico.

winslow mexicoThere were no sightings of Nelson and Lewis at the border, and no further clues to their whereabouts surfaced. Mr. and Mrs. Winslow found themselves consigned to the same purgatory inhabited by Christine Collins.  They were all fearful of hope and ashamed of doubt, and each dawn brought renewed heartache.

Because the Winslow home was thirty miles east of the Collins’ Lincoln Heights bungalow, cops didn’t make a connection between Walter and the Winslow boys. The authorities also had no reason to connect the disappearances to the discovery of the headless body of a Latino boy found on a roadside in La Puente.

The seemingly unrelated cases would come together in a perfect storm of horror in September 1928. It began when a young Canadian woman, Jessie Clark, decided to check up on her younger brother, 15 year old Sanford. She’d been worried about Sanford ever since he’d left with their uncle, Gordon Stewart Northcott, two years earlier. Jessie was concerned enough about her brother’s welfare to travel to Northcott’s ranch in Wineville, California to see for herself exactly what was going on.


Gordon Stewart Northcott [Photo courtesy of UCLA Digital Photo Collection]

Jessie spent a short time at the Wineville ranch, but it was long enough for her to confirm that her uncle was terrorizing and abusing Sanford — and it was just enough time for her uncle to assault her too. When she returned to Canada she told her mother, Winnefred, all about her terrifying visit to Wineville.  Her mother immediately dropped a dime on Gordon to U.S. authorities.

Northcott saw agents driving up the road to his ranch, so he told Sanford to stall them or he would shoot him. Sanford had had two years of reasons to believe that his uncle was capable of murder, so he did as he was told.

Gordon and his mother, Sarah Louise, fled to Canada, but were quickly busted in British Columbia. While extradition of the two fugitives was being sought, Sanford Clark was relcounting a tale of  sexual depravity and unimaginable brutality to the police. It was Clark’s statement that would connect his uncle to Walter Collins, and then to the Winslow boys, and finally to the unidentified headless boy who had been found in La Puente. Clark was also able to lead detectives to physical evidence of the sadistic slayings.

Among the evidence found at the farm was an aviation magazine, the paper from which matched that upon which a note from the Winslow boys had been written. Sanford led police to grave sites on the farm in the hunt for human remains.  The graves had been disturbed, and they had likely been emptied by Gordon and his mother Sarah and the contents burned in the desert sometime during the month of August.

Northcott's murder farm. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

Northcott’s murder farm. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

The extradition of the fugitive mother and son was successful, and in December the pair arrived in Los Angeles to stand trial.

On December 3rd, Gordon Stewart Northcott confessed to the slayings of Nelson and Lewis Winslow and the headless Mexican boy. Sarah Louise Northcott confessed to the murder of Walter Collins.

NEXT TIME:  A fool for a client, a city changes it name, and the Wineville Chicken Coop murder case ends.




Walter Collins: The Changeling, Part 2

Walter Collins [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Walter Collins [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Nine year old Walter Collins disappeared from his Lincoln Heights neighborhood on  March 10, 1928. His mother, Christine, had spent the next five months hoping and praying for her son to return to her. On August 4, 1928 she received word that he’d been found alive on a farm in DeKalb, Illinois. What a relief! She’d be able to hold her boy in arms again.  Christine’s excitement must have been palpable as the train bearing Walter arrived at the found

Christine’s joy turned to shock and disbelief when the boy who stepped off the train didn’t look, sound, or feel like her child. The reunion that should have mended her heart, instead shattered it into a thousand jagged bits.

What a nightmare. Captain J.J. Jones of the LAPD insisted that the child was Walter — he was just a little worse for his harrowing experience. Had he really changed so much in five months? Of course not, a mother would know her own flesh and blood. All she could say was: “I do not think that is my boy”. That wasn’t what Jones had wanted to hear, and he wasn’t going to let Mrs. Collins get away with humiliating him or the LAPD. Jones strongly advised Mrs. Collins to take the boy home and “try him out for a couple of weeks.”  Try him out?

The boy who would be Walter -- Arthur Hutchins, Jr. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

The boy who would be Walter — Arthur Hutchins, Jr. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Christine was so shaken by the public reunion and the relentless pressure being applied to her by the police that she acquiesced and took the strange boy home with her.

Of course police and doctors continued to question the boy about his kidnapping. They were anxious to identify his abductor.  How had he managed to get to Illinois, and had he escaped captivity or been released? The boy’s story wasn’t hanging together, and psychiatrists felt he was keeping a strange secret but they couldn’t pry it out of him.

For three weeks Christine made and effort to accept the boy as Walter, but how could she when she knew better?  She gathered her son’s dental records and accompanied by friends she returned the child to the Los Angeles Police Department.

Captain J.J. Jones was not pleased; in fact he was livid. He berated Christine and accused her of trying to humiliate the LAPD!  Jones knew exactly what to do with the stubborn woman, he had her committed to the psychopathic ward of the General Hospital for observation under a Code 12 internment.  Code 12 was invoked to jail or commit someone who was deemed difficult.


