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The Wineville Chicken Murders, the impersonation of Walter Collins, LAPD corruption, and the secrets of Canada’s Northcott family
The case of serial killer Gordon Stewart Northcott and little Walter Collins is so surpassingly bizarre, so full of incredible twists, that even a full-length feature film from one of Hollywood’s premiere directors couldn’t properly do it justice. It is, in fact, one of the strangest cases in the history of American justice. Yet this nearly-forgotten story of abuse of power, family dysfunction, and deception remains deeply revelent today, in a time when unlawful detainment, official malfeasance, and extralegal measures like “extraordinary rendition” are common.
By the time the events of the “Wineville chicken coop murders” reached their tragic conclusion, a police force had been disgraced, a town had decided to change its name, and at least five people were dead.
Our story begins on March 10, 1928, the day 9-year-old Walter Collins disappeared from Los Angeles on his way to a movie matinee. At this time the LAPD was rife with corruption. A “gun squad” practiced its own strange brand of urban Western justice under the leadership of Police Chief James “Two Guns” Davis, mowing down suspected criminals and inconvenient persons alike under the force’s shoot to kill policy; bodies were routinely found in alleys, warehouses, and other dark corners of the city. The LAPD also had its fingers in an array of criminal enterprises (bootlegging, prostitution, extortion, bribery), and was frantically trying to cleanse its image as public outcry against the corruption grew louder and more strident every day. In this maelstrom, the Collins investigation went absolutely nowhere. Police breezily assured Walter’s mother Christine, whose husband was serving a sentence in Folsom Prison, that her son might have run away from home and would probably return on his own, even after 12-year-old Lewis Winslow and his 10-year-old brother, Nelson, vanished from Pomona on May 16th. They left the Model Yacht Club that evening after working on some arts and crafts, and never returned home.
That July, 21-year-old chicken rancher Gordon Stewart Northcott was having family trouble. Northcott and his parents had moved illegally to California from their native Canada four years earlier. The Northcotts had purchased the three-acre chicken ranch near the town of Wineville, Riverside County, for their son when he was 19 years old. Stewart, as he was known in the family, had lived there by himself only a few months before he drove to Saskatoon to fetch a housemate: his 13-year-old nephew, Sanford Clark. Stewart’s older sister, Winnifred, was separated from her husband and working to support her children, so having Stewart and her parents look after the boy might have eased her burden somewhat.
With Sanford as unpaid labour, Gordon and his father Cyrus (known as George) built a house, a garage, six chicken coops, and numerous outbuildings on the ranch.
Sanford rose every day at 5:30 to make breakfast, then did farm chores while Stewart “ran errands”. At various times Northcott told neighbors and school officials that Sanford was studying to enter the priesthood, attending a Catholic school, or recuperating from an illness. Sometimes he said Sanford was old enough to quit school. These were all lies. Sanford hadn’t attended a single day of classes since his arrival in the U.S.
But this was not the worst thing happening at Stewart’s ranch. At least twice a week, Stewart would rape his nephew. He flew into rages without provocation, beating the boy frequently. He also brought about a dozen young boys to the ranch to be sexually assaulted. He released them with threats to find and kill them if they told anyone. He had tried to molest his mechanic’s teen son on several occasions. In August of 1927 a father caught Stewart trying to lure his son from Pickering Park, and chased him away with a knife. Two years before that, he had been arrested for inappropriate behaviour toward a friend’s little brother. Stewart would mourn his loss of this boy for years, playing the child’s favourite song (Song of Songs) on the piano as he sat on a stool the boy had made. Awaiting execution, he played a recording of the song over and over on a phonograph.
There was much more. Between February 1st and the end of May, 1928, Stewart had carried out and covered up four murders – with Sanford’s unwilling help.
Now, at the end of July, Sanford’s 19-year-old sister Jessie was planning a trip to California. Though the family had no reason to think Sanford was being mistreated in any way, they suspected he wasn’t attending school; his cheery letters home hadn’t improved much in quality over the two years he had been in Stewart’s care.
Jessie arrived from Vancouver by boat on July 26th, to her uncle’s extreme displeasure. She found her little brother work-hardened, “peaked”, and fearful, but he insisted he was still attending school and enjoying himself on the farm – at least when Stewart was around. When he wasn’t, Sanford gave Jessie details of the horrors he had survived at the ranch.
On February 1st, Sanford told his sister, their Uncle Stewart had returned to the ranch from one of his mysterious “errands” and announced that he had just murdered a young Mexican man. He had the man’s severed head in a bucket, and showed it to Sanford before he burned it in a bonfire and disposed of the charred remains. He said he had dumped the man’s body near Puente.
In a later account, Stewart admitted to this murder but wildly embellished the story, claiming he had to shoot the man nine times in the heard before he would die. Then Louise mopped up the bloodstain.
Whatever the circumstances of the murder, the entire family was complicit in covering it up. They agreed not to tell the authorities anything unless asked. Stewart had forced Sanford to tell his parents, George and Louise, that Stewart had hired the Mexican to do some chores at the ranch, caught him stealing, and was threatened with a knife. So Sanford shot him.
