The Wineville Chicken Coop Murders

It seems so often when you watch things like Dateline and 48 Hours you are hearing the same stories over and over.  There are a few that the second I know what story it is I turn the channel because I am just sick to death of hearing about it. You do not really get to hear about some of the old cases that "stole" headlines very much.  Then every so often you will catch a show about an old case, or better yet someone decides to make a movie about it.  While I learned a long time ago to never take a television show and their portrayal at face value when it comes to a case, that goes double for movies.  In fact quite often "true story" movies make me mad because it always seems they have to alter facts to make them more interesting for viewers, or even simply change facts for apparently no reason at all.  The movie Lincoln is a good example of this.  After it was released the state of Connecticut was upset because through the movie they had voted against the Emancipation Act when in fact they had voted for it. In my opinion, changing things such as this is simply irresponsible and there is no reason for it.  When it comes to movies based on true events, most people do not go and do an Internet search after they see it and assume everything is true.  Then again, I am not most people.  When the movie, An American Crime came out based on the Sylvia Likens story I already knew that case fairly well as I grew up in Indianapolis Indiana and despite the years that had passed since the crime it was still a hot topic there.  I was severely disappointed after watching it however and seeing many significant things that were left out as well as how personalities were changed to make some of the people more sympathetic than they really were. This story was told in the Clint Eastwood/Angelina Jolie movie "The Changeling."  Well at least part of the story that is. The movie only really focused on the disappearance of nine year old Walter Collins and the injustice that his mother, Christine, suffered.  There was so much more to the story however and that is what will be told here.

Between 1926 and 1928 young boys in Wineville California, near Los Angeles, were disappearing and no-one knew why.  It also appears (although less reported) that some young boys, while they were apparently kidnapped would reappear after a few days.  I found no real record of any names of those boys or if any of them later testified in court however and the only report of this came from a young boy named Sanford Clark who happened to be the key to solving the crimes, at least according to investigators.

Sanford Clark was a Canadian native who had gone to live with his uncle, Gordon Stewart Northcott in 1926.  Most reports say that he went there with permission from his mother, Winifred, Gordon's sister, to help him build his new chicken farm.  There are a few reports that Gordon kidnapped Sanford, who was 13 at the time but I did not find anything valid to support this as it seems Sanford had contact with his family in Canada through letters, as well as his grandparents, George and Sarah Northcott, Winifred's parents who also lived in California.  However, in August of 1928 Sanford's older sister, Jessie went to the farm supposedly because she felt that the letters from her brother sounded odd and she wanted to check up on him.  The story is that she did not stay at the farm long and upon her near immediate return to Canada she contacted the American Consul and reported at the very least that her brother was being abused by Northcott.  Authorities went to the ranch on August 31, 1928 and apparently found Sanford, who was now 15, but both Gordon and his mother, Sarah had fled to Canada where they were subsequently arrested on September 19, 1928. They were extradited to California in November of that year. 

Authorities took Sanford in for questioning and the story he told amazed them. According to Sanford, not only had his uncle abused him physically and sexually over the previous two years but he had abducted several young boys, abused them and released most of them.  However, according to Sanford at least four of those children did not survive and had been buried on the farm, only to be dug up after Jessie Clark's visit and moved.  Sanford told authorities that he had been forced to help not only his uncle but also his grandmother in at least a few of the murders on the premises that he was told if he helped he would be less apt to go to authorities because he would implicate himself.  Authorities went to the areas in which Sanford said the bodies had originally been buried after being covered in quicklime and found some bones but were never able to discover a complete body. Subsequent testing did determine that the parts found did belong to young children, and likely boys, although forensics were not what they are today, nor admittedly were crimes solved or investigated in manners in which we consider proper today.  I should also point out that much corruption was common in that time period when it came to the police.  It was not uncommon for police to mold their evidence to fit their crime and suspect as opposed to finding a suspect to fit their crimes.  This is in no way to say that I feel that the Northcott's were innocent, it is simply a statement of how things were done in those days, which often included beating suspects to confess to crimes authorities were certain they committed or at the very least wanted to solve very quickly. 

After discovering the bones on the property and hearing Sanford's story authorities also searched the home on the property and at the very least claim to have found items belonging to a few missing children.  Ultimately authorities felt they were able to prove the deaths of four young boys between Sanford's testimony and the evidence found.  The first victim was an unnamed Mexican boy. There was really little evidence to this other than what came from Sanford but according to him Gordon had abducted, molested and murdered the boy at some point and was his first victim.  Apparently by all accounts while Sanford knew of the killing he was not a part of it.  

Then on March 10, 1928 Walter Collins went missing. Later I will go into the story the movie The Changeling told but for now I will just go into the legal aspects of the story relating to Gordon.  According to Sanford, Gordon had abducted Walter a few days before Sarah, Gordon's mother, came for a visit and he was holding him hostage in a barn on the property.  Again, according to Sanford, it was Sarah's idea that Walter be murdered as he could identify not just Gordon and Sanford but now Sarah.  He stated that they each took a turn with an ax and hit Walter over the head because Sarah insisted upon this, saying if they all participated in the murder, they would all be guilty preventing any one of them to go to the authorities and report the others.  Sanford says that the body was then covered in quicklime and buried.  

