The annals of child kidnapping are replete with heartbreaking tragedies, but probably none have been quite as bizarre as the crime that first mesmerized, then convulsed, Los Angeles more than 70 years ago.
By the time it was over, it would involve not only an apparent abduction, but also impersonation, police coercion, false imprisonment, psychiatric abuse and--this being Los Angeles--a court fight that stretched on for more than a decade. It was a story with victims and villains, but what it never had was a resolution.
On a sunny afternoon in March 1928, 9-year-old Walter Collins disappeared after his mother, Christine, a telephone operator, gave him a dime to spend on admission to the theater near their Mt. Washington area home.
Angelenos rallied behind the grieving mother and her missing boy while the police dragged Lincoln Park lake and launched a national campaign to find Walter.
His apparent kidnapping struck a chord in a city still traumatized by a vicious crime only three months earlier. In that case, 12-year-old Marion Parker was kidnapped for ransom by a psychopath named William “the Fox” Hickman, who shoved her dismembered body from his car just before being captured.
Countless tips on Walter’s location led to dead-ends. He was allegedly spotted as far north as San Francisco and Oakland. One reported sighting was at a Glendale gas station in the back seat of a car, wrapped in newspaper with only his head showing. The station owner described the driver as a “foreign-looking man, probably an Italian,” accompanied by a woman.
The boy’s father, Walter J.S. Collins, who was serving time in prison for robbery, believed that former inmates out for revenge against him may have kidnapped his son, though there were no witnesses and no proof that that had occurred.
Police continued their search until August, when a boy claiming to be Walter turned himself in to Illinois authorities. Christine Collins paid $70 in travel expenses so the boy could return to Los Angeles.
When he arrived, however, Collins said that although he resembled Walter, the boy was not her son.
‘You Are . . . a Fool’
However, the Los Angeles Police Department--under terrific pressure to declare the case happily closed--refused to believe that the boy wasn’t Walter, whatever the mother said.
Emotionally drained, Collins caved in to the cops’ suggestion that she “try the boy out,” and took him into her home.
But after three weeks of attempting to reconcile herself to the convenient fiction, Collins returned him to the police.
Armed with proof in the form of her son’s dental records and a troop of friends who agreed that the boy wasn’t Walter, Collins still failed to convince LAPD Capt. J.J. Jones, who investigated the kidnapping, that the boy was an impostor.
“What are you trying to do, make fools out of us all? Or are you trying to shirk your duty as a mother and have the state provide for your son? You are the most cruel-hearted woman I’ve ever known. You are a . . . fool!” Jones allegedly told Collins.
Resolved to bend her to his will--and the department’s convenience--Jones had the distraught mother committed to Los Angeles County General Hospital’s psychiatric ward for evaluation.
While she spent five days in the hospital, Jones extracted the truth from the faux Walter.
The boy from Illinois confessed that he actually was 12-year-old Arthur Hutchins of Iowa. After his mother died, he had gone to live an isolated new life with his cold fish of a father and a malicious stepmother, he said. He ran away, hitchhiking around the country and working odd jobs.
While stopped at an Illinois roadside cafe, Arthur said, he listened to a diner tell him how much he resembled the kidnapped boy from Los Angeles, whose picture had appeared in newspapers nationwide. Arthur quickly seized on an opportunity to see Hollywood, turned himself in to authorities and carried out the charade by assuming the identity of the missing boy.
For Collins, however, there was more heartache and trouble to come.
Released from the hospital, she filed a false-imprisonment complaint against the city, Police Chief James Davis and Jones.
With the heat on the department, Jones, who also was being pressured to help solve a grisly murder mystery, insisted that Walter had been one of the victims of Gordon Stewart Northcott and his mother, who had recently been charged with beheading a youth, one of 11 children they sexually assaulted and murdered in Riverside County.
But Collins refused to believe it, especially because her son’s body was never found on the Northcotts’ chicken ranch in Wineville, now Mira Loma.
More than 1,000 outraged Angelenos packed the council chambers in the newly opened City Hall to hear Davis and Jones testify in their defense against Collins’ allegations before the city’s health and welfare committee. The crowd was in an uproar. Broken microphones prohibited them from clearly hearing all of the witnesses. Bystanders kept yelling, “Louder! Louder!” as the family dentist testified that the real Walter had several fillings and the boy claiming to be Walter had never seen a dentist in his life.
In addition, Collins told her story to the Police Commission, which refused to discipline Jones, and a grand jury before finally going to court.
In the meantime, the complaint against the city and police chief was dismissed and Jones was suspended. But that didn’t stop Collins from going after him.
A Lifelong Search
More than two years and two trials later, a judge awarded her $10,800. She said she planned to use the money to continue looking for her son. But Jones never paid up.
He was reinstated in the LAPD, but claimed to be constantly broke. Nevertheless, Collins remained a constant thorn in his side, summoning him back to court every few years to explain his failure to pay and to have more interest tacked onto something she would never see.
Continuing her search and never giving up hope, Collins became the first woman in more than three decades to receive permission to visit a serial killer on the eve of his execution at San Quentin. In October 1930, Northcott sent her a telegram saying he had lied when he denied that Walter was among his victims. He promised to tell the truth, if she came in person to hear. But upon her arrival, he balked.
“I don’t want to see you,” he said when she confronted him. “I don’t know anything about it. I’m innocent.”
Five years after Northcott’s execution, one of the other boys he was accused of killing was found alive and well.
This tiny bit of news gave Collins the hope she needed to go on searching for the rest of her life. If, somehow, Walter is alive today, he is 80 years old.
Rasmussen’s new book, “L.A. Unconventional,” a collection of stories about Los Angeles’ unique and offbeat characters, is available at most bookstores or can be ordered by calling (800) 246-4042. The special price of $30.95 includes shipping and sales tax.