The following day, the headless body of a Mexican man roughly 18 years old, covered by a burlap sack, was found by the side of a road near Puente. The remains were never identified. Stewart, when referring to the man, would use either the fictitious name “Alvin Gothea” or the generic name “Jose Gonzales”. At times he claimed that he had to kill the Mexican because he “knew too much”.
Walter Collins was taken to the ranch the same day he disappeared. By all accounts, Louise was there helping with chores for the week, and she knew that a young boy was staying at the ranch. She admittedly fed him meals.
Here, the accounts diverge. At different times, both Louise and Stewart admitted to killing Walter Collins with an axe. By the time of his trial in January 1929, Stewart was still more or less admitting that he did it, but only because Walter supposedly saw him shoot and kill a miner who was trying to rob another miner near a little shack Stewart had rented that month.
Once, Stewart confessed to overdosing Walter with ether as he slept on his cot, then shooting him when he said he felt “fine and dandy” and fell unconscious. But he insisted it was Louise who struck the fatal blow. At other times, he denied ever laying eyes on Walter Collins.
At her trial, Louise testified that Walter just showed up at the ranch one night and asked to stay, so she set up a cot for him in one of the chicken coops. The next day, the boy waited around while Stewart fixed up his car. That night, Louise said, she went out to the coop to fetch something and found the boy on his cot with his head “crushed in”, but still alive. “I took the ax and hit him on the temple and finished him up to keep him out of his suffering.” She hinted that Sanford had injured the boy; he was just exiting the coop when Louise approached it, while Stewart was presumably still tinkering with his car. (3, 56)
Sanford’s account was much different. He knew exactly what his uncle liked to do with young boys. And it seems Louise was also aware of her son’s pedophilia. She suggested to Sanford and her son that Walter must be killed; he would talk if allowed to leave the ranch alive. (Today, this seems like an eerie foreshadowing of the Pickton family. In 1967 Louise Pickton allegedly drowned a 14-year-old boy her son had struck with his vehicle, rolling him into a water-filled ditch to hide the accident. Years later, her other son – Robert – was convicted of killing numerous women and burying their bodies on his pig farm.)
Louise said each of them would have to participate in the murder so they would be equally culpable if caught. They would each strike the boy once with an axe.
Two years later, at the foot of the gallows, three men would approach the death of Stewart Northcott with the same logic. Each man would step forward and slice one of three cords, only one them actually attached to the trapdoor through which the prisoner’s body would plummet. That way, the men would never know which one of them caused the man’s death.
The Northcotts entered the coop where Walter lay asleep, and by the light of a flashlight struck the boy repeatedly with an axe. He was buried in an adjoining coop. Later, Stewart moved the body and reburied it with lime.
The three accounts agreed on only one point: Walter Collins was dead.
The Winslow Brothers
Around 10:00 on the night of May 16th, Stewart arrived at the ranch with Lewis and Nelson Winslow. Sanford was ordered to set up the hen house for them, then nail the door shut with the boys and Stewart inside (Stewart would open the door from the inside when he was ready to get out). The boys were held in the hen house for about a week. This time, Louise wasn’t present. It was Sanford who brought the boys food and water, and emptied their chamberpot. He said the brothers drew pictures and played cards.
Stewart made the boys write two letters to their parents, telling them they had run away to Mexico “to make a lot of money making yachts and airplanes” and were “having a wonderful adventure”, a ploy he probably picked up from another child-killer (see the section on Stewart, below).
On the 25th or 26th, Stewart announced it was time to kill the boys. After an unsuccessful attempt to kill the older boy, Lewis, with ether, Stewart sent him to the house. He and Sanford then killed Nelson, and later Lewis, by striking him over the head and burying him alive.
Stewart didn’t always explicitly deny the murders during his trial, but he did try to heap as much blame as possible onto his nephew. At one point, he claimed Sanford had beaten Nelson to death and concealed the body from Lewis for three days. Finally, Lewis’ questions about his brother became so persistent that Stewart killed him. Representing himself, he grilled Sanford on the witness stand as to why he hadn’t protested killing the Winslow brothers, or run to the neighbors for help. Surely this was one of the most surreal moments in an already bizarre trial: Stewart actually mocking the boy for overestimating his ability to control the situation.
The Lucky Ones
With four murders behind them, the Northcott family embarked on a demented family project engineered by Stewart. In late June, Stewart posed as the personal secretary of a fabulously wealthy “Mrs. Rowan” and presented himself at the Salvation Army in L.A., seeking a laborer/cook for one of Mrs. Rowan’s numerous ranches. He selected Jacob Dahl, a married father of four sons ranging in age from 8 to 15.
Louise was to pose as Stewart’s aunt, and Sanford was to be her son. Stewart introduced himself to Mr. and Mrs. Dahl as “Mr. Craig”. He drove them out to the ranch and served them a light supper, including peaches that seemed to have some sort of capsules sprinkled over them. Mrs. Dahl found this this, and the family’s nervous behavior, rather odd – but it seemed like a good position for her husband, so she said nothing. At the end of the evening, Stewart returned the Dahls to their home. Shortly afterward, he informed them that Mrs. Rowan’s husband had died and the cook was no longer needed.