Then on May 16, 1928 brothers, Lewis Winslow, age twelve and Nelson Winslow, age ten, were reported missing. Their parents received some strange letters supposedly from them over the next few days claiming they ran away and headed to different areas but it was determined, or at the very least suspected, that Gordon and Sarah had either forced the boys to write the letters or wrote them themselves to divert suspicion.  Sanford stated that the Winslow brothers were murdered and disposed of in the same way as Walter Collins.

Most reports say that when the authorities searched the home they found personal items belonging to many young boys including at least the Winslow's.  Some reports state that nothing personal belonging to Walter Collins was found, which later led to speculation, at least by his mother that he was not murdered by the Northcotts.  However, while still being held in Canada Sarah confessed to the three murders while it was reported that Gordon confessed to at least five murders.  By the time they reached California they had both retracted those confessions.  

Once they were extradited back to California Sarah plead guilty to the murder of Walter Collins.  She was sentenced to life in prison on December 31, 1928. Ultimately she served less than twelve years and died in 1944.   While she was in prison, before and after the trial of her son, Sarah made some claims that many felt were "outrageous" and simply attempts to save her son from the death penalty.  While I could find nothing that substantiated any of her claims, I did not find anything that proved some of them to be false. The first claim was that Gordon was innocent. This account was most likely just an attempt to save him in my opinion.  At this point she had pleaded guilty and received her sentence so she in a sense lost nothing by taking full credit for the murders.  From all that I found based on her age and stature, as well as history prior to Walter's murder, it does not seem that she would have been capable of carrying out the murders alone.  Add to that the testimony, if true, of Sanford and the murder of at least the Mexican boy that occurred prior to Sarah's arrival.  Granted Sanford had said that Gordon had released several boys and up to the point of Walter had supposedly (at least by his knowledge) only murdered the Mexican boy and that it was Sarah who insisted on Walter's murder, it just does not seem to add up that Gordon was quite the choir boy that Sarah first attempted to make him out to be.  Her next claim was that he could not be executed because he was actually the illegitimate son of an English Nobleman.  Once again there seemed to be no proof of this and likely yet another attempt to save him from the gallows.  However, her next two claims, in my opinion could have quite honestly been true.  Sarah went on to claim that Gordon was a product of incest between her husband George and their daughter Winifred, making him technically her grandson and not son.  Obviously DNA testing was not available at the time to prove or disprove this claim and it seems it was simply dismissed as another attempt on her part to save him from conviction.  While not being able to prove this claim, it is one that could possibly been valid. I was never able to determine just how old Winifred Northcott Clark was at the time of the crimes but what we can say is that Gordon was twenty-one in 1928.  We also know that Winifred was the mother of Sanford who was 15 and Jessie, who was older than Sanford, and obviously old enough and mature enough to make the trip from Canada to California (even granting that children matured faster in that day).  Presumably we can assume that Jessie was at least 18 since she seemingly took it upon herself to check on her brother saying that his letters seemed suspicious so there would have been less than three years between uncle and niece.  Granted, especially in those days that was not necessarily unusual, however, there are no reports of there being any other children between Winifred and Gordon, which does make it odd and quite possible that if not a product of incest between father and daughter, than at the very least could indicate that Winifred was his mother and not his sisters.  We have seen many cases (actually a few celebrity ones... Jack Nicholson and Bobby Darin.. just to name a few off the top of my head) in which this scenario took place where a young girl became pregnant and rather than risk the shame associated with a young unwed mother the parents raised the child as their own.  Sarah had gone on to also claim that Gordon had been sexually molested "by his entire family" during his life.  This of course could have been yet another, as they were all claimed to be, attempt to save him from the gallows but as we know more and more about sexual predators, it could have also been true. In the end, whether her claims were true or not they did nothing to save Gordon.  He was convicted of the murders of the Winslow brothers and the unknown Mexican boy in February of 1929 and given the death penalty.  He was hung at San Quentin State Prison on October 2, 1930 at the age of 23. He was not charged with the murder of Walter Collins since Sarah had pleaded guilty to that murder.

Sanford Clark was never charged with any of the crimes.  The DA believed that Sanford was also a victim of Gordon's and was innocent but in the same respect he was placed in a boys school for a period of twenty-three months.  Upon his release he returned to Canada and by all accounts led a crime free life.

