On March 10, 1928, 9-year-old Walter Collins disappeared from his home in Los Angeles, California. His believed abduction triggered a massive manhunt—yet police were unable to find the boy. That is, until a mysterious child appeared five months later in DeKalb, Illinois, claiming to be Walter.
Elated, Walter’s mother, Christine Collins, arranged for her long-lost son’s return trip home. The case seemed to have a happy ending. Except for one thing: when Walter arrived, it wasn’t Walter at all.
Christine knew immediately that she was staring into the eyes of an imposter. Nevertheless, authorities told her to take the boy home and “try him out for a couple of weeks.” Christine reluctantly agreed, only to return to the station soon thereafter, refusing to accept the boy as her own. She even brought dental records with her to prove the validity of her claim.
Bizarrely, the police ignored the mother’s plea. Instead, they believed Christine had suffered a nervous breakdown and committed her to a psychiatric hospital.
After locking Christine away, authorities interviewed little “Walter.” The boy soon confessed to his stunt. He told officers his name was Arthur Hutchins, Jr. and that he had run away from his home in Iowa. A drifter picked him up and remarked on his resemblance to the missing child from California.
So Arthur decided to impersonate Walter and make his way to Hollywood.
Upon his confession, authorities released Christine from the mental hospital. She would eventually file a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department, and be awarded a hefty sum (though the amount was never paid).
But the mother had far greater concerns on her mind—what happened to Walter? Where was her boy?
Tragically, the answer came in the form of a brutal young man named Gordon Northcott.
Northcott, a Saskatchewan native, had relocated to Wineville, California in 1926, just outside Los Angeles. There, he built a chicken ranch with the help of his young nephew, Sanford Clark. Gordon was far from a caring provider for Sanford. The deranged chicken farmer repeatedly abused his nephew behind the closed doors of his ranch for nearly two years.
It wasn’t until 1928 when Sanford’s older sister Jessie Clark came to visit Wineville that the darkness unraveled.
Jessie arrived already concerned for the welfare of Sanford, who soon told her of the horrors uncle Gordon had committed. Upon Jessie’s return to Canada, she reported the story to a representative at the American consulate, who dispatched the Los Angeles police to the chicken ranch in Wineville.
There, authorities found Sanford—but no Gordon. The man had spotted the squad cars coming up the drive and fled. With the help of his mother, he made it all the way to Vernon, British Columbia, until the two were finally apprehended.
Now safely in the hands of the law, Sanford felt he could finally recount the atrocities he had suffered and seen. Not only had Gordon molested and beaten him, but the brutal man forced Sanford to help kill three young boys whom Gordon had kidnapped.
One of those boys was little Walter Collins.
The bodies of the dead had been set alight in the desert, so nothing more than hair and bone fragments were recovered.
Nevertheless, it was enough to convict Gordon Northcott of murder. The man was sentenced to death, while his mother received life imprisonment for aiding and abetting her ruthless son.
It’s believed that there may have been additional victims among the feathers of the Wineville chicken coop, as well as countless boys who were molested but escaped Gordon’s thirst for blood.
As for Christine Collins? Sadly, because the body of Walter Collins was never recovered in full, the grieving mother refused to believe her child had died. She continued to search for the boy for the rest of her life. The heartbreaking tale of one mother’s search for her missing child was turned in to the 2008 film, Changeling, starring Angelina Jolie.
Gordon Northcott mug shot via Wikimedia Commons
This post by Steven Casale originally appeared on The Lineup. It has been republished by permission.