Sanford explained that Stewart scrapped his plan to murder the Dahls and abduct their sons because he was afraid of being caught.
Stewart had threatened to hunt him down and kill him if he ever ran away, Sanford told his sister.
Jessie didn’t challenge her uncle during the week she stayed at the ranch. She played her cards slowly and carefully, aware that any misstep could be fatal. Two bullet holes in the wall of the bedroom she slept in served as reminders of Stewart’s volatility.
Though he didn’t trust her entirely, Stewart confided in his niece at least once. He told her he wanted to make his mechanic’s son his “new darling” because Sanford’s voice was beginning to change.
On August 2nd, Jessie left the ranch to spend her last two weeks in California with George and Louise in L.A. She took Sanford with her and sent him to the home of a friend. George assisted them in the secret escape plot. He clearly didn’t approve of what was going on at the ranch, but was afraid to openly defy his own deranged son and wife. When Stewart and Lewis headed off to the ranch with a large load of firewood, he commented to Jessie that they were going to “destroy their evidence….I told them they could do their own dirty work.” (3, 81)
The very next day, when Stewart learned his nephew was gone, he was angry enough to brandish a gun at his father. George broke down and revealed Sanford’s location.
Sanford was immediately driven back to the ranch by his uncle.
One week later, on a Sunday, George and Jessie made another attempt to spring Sanford. Stewart had said he was going to be in San Diego for the day, and Louise was out of the house, so they seized this chance to drive out to the ranch.
Louise had beaten them there. Stewart was there, as well. They had apparently laid a trap. During the ensuing confrontation, Jessie announced her intention to take Sanford home to Canada. Stewart punched her in the face. Later, he explained to her that Sanford couldn’t leave because he had shot a miner who was robbing another miner. A little boy had witnessed this, and he and Sanford had been forced to eliminate the witness.
The day she was scheduled to return to Canada, Jessie made one last attempt to free her brother. Stewart had ordered Sanford to take a cab from their grandparents’ house back to the ranch, but Jessie secretly instructed him to go a nearby fruit market instead, and she would try to pony up the money for a bus ticket out of the city. George assured Jessie he could come up with the money. She left the U.S. believing – hoping – that Sanford would soon be on his way home, too.
He wasn’t. At the end of August, Jessie received a telegram from George, saying he would bring Sanford to Canada in six weeks. It turned out that he had taken Sanford to the bus station, only to encounter Stewart there. Furious, Stewart again reclaimed his nephew and hauled him to the ranch.
Why did everyone bow to Stewart Northcott’s wishes? He was like the boy in the Twilight Zone episode who threatens to send his family “out to the cornfield” with his paranormal powers unless they go out of their way to amuse and placate him.
Sanford, George, and Jessie were fearful of Stewart, with good reason. Louise’s motive for cooperating with her son’s plans might have been quite different, though. At her son’s trial, she declared he was the only person in the world who had ever shown her any love. In return, she offered an almost slavish devotion to his whims.
George and Louise married in their native Ontario in 1886, when they were both very young. A few years later they had Winnifred. Five other children didn’t survive, including a 5-year-old boy named Willie. Stewart was born in Bladworth, Saskatchewan, in 1906 or 1907, the same year Winnifred married John Clark and settled on a farm in the area.
Years later, reporters covering Stewart’s murder trial would make much of his “effeminate” traits, and there were rumours that Louise had dressed and treated him as a girl until he was 12 years old. No evidence bears this out. The descriptions of Stewart as both a hairy “Ape Man” and a “broad-shouldered coquettish girl” seem to stem from the abhorrence for his same-sex orientation. The prosecution actually made note of this more often than the fact that Stewart was a pedophile and a sexual predator.
At this time, George was probably considered the ne’er-do-well of his family. He toiled on small farms or did construction work while two of his brothers ran successful medical practices. Then, in 1919, Ephraim Northcott accidentally killed a young nurse during a backroom abortion and was sentenced to prison, where he passed away in July 1928. He died without learning that he wasn’t the only killer in the family.
In 1913, after living in Edmonton for a time, the Northcotts settled in Vancouver. They would reside there until illegally immigrating to California in 1924.
In the winter of 1918, according to family members, Stewart slipped on some ice and cracked his head, resulting in minor hemorrhaging and a period of delusion (for weeks he believed Louise was dead, even though she was right in front of his eyes). He was never quite the same. Louise stated at his trial that a family doctor in Edmonton told her his mind had never been “just right”.
But he retained an average or even above-average intellect. He appreciated classical music, and as a teenager in Vancouver he played piano in a movie house and conducted a small jazz orchestra at a cafe.
At Stewart’s trial, George Northcott admitted he was terrified of his own son, who abused him after years of being not simply spoiled but ruined by Louise. Louise always encouraged his behaviour, bringing him up to treat his father like an “old fool”. George described himself as “the family football”, and that was exactly the impression he left on everyone – a meek old man, disgusted by his son’s tyranny but far too cowed to do anything about it.
