Karen Sue Beineman, an 18-year-old woman from Michigan, was reported missing on July 23, 1969. At the time, she was living in Washtenaw County, MI. She was the 7th and final victim of the Ypsilanti Ripper, a vicious killer who made a game out of kidnapping co-eds and torturing them to death.
Beginning in 1967, the Ypsilanti Ripper killed several young women in a series of atrocious murders that occurred within Washtenaw County. Each of the 7 murders was committed within 15 miles of the university in Ann Arbor. Each victim was a white female with brunette hair, below the age of 25; the youngest victim was 13.
The circumstances of these murders were exceptionally heinous in that each victim was raped and tortured for a significant period of time before being killed. At least 1 victim was restrained and whipped prior to being killed; another victim was raped with a tree branch; another victim was forced to consume acid.
The medical examiner who handled the case said that each victim had a huge number of superficial wounds which seemed to have no purpose except to cause extreme pain and terrorize the victim. Killing wasn’t enough for this perpetrator, he wanted his victims to suffer as much as possible.
The medical examiner also theorized that the killer had a tendency to move the bodies of his victims after killing them; he dumped them in one location, then later he’d come back and move the body to another location. Why he would do this is unclear, but that was the theory. The Ripper didn't really hide his victim's bodies, they were dumped in places where they were likely to be found quickly.
Finally, the medical examiner noticed that each victim was on her period at the time she was killed; he theorized that the killer was deliberately targeting women who were menstruating, for some unfathomable reason.
At the time of Karen Beineman’s disappearance, local law enforcement were being subjected to intense scrutiny because of their repeated failures to capture the Ypsilanti Ripper. The police themselves were baffled and frustrated; this situation was completely unlike anything they’d ever experienced. They had no suspects; they didn’t even really have any evidence aside from the mutilated corpses of the many victims.
The ultimate humiliation came when citizens of Ann Arbor decided to solicit help from a dutch psychic named Peter Hurkos. The police department viewed Hurkos with utter revulsion, but they felt that they had no choice but to indulge him in order to placate frightened citizens.
In the strangest metaphor I’ve ever heard, a police officer said of Hurkos: “I wouldn’t piss in his ears even if his brain were on fire.” I’m not sure what that even means.
Admittedly, Hurkos was able to get some things right. For example, he told a police officer that he had a gas leak in his house, and when the officer called his wife about, she found that there really was a gas leak that could have potentially caused an explosion.
Still, Hurkos produced very little information that would be useful in actually finding the killer. The closest he came to naming an actual suspect was when he said the killer would be a man named Marshall; he said that Marshall would be a large, hairy man with muscular arms and swarthy skin, vaguely gorilla-like in appearance.
And the police were actually able to find a man named Marshall who matched that description; he did actually look kind of like a gorilla, with brownish skin and hairy, muscular arms. He also lived very close to the youngest victim. However, the detectives working the case very quickly determined that his work schedule made it impossible for him to be the Ripper. He was never charged with anything.
On July 23, 1969, Karen Sue Beineman would become the Ripper’s final victim. By this point, it was well known that the Ripper specifically targeted brunettes, so Karen wanted to buy a blonde wig to protect herself against danger. After eating lunch with her friends, she left the campus around 12:15 PM to visit a wig shop. The store was approximately 1.5 miles away from the campus.
On her way there, Karen was accosted by a handsome young man on a motorcycle. He warned her that the Ypsilanti Ripper was around; he told her that it was dangerous for her to be out by herself. He offered to give her a quick ride to her destination, wherever it was. Karen was nervous, she never hitchhiked ever and she didn’t know this man. Still, she accepted his generous offer. She climbed aboard the man’s motorcycle and soon was dropped off at the wig shop, Wigs by Joan.
While paying for her new wig, Karen told the store owner something odd. "I’ve done two things today I thought I would never do," Karen said, "One was to buy a hairpiece and the other was to accept a motorcycle ride from a stranger."
The store-owner (Joan Goshe) and her assistant were both immediately suspicious. One of them went outside to take a quick look at the man on the motorcycle, but he turned away when he noticed her watching him; she didn’t get a good look at his face. The 2 women implored Karen not to leave with him. "I've got to be either the bravest or the dumbest girl alive, because I've just accepted a ride from this guy,” Karen said.
The store-owner even offered to drive Karen directly back to campus herself in her car, but Karen declined; she would walk. When Karen left the store, both the store-owner and her assistant had a sickening feeling that something awful might happen to her. They watched to see if Karen would accept another ride from the motorcycle man. At first, Karen appeared to decline his invitation. Nevertheless he persisted, and eventually she did ride off with him.
Why Karen did this will always been something of a mystery; her friends were shocked when they learned that she'd rode off with a man she didn't know since she'd always been against hitch-hiking.
Unfortunately, Joan’s instincts had been correct; the motorcycle man was the Ypsilanti Ripper, John Norman Collins. Once John had Karen under his control, he either persuaded or forced her to accompany him to his uncle’s house; there she was savagely tortured and murdered. John’s uncle (David Leik) was a police officer who happened to be on vacation at the time, that will be important later.
Karen’s nude body was found on January 26, by a professor and his wife while they were out on a walk. The body was found in a deep gully, alongside the embankment of a road. She’d been forced to ingest acid and her body was covered in acid as well; the acid was possibly an attempt to destroy forensic evidence.
The usual practice was to alert the family as soon as a body was discovered, but the police did not do that after Karen’s body was discovered. In fact, they tried very hard to prevent anybody from hearing of the discovery. Karen was discreetly removed from the gully and transferred to a morgue; she was replaced with a mannequin that the police stole from a nearby clothing store.