And then there was the story that The Changeling told surrounding the disappearance of Walter Collins and what his mother went through during that time.  Walter had gone to a movie to never return home.  His father was in prison at the time serving a sentence for several robberies and so his mother was basically a single mother raising him on the salary she obtained working for the telephone company.  At the time, the Los Angeles police department was under a lot of pressure as they were being investigated for several corruption scandals. Then they faced even more scrutiny when they failed to find Walter in a timely manner.  Of course authorities first thought or claimed that the nine year old simply ran away.  When that did not seem to pan out they thought maybe he had been taken by people associated with his father in the criminal world.  But then, five months after he disappeared a boy claiming to be Walter was found in Illinois.  Christine Collins was shown a picture of the boy and stated she did not think it was her son but after pressure from the police paid to have the boy brought to Los Angeles.  There was a big "to do" when "Walter" arrived so that the public could see just how well the police did their job but immediately Christine let authorities know that this boy was not her son.  Again she was pressured and told to "try him out for a few weeks." Three weeks later she went to the police with dental records in hand proving the boy was not Walter.  The police chief allegedly accused her of trying to make the department look bad and of also wanting the state to care for her child, calling her a bad mother.  Instead of listening to her and her claims he had her committed for evaluation at a local insane asylum, which was very easy to do in those days, especially by the police.  Then it seems that someone did finally question the child who admitted he was not Walter but in fact he was twelve year old Arthur Hutchins Jr. from Iowa.  He had run away from home and while in Illinois someone there mentioned that he looked like Walter Collins.  He had heard about the case because it had gone national and decided if he pretended to be him that he could get a free trip to California and possibly see his favorite actor. Despite getting this information Christine was still not released for several days. In the meantime it seems subsequently the search was going on at the Northcott farm and within a short period after this Walter's name became involved within the story.  Over time both Gordon and Sarah had confessed and retracted stories and even Christine went to visit with Gordon before his hanging to obtain some closure for herself.  In the last meeting with him Gordon denied having anything to do with Walter's death and coupled with the supposed fact that they found nothing personal belonging to Walter, nor could they positively identify any of the bones found on the property, led Christine to spend the rest of her life searching for her son.  She did however sue the police chief for the antics he pulled and contributed to her suffering.  She won her lawsuit in September 1930 to the tune of over $10,000 (which would be well over $100,000 today) but she never received any of the money.  

So did the Northcotts kill Walter Collins?  I suppose that question will never fully be answered.  Sanford Clark says they did. It seems like Walter's case was one that was huge, even maybe by today's standards.  Only the big crimes went National and the fact the police were under so much pressure with other things already probably helped it in that manner.  Then again, as I stated earlier, it was not uncommon for evidence to be molded to the suspects to solve the cases. The only evidence that the Northcotts were involved with Walter Collins is first Sanford's statement and later Sarah's guilty plea.  A bloody ax (in fairness to Sanford to which he testified to) was found but again, forensics were not what they are today, so there is no proof as far as what I found that the blood was human blood, let alone Walter's.  Sure, Sarah pleaded guilty but who is to say she did not do so in order to not go through a trial and be found guilty of more heinous crimes?  The police wanted Walter's case solved.  They already had egg on their face since not only did they not solve the case early on, they had insisted an impostor was the child. They wanted this case off their radar and what better way to do it than to pin it on two people who were apparently guilty of something already?  Well technically they didn't pin it on Gordon since legally only Sarah is considered responsible for his death.  Reports were that while personal property of young boys were found, nothing of Walters was discovered. Why wouldn't Christine Collins be skeptical of the final findings?  Look at what the police had done to her? Why should she have believed that her son was dead, simply because they said so. 

In the end the town of Wineville changed it's name to Mira Loma in 1930 and has since then has also dissolved into other named towns.  The residents felt they needed to distance themselves from the Wineville name from all the publicity.  It is said however there are still some roads and areas left with the Wineville name as a reminder of what happened there.

UPDATE: June 2016

I was finally able to come across a copy of the book "Road out of Hell" by Anthony Flacco that told this story, or at least Sanford Clark's story.  I really enjoyed the book, the first I have read by this author, although I have to admit that I wonder how and where the details for sure came from.  It is plainly obvious that some of the details were not necessarily "made up" but elaborated on to let the story flow better.  The book reads like a fiction book, although the story is all too true.  The reason I question where all the information necessarily came from is because according to Sanford's son, Jerry, he only mentioned this to him once in his life and it was not a great, long discussion.  According to the author Sanford lived with the terror and guilt of this for his entire life, something that you, as a reader, can definitely understand.  If we take the book at face value then the issue of Walter Collins is no longer in question.  Sanford apparently stood by the fact that Walter was in fact on the ranch and was murdered there despite what may or may not have been found as evidence to prove this.  More than anything this book was a tribute to Sanford to show that with everything that he went through during that time he was able to overcome (although with extreme difficulty) and go on to live not just a normal, but a productive life that anyone would be proud of.  It is definitely worth the read.

Comments

  1. I originally dismissed Sarah Louisa Northcott's testimony that Gordon Stewart Northcott was the product of incest, but Traciy Curry-Reyes' investigation of the birth and census records lends some credence to Winifred Northcott being his mother and Sarah the grandmother.
    http://www.examiner.com/list/gordon-stewart-northcott-s-background-questions-about-louise-northcott
    While the records don't establish paternity, incest would explain a lot.

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