If any story proves the adage “truth is stranger than fiction,” it’s this one.
It began in Los Angeles on March 10th, 1928. Christine Collins, a manager at a telephone company, sent her nine-year-old son Walter to the movies.
She never saw him again, though the Los Angeles police (LAPD) would have loved to convince her otherwise.
When little Walter didn’t return, Collins was at first convinced her son’s disappearance was an act of retribution against the child’s father, a conman and robber who was serving time at Folsom State Prison for armed robbery.
Collins’ cries for help didn’t fall on deaf ears. The case received nationwide attention and the LAPD followed up on hundreds of leads…all for naught. Pressure on local law enforcement increased as the public demanded to know why this boy hadn’t been returned to his mother.
A chilling new development
Then, five months after Walter’s disappearance, there was a chilling new development. A boy in Illinois claimed to be Collins’ son. After exchanging letters and photographs, an overjoyed Collins agreed to pay for the child’s train ticket to Los Angeles.
There was only one problem.
When Collins arrived at the happy little reunion the LAPD had arranged, she saw immediately that the boy wasn’t her son. He resembled Walter, but Walter he most definitely was not. And that wasn’t the only thing strange. When the police questioned “Walter” about the kidnapping and how he’d ended up in Illinois, the child’s story didn’t make any sense. Doctors felt the boy was keeping a secret, but they couldn’t coax it out of him.
“Try the boy out”
It’s terribly sad, but lots of children go missing. What made this story worthy of a Clint Eastwood movie almost a hundred years later was LAPD Capt. J.J. Jones’s response. Instead of apologizing to Collins, reimbursing the money she’d spent on the boy’s train ticket, and vowing to find her real son, Jones insisted she “try the boy out,” as if he were a new type of toothpaste rather than a child.
Jones was insistent, so Collins struggled to convince herself the strange boy was her son…for THREE weeks. Finally, she’d had enough. This time, she brought Walter’s dental records and an army of friends to the police station with her. Her friends backed her up–they also insisted the child wasn’t Walter Collins.
Rather than back down and admit his mistake, Jones got angry. According to the Los Angeles Times, Jones allegedly accused Collins of shirking her duty as a mother and trying to make fools of the police.
“You are the most cruel-hearted woman I’ve ever known. You are a . . . fool!” he apparently told her. Nice guy, huh?
Not only did Jones refuse to believe Collins’ protests that the boy was not her son, he had the poor woman COMMITTED to a psychiatric ward! But he must have had his own doubts by then, because during the first five days she was in the hospital, Jones extracted a startling confession from the changeling. Finally, the child admitted he was not Walter Collins. His name was Arthur Hutchins. He was a twelve-year-old runaway who’d pretended to be Walter so he could get a free trip to Hollywood and meet his favourite stars.
Collins was finally released from the hospital TEN days after Hutchins confessed, and she immediately sued Jones and the LAPD. She won, but never saw a penny of the judgement.
So what happened to the real Walter Collins? Sadly, trial testimony showed he was a victim of Sarah and Gordon Northcott, mother-and-son serial killers who had kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and murdered a number of young boys.
Understandably, Collins was not so convinced. While Gordon confessed to murdering Walter, he kept changing his story. When he couldn’t recall Walter’s eye colour or clothing, or in fact ever meeting the boy, it gave the grieving mother hope her child was still alive.
Collins continued to search for her son until her own death on December 8, 1964.
Have you heard this scary true story before? Why do you think the police were able to get away with such bizarre behaviour? What do you think happened to Walter Collins?
(Please be sensitive in your comments, keeping in mind that the Collins or Jones families and friends may read this post. If you have any information on this case, please contact the LAPD at 1-877-527-3247. This tip line is completely anonymous.)
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