Stewart was a pathological liar. When he rented the shack in Mint Valley, near Saugus, the same month Walter Collins was killed, he told the owners he was a journalist. They were made extremely nervous by this strange man who toted around two pistols and a box he wouldn’t allow anyone to touch. He spoke knowingly about a gruesome child murder that had taken place in L.A. the previous December. William Edward Hickman, 19 years old, abducted the 12-year-old daughter of a former employer and had the girl, Marion Parker, write letters to her father to assure him she was safe. These were accompanied by dramatic ransom demands from Hickman, signed “The Fox”. Mr. Parker arranged to meet The Fox in an isolated spot to hand over the money. Hickman pulled up alongside Parker in his car, grabbed the money, then drove a short distance before dumping Marion’s limp body beside the road. Her arms and legs had been removed, her eyelids stitched open.
One month before Walter Collins disappeared, Hickman was found guilty and sentenced to death.
Stewart commented to the cabin owner’s wife that Hickman “didn’t know how to put over a first-class murder.” (3, 59)
With her husband serving a sentence for robbery in Folsom Prison, Christine Collins was essentially a single mother, renting rooms in a modest home in the Mount Washington area, working as a phone operator.
Convinced that her son could be alive, she paid close attention to sightings of Walter that were reported from all over California throughout the summer of 1928. There were numerous reports that an “Italian-looking” man and woman had been seen loitering in the Collins’ neighborhood in the days before Walter disappeared, and a few people claimed to have seen Walter in the presence of a similar “foreign” couple. A particularly chilling sighting was reported by a gas station attendant in Glendale who was quite certain he had seen Walter’s limp, possibly lifeless, body in the backseat of a car that pulled into his station.
There was also a promising sighting of the Winslow brothers: A traveling salesman in New Braunfels, Texas, believed he had given a ride to the two boys sometime in June. Later events proved this to be a false sighting. The boys’ father had also received the letters Stewart had forced Lewis and Nelson to write, informing him they were heading for Mexico. Incidents like these fed Christine Collins’ belief that Walter was still alive.
Walter Collins Sr. and some police officers, on the other hand, suspected that former inmates had killed his boy in retaliation for something he had done, and a Los Angeles Times article darkly hinted that Mrs. Collins might have gotten on the wrong side of some criminals while trying to “negotiate her husband’s release”. This was an ominous foreshadowing to the scapegoating of Mrs. Collins, but no one could possibly have foreseen what was about to occur.
In August, a young boy was brought into the police station in Dekalb, Illinois, after he was found wandering alone. He gave his name as Arthur Kent, and told police his father had abandoned him. He hinted that he had lived in Hollywood and Los Angeles, but refused to betray his father by providing any further details.
Authorities placed him temporarily with a farmer. Illinois State Police officer O.N. Larson grew convinced that the boy was really Walter Collins, and his suspicions seemed to be borne out when the boy finally admitted it. In the excitement of finding Walter, no one dwelt too heavily on the question of why the boy would deny his own identity for several weeks.
Mrs. Collins immediately sent $70 of her own money to Dekalb for train fare, while the LAPD stage-managed a publicized reunion that could finally redeem the police in the public’s eye. Photographers mobbed the platform as Walter, looking remarkably healthy after his long ordeal, stepped off the train and was guided to his anxiously waiting mother.
But there was to be no joyful reunion. Christine Collins knew at once that this boy was not her son, though he somewhat resembled Walter in age, build, and colouring. She informed LAPD Captian J.J. Jones of this immediately. Utterly unwilling to see his golden PR coup destroyed, Captain Jones firmly assured Mrs. Collins the boy was Walter; he just looked a bit different after all he’d been through, that was all. Over her objections, he urged her to take the boy home with her. Ten days later, Mrs. Collins returned “Walter” to the police, even more adamant that he was not her child. For one thing, his teeth didn’t match Walter’s dental records – and the dentist had signed a statement to that effect. Captain Jones continued to insist the boy had to be Walter. Perhaps his abductor had brainwashed him into behaving differently and forgetting certain details about his life, he suggested.
Rather than admit the mistake and forfeit all that good publicity the police had received for “solving” the case, they maintained that Walter had passed tests to confirm his identity. To get rid of the evidence that the official LAPD position was crumbling, on September 8th Captain Jones had Mrs. Collins involuntarily committed to the county psychiatric ward under a “Code 12” designation reserved for bothersome people. She was told that she was either mentally ill, or a bad mother trying to unload her son onto the state. She would not be allowed to leave until she admitted that the boy from Illinois was her child. Mrs. Collins bravely refused to bow to police pressure.
However, the police did question “Walter” more thoroughly once he was in state custody. He confessed he wasn’t really Walter, but Billy Fields. Then he admitted he was really Arthur Hutchens, a 12-year-old runaway from Iowa. He didn’t like living with his stepmother, Violet Hutchens, and his resemblance to Walter Collins had presented him with a golden opportunity to travel to California, where he hoped to meet movie cowboy Tom Mix. Arthur’s family had a connection to California; his father, J.S. Hutchens, had recently served time in San Quentin for sexual offenses against boys.
Christine Collins was quietly released from the psych hospital on September 15th.
