Christine Collins spent 36 years searching for her son, who had gone missing and was replaced by an imposter.
On March 10, 1928, Christine Collins gave her nine-year-old son Walter money for the cinema. He never returned from the show. His mother reported him missing, but, despite the police’s best efforts, they turned up no trace of him for five months.
One day in August, five months after Walter Collins’ disappearance, a boy appeared in Dekalb, Illinois, claiming to be the missing Walter. Christine Collins paid for his transportation from Illinois back to California, but the boy who arrived, although bearing a resemblance to him, was not Walter Collins.
Despite Collins’ insistence of that fact – and suffering under the pressure to close the case – the Los Angeles Police Department suggested she take him home and “try the boy out.” Exhausted from protesting his validity, Collins consented to take him home.
Three weeks later, Collins had had enough. This boy was not her son, and she was determined to prove it. She went to the police Captain J.J. Jones, telling him this was not the right boy.
As proof, she brought dental records that showed her son Walter had several fillings, which did not match the boy the police had been trying to pass off as her son, as he had no evidence of any dental work.
In spite of the evidence, Jones, rather than face the negative publicity, refused to take Collin’s insistence seriously. Instead, Jones had Collins committed to the Los Angeles County General Hospital’s psychiatric ward, under “Code 12” internment – a code to commit someone who is “deemed difficult or an inconvenience.”
Christine Collins was kept under evaluation for ten days, but in that time, the boy admitted to not being the real Walter Collins. The impostor was actually Arthur Hutchins Jr, a twelve-year-old boy from Iowa who was running away from an unhappy home life. After hearing from others how much he resembled Walter Collins, he decided to pose as the missing boy in an attempt to get a free trip from Iowa to California.
Once the truth came out, Collins was released from the psych ward and filed a false-imprisonment case against the city. Collins won the lawsuit, and Jones was ordered to pay $10,800 to Collins. She planned to use the funds to continue her search for her son, but Jones never paid up.
However, the police did turn finally turn up a lead on the case. They believed that Walter was one of the victims of Gordon Stewart Northcott, a murderer who was responsible for a series of abductions throughout the Los Angeles area. The police found bits of body parts and clothing that matched Walter’s inside Northcott’s chicken coop, leading them to believe he was one of Northcott’s victims. Northcott was convicted of the murder of three boys and ultimately received the death sentence.
However, he never admitted to the murder of Walter Collins, and Walter’s full body was never found. Despite the physical evidence, Collins refused to accept that Northcott had murdered her son.
Her resolve was only strengthened when one of the other boys Northcott was accused of killing turned up alive five years later, claiming to have escaped his chicken coop. Clinging onto this bit of hope, Christine Collins spent the rest of her life searching for Walter, until her death in Los Angeles at the age of 75.