Billy Fields was an alias used by Arthur Hutchins, Jr. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Billy Fields was an alias used by Arthur Hutchins, Jr. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

While Christine was being held in the psych ward, the boy who would be Walter finally confessed to having lied about everything. The shrinks had been right, the kid had been keeping a very strange secret — his real name was Arthur Hutchins, Jr. and he was a runaway.  When he realized that he bore a resemblance to the missing Collins boy he saw an opportunity to start a new life in Los Angeles and, if he was lucky, go to Hollywood to meet with his favorite cowboy star, Tom Mix.

Christine was released from the hospital ten days following the impostor’s confession.

Arthur’s confession had taken the investigation into Walter Collins disappearance back to square one. How in the hell were the cops going to get the case back on track?

A few weeks after Arthur’s confession, and Christine’s release from the psych ward, the Walter Collins case would take a monstrous turn.

NEXT TIME: The murder farm.

Walter Collins: The Changeling, Part 1

3_16_1928_walter collins

From L.A. Police Daily Bulletin dated March 16, 1928.

On March 15, 1928, the L.A. Times reported that Mrs. Christine Collins’ nine year old son Walter had gone missing five days earlier. Christine said that she feared that her son was the victim of a kidnapping.

Hickman smiles as he reads a transcript describing Marion's murder.

Hickman smiles as he reads a transcript describing Marion’s murder.

Angelenos were still reeling from the December 1927 kidnapping and mutilation murder of twelve year old Marion Parker by William Edward Hickman, “The Fox”. In fact Hickman had been convicted of Marion’s kidnapping and murder only weeks prior to Walter Collins’ disappearance. [Hickman would be hanged on October 19, 1928].

Marion was the daughter of Perry Parker, a prominent banker. Christine was a telephone operator and her husband was doing time in Folsom prison, it seemed unlikely that kidnappers would choose Walter to kidnap for ransom. Because there was no money motive the cops were investigating anyone who may have had a beef with the kid’s dad — they figured that revenge could be as powerful a motive as money.

The investigation into ex-cons with a grudge wasn’t productive — although Christine continued to believe that revenge was the only possible reason for Walter having been taken off their quiet Lincoln Heights street.

Of course the police, in addition to rounding up thugs, were combing the Collin’s neighborhood for possible witnesses. Mrs. A. Baker of 219 North Avenue 23 said that she’d seen the Collins boy in an automobile with two “foreign-looking people” and that the boy was pleading to be released.

Other of the Collins’ neighbors said that on several days prior to Walter’s disappearance a
man, who may have been Italian, (another “foreigner”) had been in the neighborhood asking for directions to Walter’s home. According to witnesses, the strange man was accompanied by a woman, but nobody had seen her well enough to provide a description

If the witnesses were to be believed there were mysterious “foreign looking” strangers skulking around Los Angeles; all of them, apparently, up to no good.

03_15_1928_walter collins

From L.A. Police Daily Bulletin dated March 15, 1928.

There were so few clues in the kidnapping that the police were frustrated. Sightings of the boy had led to dead ends, and even Walter’s convict father could shed scant light on a motive.

Led by LAPD Capt. Jones, a former deep sea diver, dozens of LAPD officers dragged Lincoln Park Lake for Walter’s body. The search failed.

Captain Jones and Lieutenant Hanson interviewed some of Walter Collins’ school chums, and one of the kids, twelve year old Lloyd Tutor, partially identified a mugshot of an ex-con as the man who had asked for directions to the Collins home. But once again the lead didn’t pan out.

Under the command of Captain J.J. Jones, two hundred LAPD officers began a thorough search of the northeastern section of the city. The cops didn’t find a trace of the boy. Walter had been missing for a month.

Christine Collins

Christine Collins

Christine couldn’t afford the luxury of staying at home and aiding in the search for Walter. She had to go to work each day — she was sleep deprived and near the breaking point.

For five agonizing months Christine waited for news of Walter. Finally in early August, Christine was notified that Walter had been found in De Kalb, Illinois. The how and why of Walter’s trek east was hazy at best. It appeared that an ex-con named J.S. Hutchison, who had a record of statutory offenses against boys, may have taken him. Strangely, cops had word that Hutchison was supposedly still incarcerated in San Quentin. Unless Hutchison could be in two places at once there was something hinky about the story.

Illinois authorities put Walter on a train to Los Angeles. Christine was ecstatic at the prospect of being reunited with her son. Mother and son were brought together in Juvenile Hall.  The first words uttered by Christine were:

“I do not think that is my boy.”

Perhaps Walter’s time away from home had changed him mentally and physically — but to such an extent that his own mother couldn’t recognize him?  Maybe the cops were right and Walter would return to normal after some time in the company of his loving mother. But what if the cops were wrong?

NEXT TIME:  A faux Walter Collins?