Strangely, the clues to “Walter’s” real identity had been in plain sight all along. As reported by the Los Angeles Times on August 5, 1928, while Arthur was still staying at the farm near DeKalb, a man with bullet scars on his face had shown up while the boy was out. He appeared to be searching for someone, but merely asked for some food. He was soon identified as J.S. Hutchens. Told of the man’s visit, Arthur burst out, “That’s my daddy!”. Mr. Hutchens never reappeared. Police speculated that J.S. Hutchens had abducted Walter Collins upon his release from San Quentin, but were unable to locate him.
Then there was the fact that Sandford Clark had identified one of his uncle’s victims as Walter Collins. The juvenile officers who questioned Sanford accepted this story at first, but when Walter turned up alive in Illinois they concluded that Sanford must be mistaken…or lying. The Los Angeles Times noted this “perplexing paradox” on September 16th, even adding that Jessie Clark corroborated her brother’s account of the murders. He had told her all about the murder of Walter Collins when she visited the ranch in July.
With Jessie back in Canada, Stewart knew he was on borrowed time. He began selling off his possessions as though preparing for flight.
He didn’t know that it was already too late. Jessie had promptly reported her brother’s abuse to the American consulate in Vancouver. She may have mentioned the murders, but if so that information was not imparted to the two LAPD officers and the two immigration officials dispatched to the ranch. They believed they were just checking on a couple of young Canadian men who were living in the country illegally.
On August 31st, as Stewart, Sanford, and the mechanic’s son were loading furniture at the ranch, the two immigration inspectors arrived. Stewart immediately ran off into the desert, leaving Sanford to be taken to Juvenile Hall for questioning.
Within two days of being taken into custody, Sanford told investigators that Stewart had removed him from his parents’ home in Canada two years earlier, when he was 13, and had been abusing him physically and sexually since that time. He also made the startling revelation that Stewart had murdered several young boys with an axe and buried their bodies on the ranch. He also claimed Gordon had killed a man on the highway near Saugus on March 10, two days before the St. Francis Dam disaster. (The murder of the young Mexican man, as we’ve seen, actually took place on the first day of February. Whether Sanford was referring to this murder or to a second, unverified, crime is unclear).
Sanford picked the Winslow boys and Walter Collins out of a stack of 30 photographs. Walter, he said, had been killed about a week after his abduction. The Winslow boys had been killed with blows from an axe, and Sanford himself was forced to kill the younger boy, Nelson, on threat of death.
Incredibly, Stewart evaded authorities with the aid of a city judge, H.S. Farrell of Alhambra. He simply showed up at the man’s office on August 31st and gave him a long story about how he was trying to bring up his nephew with Catholic principles, while his immoral sister was trying to pry the boy away from him. The judge refused to intervene directly in the matter, but he obligingly drove Stewart to the home of a lawyer, then to George and Louise’s house.
Stewart fled to Vancouver, beyond the reach of immigration officials, on his attorney’s advice. A few days later, Louise quit her job as a laundress at L.A. General Hospital and followed, leaving George alone in California. One has to wonder if he was relieved to finally be free of these two insane people for a while.
In a room of the ranch house, investigators found a book that had been checked out of the Pomona public library by one of the Winslow brothers. Some of their Boy Scout badges and a hat belonging to Lewis were also found on the ranch, along with a bloodstained mattress and axes encrusted with blood and human hair.
Jessie and her family had no idea what was happening until September 8th. On that day, Jessie and a friend were walking in Vancouver, en route to a job interview. Suddenly they ran into her grandmother and Uncle Stewart, who informed her that Sanford was about to be deported back to Canada. Jessie quickly summoned her mother to Vancouver, but soon after Winnifred’s arrival, the news broke that Stewart was wanted on suspicion of murder.
Even though Sanford had told his story to the authorities two days after he was taken into custody, they were initially skeptical. He wasn’t questioned fully until September 14th.
He led police to two gravesites near his uncle’s chicken coop, where the partial skeletonized remains of three children were found on September 17th. These proved to be the remains of the Winslow brothers and parts of the unidentified Mexican man. In all, 51 human body parts were found on the ranch.
Sanford implicated his grandmother in Walter’s murder. He said she neither participated in nor witnessed the Winslow murders, but knew all about them.
On September 19th, Louise Northcott was taken into custody on a train in Calgary. Stewart was arrested on a train in Vernon, B.C. (interestingly, the final destination of two California boys who briefly fooled authorities into believing they had been raised in the wilderness). On the train ride back to California, Stewart initiated a pattern that would become familiar to everyone who encountered him in the next two years: He alternated between indignantly protesting his innocence and sanity, and making bizarre confessions to Riverside County deputy district attorney Earl Redwine.
Three days later a grand jury in Riverside County returned five indictments against Stewart: four counts of murder, and one of sodomy. Louise was named in an indictment for the murder of Walter Collins.
On September 23rd, Christine Collins threw a 10th birthday party for her missing son.
In Riverside County Jail, Stewart alternated between declaring total innocence and implicating everyone in his family. He was allowed to meet with Sanford, who was in hospital, and demanded the boy confess. When that didn’t work, he tried to sweet-talk him into confessing. Sanford stood his ground. So did George. Louise was still in Canada, fighting extradition.
