Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Wineville Chicken Coop Murders aka 'The Changeling'

This photo is of the Chicken Coop circa 1928

The current motion picture entitled The Changeling focuses on a true story that happened in the Los Angeles area in 1928. I enjoyed the film, but as often happens in Hollywood some details and the order in which events occur were left out or changed. The real story is far more horrifying. These murders were known as the 'Chicken Coop Murders' because many of the kids were actually killed inside the Coop, by axe.

The Wineville Chicken Coop Murders was a series of kidnappings and murders of young boys occurring in Los Angeles and Riverside County, California in 1928. The case received national attention and events related to it exposed corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department. The 2008 film Changeling is based upon events related to this case.

In 1926, ranch owner Gordon Stewart Northcott took his 14-year-old nephew, Sanford Clark, from his home. Before a family member was able to inform the police about the situation, Northcott had beaten and sexually abused Clark. In September 1928, the Los Angeles Police Department visited the Northcott Ranch in Wineville. Police found Clark at the ranch and took him into custody.

Clark claimed that Northcott had kidnapped, molested, beaten, and killed several young boys with the apparent help of Northcott's mother, Sarah Louise Northcott. He had also forced Clark to participate. The police found no complete bodies at the site, but they discovered body parts, the personal effects of missing children, and blood-stained axes. Clark said quicklime was used to dispose of the remains, and the bones had been dumped in the desert. The Northcotts had fled to Canada and they were arrested near Vernon, British Columbia.

Investigators found an axe as well as bones, hair and fingers from three of the victims that were buried in lime near the chicken house at the Northcott ranch near Wineville - hence the name "Wineville Chicken Coop Murders." Wineville changed its name to “Mira Loma” on November 1, 1930, due in large part to the negative publicity surrounding the murders. Wineville Avenue, Wineville Road, Wineville Park and other geographic references provide reminders of the community's former name.

Sarah Louise Northcott (mother of Gordon) initially confessed to the murders, including that of 9-year-old Walter Collins. She later retracted her statement, as did Gordon Northcott, who had confessed to killing five boys.
Upon her return from Canada, Sarah Louise pled guilty to killing Walter Collins. Superior Court Judge Morton sentenced her to life imprisonment on December 31, 1928, sparing her from execution because she was a woman. Northcott served her sentence at Tehachapi State Prison, and was paroled after less than 12 years.

During her sentencing, Northcott claimed her son was innocent and made a variety of bizarre claims about his parentage, including that he was an illegitimate son by an English nobleman, that she was Gordon`s grandmother, and that he was the result of incest between her husband, George Cyrus Northcott, and their daughter. She also stated that as a child, Gordon was sexually abused by the entire family.

On February 8 1929, a 27-day trial before Judge George R. Freeman in Riverside County, California, ended. Gordon Northcott was convicted of the murders of an unidentified Mexican boy and brothers Lewis and Nelson Winslow (aged 12 and 10, respectively). The brothers had been reported missing from Pomona on May 16, 1928; however, it was believed Gordon may have had as many as 20 victims. The jury heard that he kidnapped, molested, tortured, killed, and dismembered these and other boys throughout 1928. On February 13, 1929, Judge Freeman sentenced Gordon to be hanged. The sentence was carried out on October 2, 1930.

Sanford's older sister, Jessie, became suspicious of the letters Sanford was forced to send home from Northcott's ranch that assured the family he was well. She went to the ranch and stayed several days. However, she became terrified of Northcott, left and told authorities her brother was in the country illegally.

Sanford Clark was never tried for murder, but was sentenced to five years at the Whittier State School (later renamed the Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional Facility). His sentence was later commuted to 23 months. After his release, he was deported back to his native Canada. Clark's son, Jerry Clark, credits Clark's sisters June and Jessie, associate prosecution counsel Loyal C. Kelley, and the Whittier State School for helping save Sanford from Gordon Northcott.

Clark served in World War II, and then worked for 28 years for the Canadian postal service. He married, and he and his wife, June, adopted and raised two sons. They were married for 55 years and were involved in many different organizations. Clark died in 1991.

Nine-year-old Walter Collins disappeared from Los Angeles on March 10, 1928. His disappearance received nationwide attention and the Los Angeles Police Department followed up on hundreds of leads without success. The police faced negative publicity and increasing public pressure to solve the case, until five months after Walter's disappearance, when a boy claiming to be Walter was found in DeKalb, Illinois.

Letters and photographs were exchanged before Walter's mother, Christine Collins, paid for the boy to be brought to Los Angeles. A public reunion was organized by the police, who hoped to negate the bad publicity they had received for their inability to solve this case and others. They also hoped the uplifting human interest story would deflect attention from a series of corruption scandals that had sullied the department's reputation. At the reunion, Christine Collins claimed that the boy was not Walter. She was told by the officer in charge of the case, police Captain J.J. Jones, to take the boy home to "try him out for a couple of weeks," and Collins agreed.

Three weeks later, Christine Collins returned to see Captain Jones and persisted in her claim that the boy was not Walter. Even though she was armed with dental records proving her case, Jones had Collins committed to the psychiatric ward at Los Angeles County Hospital under a "Code 12" internment—a term used to jail or commit someone who was deemed difficult or an inconvenience. During Collins' incarceration, Jones questioned the boy, who admitted to being 12-year-old Arthur Hutchins Jr., a runaway from Illinois, but who was originally from Iowa. A drifter at a roadside cafĂ© in Illinois had told Hutchins of his resemblance to the missing Walter, so Hutchins came up with the plan to impersonate him. His motive was to get to Hollywood so he could meet his favorite actor, Tom Mix. Collins was released ten days after Hutchins admitted that he was not her son, and filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department. This aspect of the case is depicted in the 2008 film Changeling, although in the film Hutchins does not confess until after Mrs. Collins has been released.

Collins went on to win a lawsuit against Jones and was awarded $10,800, which Jones never paid. Five years after Gordon Northcott's execution, one of the boys previously thought to be murdered by Northcott was found alive and well. As Walter Collins' body had not been found, Christine Collins still hoped that Walter had survived. She continued to search for him for the rest of her life, but she died without ever knowing her son's fate. The last public record of Christine Collins is from 1941, when she attempted to collect a $15,562 judgment against Captain Jones (by then a retired police officer) in the Superior Court.

In 1933 Arthur J. Hutchins, Jr. wrote about how and why he fooled the police. Hutchins' biological mother died when he was 9 years old and he had been living with his stepmother, Violet Hutchins. He said that he had pretended to be Walter Collins to get as far away as possible from her. After living on the road for a month he arrived in DeKalb. When police brought him in, they began to ask him questions about Walter Collins. Originally, Hutchins stated that he did not know about Walter, but changed his story when he saw the possibility of getting to California.

After Arthur Hutchins became an adult, he sold concessions at carnivals and eventually made it back to California as a horse trainer and jockey. He died of a blood clot in 1954, leaving behind a wife and young daughter, Carol. According to Carol Hutchins, "My dad was full of adventure. In my mind, he could do no wrong.

The Northcott house still stands today, though the Chicken Coop was torn down.

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