The medical examiner had theorized that the Ripper had a tendency to return to bodies of victims so that he could continue moving them around. The police were trying to take advantage of that by keeping Karen’s discovery a secret. They positioned a team of 9 cops nearby the mannequin. They were hoping to catch a glimpse of the Ripper as he returned to move the body.
It was a clever plan which I believe probably would have worked if not for the fact that it rained heavily that night. The rain began around 11:30 PM. I imagine that visibility was already quite poor around 11:30 PM, but the heavy rain reduced visibility to basically nothing. And remember, they were in hiding so they couldn’t even turn on flashlights to help. They just had to sit there, soaking wet and hope that the Ripper would come to them.
Around 12:15 AM on January 27, a police officer noticed the silhouette of a person running near the gully where the mannequin was stashed. Was this the Ripper? We’ll never know for sure, but why else would somebody be out for a jog at 12:15 AM in heavy rain? He tried to call it in, but he found that his radio was malfunctioning, possibly because of water damage.
He soon gave up on trying to get his radio to work and simply chased after the mysterious silhouette of a person. Another cop saw him running, and gave chase as well, but to no avail. The Ripper (if it truly was the Ripper) was too fast and that radio malfunction had given him a significant lead. The silhouette disappeared into the night, never to be seen again.
When the press found out that the cops had come so close to catching the Ripper, only to let him simply through their fingers, they had a field day. They’d already been calling the Ann Arbor police the Keystone Kops, now the vitriol intensified. It now seemed impossible that the Ripper would ever be captured.
However, when police interviewed the women from Wigs by Joan, they learned some important information which would eventually lead to them finding the Ripper. Perhaps most importantly, they were able to get a physical description of the Ripper. Joan Goshe and her assistant were able to help (with help from a sketch artist) produce a sketch of the Ripper’s general appearance. The sketch was soon printed in papers throughout Michigan.
Just as important, Joan was able to identify the Ripper’s motorcycle as a Triumph. Joan just happened to be something of a motorcycle enthusiast herself, and she just happened to be at the right place at the right time to get a good look at the Ripper and his motorcycle as he picked up Karen from Wigs by Joan.
A rookie cop named Larry Mathewson would ultimately be the first person to recognize the Ripper was John Norman Collins. A recent university graduate, Mathewson had been in the fraternity Theta Chi. It took him a while, but he ultimately realized that the sketch looked a lot like a person who’d belonged to the same fraternity. John Collins had been in Theta Chi, but he’d been kicked out for stealing.
Once the connection was made, the detectives working the case started to focus on John Collins as their primary suspect. Actually, he was their only suspect, they’d never had any other leads up to this point. Larry also reached out to Collins directly, using their fraternity connection as a pretense. Collins reacted with unusual hostility when he was asked for his license place number, something which seemed suspicious; every other motorcyclist who’d been interviewed had disclosed their license plate number without any resistance.
Collins also told Larry that his uncle was a police sergeant named David Leik, and insinuated that he could have Larry fired. However, when David was informed that John was a suspect in the Ripper case, he made no attempt to protect John from investigation. In fact, he said he'd noticed a lot of cleaning supplies going missing lately; he hadn't thought anything of it, but now it seemed more sinister.
After being told that John was a suspect in the Ripper investigation, David searched his house. In addition to cleaning supplies being missing, Keik found stains of black paint in his basement. This was disturbing; he could tell that it wasn't blood, but he wanted to be sure. He invited a forensics team into his house.
David was correct in a way, the stains were just paint, not blood. But blood was found underneath the paint. Back then, it was impossible to do anything with DNA so they couldn't check to see if the blood was a definite match for Karen Beineman. But they could at least tell that the blood matched Karen's blood type. They theorized that John had killed Karen in David Keik's basement and then painted over the bloodstains with the black paint.
Joan and her assistant were shown pictures of John Collins. The police were really hoping that they could positively ID John as the Ripper, once and for all. However, both women were unsure. They both said he looked similar, but also both said that they couldn't confidently say that he was the guy. They conceded that it might be him, but that is as far as they would go, much to the annoyance of the detectives working the case. Both women were pressured to give a more confident statement, but neither would: "it might be him" is as far as they would go.
The Michigan State police arrested John Normon Collins on July 31, 1969. His trial was (and still is) the longest and most expensive trial ever for Washtenaw County; many in the community believed that Collins was innocent. He'd been studying to be a pre-school teacher and many simply did not believe he was capable of the extreme violence that he was being accused of.
The prosecution made the decision to charge him only for the death of Karen Sue Beineman; there simply wasn't any evidence to connect him to any of the other murders.
The trial attracted significant attention from around the county, at least at first. However, a week into the trial on August 9, 1969, an actress named Sharon Tate was murdered. A hollywood darling, the murder of Sharon Tate caused most newspapers to quickly lose interest in the Michigan trial; especially after the truly bizarre perpetrator of that crime was revealed.
As of 4/24/2021, John Norman Collins is still in prison. He’s never been convicted for killing any person other than Karen Sue Beineman, but he is presumed to be responsible for all the murders that were attributed to the Ypsilanti Ripper. He is also believed to be responsible for at least 1 murder which occurred in California.
Collins still maintains his innocence even after all these years, which begs the question: did he actually do it? Did he actually kill Karen Beineman and the other victims? The answer seems to be a pretty firm yes, I see no reason to doubt his guilt. I personally believe that wrongful convictions are far more common than the government would ever be willing to admit, but I just don't think that this is one of those cases. However, if anybody else has a different opinion, then I'd love to here it.
The 2 main sources used for this write-up were the podcast Going West and The Michigan Murders by Edward Keyes. It should be noted the Edward Keyes book changes the names of nearly every person involved “to protect the innocent and to protect those innocently involved with the guilty.”