Stewart continued to make sporadic confessions. At one point he said he had killed 9 people, and would “play crazy” in court – only he would keep it up longer than Edward Hickman, who had been caught feigning insanity when he wrote letters about his ruse to another prisoner. Stewart even said he had once had a brother named Richard, whom George had killed when he was 9 or 10 years old. There was no such brother.
In addition to fake confessions, Stewart took great delight in leading the police on wild goose chases all over the desert, pointing out “graves” that turned out to be nonexistent. The full remains of his victims were never located.
There are indications that Stewart savored his infamy. For all his bitter complaints about the media, he never declined an interview. He talked at length about his love of music, his chickens, his philosophy of life.
In October, William Hickman was executed for the murder of Marian Parker. Knowing that his role model died at the end of a rope couldn’t have been a comfort to Stewart.
In December, as Stewart’s trial date neared, Louise Northcott made two very strange confessions that remain rather baffling. First, she confessed to police that she had murdered all of the boys, including Walter Collins. She said she had killed the Mexican in self-defense. Later, she altered her confession to minimize her own participation in the crimes. She claimed that Sanford had killed Lewis Winslow and severely beaten Nelson, so Louise shot him merely to end his misery. Sanford also bashed in Walter’s head, and she had to put him out of his misery as well. Then Sanford and Jessie, who despised her son, framed Stewart for everything. Louise was perfectly willing to sacrifice her grandchildren to save her beloved boy. Unluckily for her, Redwine didn’t buy much of the story. While the entire family had some involvement in what had become known as the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, this was obviously just Louise’s desperate attempt to keep Stewart from being convicted.
Whether authentic or not, however, her confession to the murder of Walter Collins stood up in court because it was corroborated by Sanford’s testimony. She pled guilty and was handed a life sentence.
The second confession was far stranger, and as it couldn’t possibly have helped Stewart in any way, Louise’s reasons for giving it remain unclear. She may have been trying to feign insanity, or she may actually have been insane.
Louise had summoned Earl Redwine to her cell to “confess” that she wasn’t Stewart’s real mother. She explained that at 17 she met and secretly married an English lord. The same day, she realized that the marriage would be a “detriment to his career” and urged him to go home and fulfill his obligations. Two years later, she bigamously wed George Northcott. Then, in 1906, the lord unexpectedly returned to Canada and swept Louise away to live with him. Three days later he died of heart failure. She returned to George only to learn that he had impregnated their daughter in her brief absence. She stuck to this story throughout Stewart’s trial.
Stewart showed no gratitude for his mother’s efforts to save him. Reading an overwrought letter from her, he commented that he didn’t like her and had always considered her crazy.
Stewart Gordon Northcott stood trial in Riverside County in January 1929 for the murders of the Winslow brothers and the unidentified Mexican man, whom he referred to at that time as “Alvin Gothea”. Despite his signed confessions, he pled not guilty to all three murders, then proceeded to put on an extremely weird defense, firing three attorneys before deciding to represent himself. He accused the sheriff of plotting to kill him, swore at the prosecutor, talked at great length about a disease that had stricken his chickens, and questioned himself on the witness stand.
Things got even stranger when Louise was summoned to testify on her son’s behalf. On the witness stand, she publicly declared for the first time that Gordon was not her son, but her grandson. If she and Stewart thought this would provoke sympathy for him, they were wrong. It actually made Stewart’s sexual abuse of Sanford even more appalling, because Sanford was now not just a family member, but his half-brother. Oddly, Stewart had freely admitted to sodomizing his nephew. He said he didn’t know it was inappropriate to have sexual relations with his nephew/brother until authorities explained it to him, despite his supposedly devout Catholicism and the fact that he had brought a Bible with him from Canada.
There were also allegations, from Stewart, that George had repeatedly raped him when he was a child. “I could not help it I was brought into the world. I did not ask to be brought in. I was not responsible for the sins of these people before me.” (3, 199)
George Northcott denied it all. In fact, though he was testifying on behalf of his son, his testimony was extraordinarily damaging to Stewart. George admitted he had seen some of the bodies before Stewart destroyed them with lime, lye, fire, and an axe. He had even bragged about the murders to his father. Only a few months earlier, George had insisted that Stewart had always been a “good boy” who displayed no “abnormal tendencies”.
On the stand, he explained that Louise would say anything to defend her son. He was “her god”.
Louise demonstrated this amply in court. During questioning, she told Stewart, “You are the only one that has ever brought any joy or happiness to my old gray life and has used me right and given me any love.” (3, 202)
The most damaging testimony came, of course, from Sanford Clark. Combined with the physical evidence, it convinced a jury that Stewart Northcott was guilty after just a few hours of deliberation. Stewart was convicted of all counts.
After his conviction, Stewart wrote George out of his personal history by telling prison officials that his father died in an insane asylum before his trial. This, despite the fact that George had pled for leniency on his son’s behalf, arguing that Stewart shouldn’t be executed because he was obviously “of unsound mind.”
Mr. Winslow knew he had a limited amount of time in which to get Stewart to reveal where his boys were buried. On February 10th, he assembled a posse of about 100 men. They drove caravan-style to to Riverside County Jail and surrounded the building while Winslow demanded they be allowed to remove Stewart from his cell and force him to reveal the location of the bodies. The sheriff and his men managed to calm Winslow and send him away; the other men dispersed on their own.
On February 13, 1929, Judge George R. Freeman sentenced Northcott to execution by hanging. He was then transferred to San Quentin’s death row, where he continued to make sporadic confessions. Just before his transfer, he admitted to 11 murders and hinted he was responsible for many more – but he wasn’t the only one responsible. “There are others whom I could expose, if anything could be gained by that.” (3, 226) Months later, believing he was going to die from appendicitis, he confessed in “revolting” detail to the warden’s assistant, Clinton Duffy (destined to become a famous prison reformer). Stewart added unlikely new details: That he had trafficked and killed up to 20 young boys, holding them at his ranch for prominent citizens to abuse. He said he was assisted by two ranch hands that he had never mentioned before.
He provided some names, and an investigation was launched, but no evidence of a child sex ring was found. Sanford hadn’t seen any strangers at the ranch; the only child molester there was his uncle. Neighbours knew that Sanford was being beaten and kept out of school, so they probably would have noticed the continuous comings and goings of well-heeled strangers. They hadn’t. And the two ranch hands didn’t exist – no one had seen them, no one knew of them.
As he had done so many times before, Stewart later recanted these confessions and insisted that he had killed no one.
Meanwhile, the LAPD had not heard the last of Christine Collins. With the help of social crusader and beloved Presbyterian minister Gustav Briegleb and a prominent attorney who was willing to work pro bono, Sammy “S.S.” Hahn, she sued Captain J.J. Jones for unlawful confinement, and was awarded a large settlement.
The case brought police abuse of the Code 12 designation to public attention, but it didn’t result in any real changes to the force. Captain Jones quietly retired without being censured in any way by his superiors, still a captain.
Mrs. Collins continued to fight for payment of her settlement into the 1940s. She wished to put the money into her search for Walter.
Stewart also gained at least one supporter. A preacher known as Larry “Cyclone Evangelist” Newgent became Stewart’s spiritual mentor at San Quentin, and argued to California governor C.C. Young that Stewart deserved a new trial because the first one had been “absolutely unfair”. Stewart had evidently convinced him that he hadn’t been allowed to retain a lawyer.
Stewart was originally scheduled to be executed in April, 1929, but a sickly lawyer delayed the appeals process into 1930. The execution date was moved to October 2, 1930.
In a September 29th interview with the press, Louise claimed she had been very ill with flu when she confessed to Walter’s murder. She declared that no one was ever killed at the ranch.
Stewart showed no such familial loyalty. Around the time his mother gave her interview, he wrote to Christine Collins and to the Winslows, promising them that if they visited him at San Quentin, he could tell them everything about the murders of their children.
Mrs. Collins visited on September 30th, just before Stewart was moved to a small holding cell reserved for inmates in the days before their executions. Questioned by Mrs. Collins and warden James Holohan, Stewart said Sanford had killed the boys. Asked where the bodies were buried, he replied, “Ask Mother.”
Yet in a letter to his parents penned on the day of his execution, Stewart assured them he knew they were innocent – Sanford was the sole killer in the family. He signed himself, “Your frightened lonely little boy.”
Mrs. Collins was not discouraged by Stewart’s revelations. She said that until her boy’s body was found, “I’ll cling to hope.” (3, 249)
On October 1st, Mrs. Winslow arrived at the prison. For four hours Stewart refused to see her. He spent this part of his last full day of life in a seemingly jocular, relaxed mood, telling jokes to the guards on suicide watch and continuously playing “Song of Songs” on a phonograph. When he finally agreed to meet with Mrs. Winslow, he said the boys were buried in a ravine about 100 years from his ranch house. But he still insisted they had been killed by Sanford and buried by Louise.
After the meeting, he lapsed into a strange daze, staring into space and utterly ignoring everyone.
The next morning, after writing the letter to his parents (in which he denied all confessions), Stewart staged a dramatic “suicide attempt”, pretending he had swallowed some poison capsules. No one thought he had actually poisoned himself, but his stomach was pumped anyway. So close to the end of his life, he couldn’t resist taking another jab at the man who had tried to save him: He said his father had given him the pills during a prison visit.
The final jab came a few hours later. Stewart gave one last “confession”, this time admitting that he and Sanford buried the bodies… but George had killed Walter. Louise had helped them clean up evidence after all four murders.
He went to the gallows that evening still maintaining his innocence. He asked to be blindfolded before ascending the steps (the first condemned man to do so at San Quentin, according to news reports of the time). His jovial mood of the previous day had vanished completely. He asked, “Will it hurt?”, and pled for his life until the very second the cord was cut to spring the trapdoor.
Some of the other figures in the case didn’t fare much better than Gordon Stewart Northcott. Christine Collins’ attorney, Sammy Hahn, committed suicide in 1957 by tying concrete blocks around his neck and jumping into the pool at his cabin in Tick Canyon.
In his heyday he had been one of California’s most prominent attorneys, defending the famous evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson when she was under investigation for allegedly staging her own abduction in 1926, as well as representing Louise Peete, a conwoman and former prostitute who left a string of suicides, suspicious deaths, and murders in her wake for over 40 years before becoming one of only three women ever executed in the state of California.
Sanford Clark was released from the State Industrial School for Boys in Whittier, California, in January 1931. He was deported to Canada, and settled in his hometown of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
In 1935 he married. He and wife June later adopted two little boys. During WWII he served with the 21st Battery, 6th Field Regiment of the Royal Canadian Artillery. He worked for the postal service until suffering a major heart attack in the ’70s. He died in 1991, leaving behind numerous grandchildren and a lifetime of quiet community service. Those closest to him say he rarely discussed his experiences on the ranch.
After Stewart Northcott’s execution, the town of Wineville officially changed its name to Mira Loma in an effort to erase the infamy created by the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders. Only a few streets and one park retain the original name. The ranch itself was dismantled and the land redeveloped.
George Northcott moved to the little town of Parsonsburg, Maryland, where he lobbied for his wife to be paroled. In November 1935 he wrote to prison authorities that there wasn’t any evidence the boys had even been murdered. “In the last year, one of the alleged victims has turned up.” The only evidence was the testimony of an “alleged accomplice, who was of low mentality and a dime magazine, wild-west-reading-fiend.” (3, 252) It’s impossible to know if George believed this crap or if he was simply adopting the family line that Sanford and Jessie cooked up a crazy story out of jealousy and spite . What is clear is that George, for some reason, still loved the wife who had defamed him on the witness stand. He wrote, “I want her, I need her – no better wife ever lived than Louise Northcott.” (3, 253) Even after seeing bodies at the ranch, even after being accused of raping his own son and impregnating his own daughter, even after being told about his son’s final confession, George declared he would always consider his son innocent. Stewart was “simply batty”, his mind “warped, unbalanced”. (3, 249)
In June 1940, having served just 11 years of her life sentence, 71-year-old Louise Northcott joined her husband on his Maryland farm. For the next four years, until their deaths, the Northcotts argued that Louise’s sentence should be overturned due to the “lack of evidence” against her. This was denied. In fact, some of the principals in the case, including prosecutor Earl Redwine and Judge O.K. Morton, who had said to her after passing down a life sentence, “It is only because you are a woman that I do not sentence you to be hanged”, were outraged that Louise had been paroled. (3, 140)
Arthur Hutchens, despite his troubled past, led a more stable life after his California excursion. Confined to Iowa’s State Training School for Boys until he reached the age of 14, he worked as a carnival concessioneer before settlling down in California to train horses and be a jockey – his lifelong passion. He married, fathering a daughter who grew up idolizing her adventurous dad. He died in 1954.
Contrary to the media hype surrounding The Changeling, the Collins/Code 12 scandal did not leave any significant mark on the LAPD. It didn’t even result in signficant changes to the force. The only result of the case was validation of citizen’s complaints about the lawlessness of the LAPD, which had been minimized or ignored by the city’s establishment for years. The gun squad was disbanded in the early ’30s, but official corruption flourished throughout the ’30s under Mayor Frank Shaw – notable for being the first U.S. mayor recalled from public office.
In the ’40s, the spirit of the gun squad was resurrected in an equally lawless Gangster Squad.
In the ’50s, a Red Squad charged with targeting suspected Communists behaved exactly like the gun squad of the Prohibition era. As one police commissioner said of the Red Squad, “The more the police beat them up and wreck their headquarters, the better. Communists have no Constitutional rights and I won’t listen to anyone who defends them.” (1)
The 1990s saw an avalanche of LAPD scandals. First there was the beating of Rodney King and the ensuing riots, then the Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) incidents in which more than 70 officers were implicated in “unprovoked shootings, unprovoked beatings, planting of evidence, framing of suspects, stealing and dealing narcotics, bank robbery, perjury, and covering up evidence of these activities”. (2)
In the film The Changeling, Mrs. Collins’ hope of finding her son alive is buoyed by the discovery that “David Clay”, a would-be victim of Northcott, managed to escape from the ranch and remain in hiding for years, fearful that he would be blamed for the possible murders of the boys who were confined with him – including Walter Collins. This character is apparently based on a young man who surfaced sometime in 1933 or 1934, a runaway presumed to be a victim of Northcott. I have been unable to find the name of this person, but we do know that he was not one of the Winslow brothers. It’s likely that any young boy who disappeared from the L.A. region during the late 1920s was considered a possible victim of Stewart Northcott.
Christine Collins remarried, but she had no more children and continued to believe that Walter could be alive somewhere. She rejected the confessions of Mrs. Northcott, Stewart Northcott, and Sanford Clark as too contradictory. Curiously, there is no mention of Louise in The Changeling.
While the film admirably highlights the tenacity of a mother’s love, its hopeful conclusion belies the much grimmer facts of the case.
A note on sources:
– Larry Harnisch, a blogger at the L.A. Times online, has posted copies of some of the original Times news stories on the Collins case (including the train station photo recreated in The Changeling). This article is drawn primarily from these articles and James Jeffrey Paul’s exhaustively researched book on the Northcott murders, Nothing Is Strange With You. Many other details were drawn from sources cited in the Wikipedia entry for the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders. The details of S.S. Hahn’s death come from an article in the June 26, 1957 L.A. Times (available on this page of Harnisch’s blog).