I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a missing child. Perhaps even worse is spending the rest of your life not knowing the child’s fate. But that is exactly what happened to Los Angeles resident Christine Collins.
On March 10, 1928, Christine’s son, nine-year-old Walter, went to a movie in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Mount Washington. He never returned home.
Christine reported her son missing. The case received nationwide attention, and tips of apparent sightings came from as far away as San Francisco and Oakland. Police unsuccessfully searched for months.
In August of that year, state police in DeKalb, Illinois picked up a runaway boy who matched Walter’s description. The boy told authorities he was Walter Collins and gave a hazy description of his abduction. He spoke to Christine over the phone, and she paid $70.00 to have her son sent back to Los Angeles.
But upon his arrival, Collins realized the boy wasn’t Walter. Under public pressure to solve the case, Captain J. J. Jones convinced Christine to “try the boy out” by taking him home. Three weeks later, she returned to Captain Jones and emphatically denied the boy was her son.
Although she had dental records and the backing of friends, Collins said Jones accused her of being a bad mother and bringing ridicule to the police. He had Christine committed to the psychiatric ward at Los Angeles County Hospital under a “Code 12” internment. This was a code used to commit someone who was deemed difficult or an inconvenience.
Jones questioned the boy, who admitted his name was Arthur Hutchins, Jr. and had run away from his home in Iowa. He admitted to hearing about the Collins story and thought his deception would provide a way for him to meet his favorite actor, Tom Mix.
Christine Collins was released from the hospital ten days after Arthur’s confession. She filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department and was awarded a sum of $10,800, the equivalent of approximately $180,000 in 2022. Jones never paid the money.
In 1929, a man named Gordon Northcutt was found guilty of abducting, molesting, and killing young boys in the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders. Northcutt’s mother, Sarah, confessed to assisting her son in the killing of Walter. Northcutt denied the murder. Sarah Northcutt was sentenced to life in prison for her role in the crime. She later attempted to rescind her confession.
Christine Collins, who continued to believe her son was still alive, received permission to interview Gordon Northcutt, who promised to explain the true account of her son’s fate. He recanted at the last minute and professed his innocence in Walter’s disappearance.
Collins continued to search for her son until her death in 1964. She never learned his fate and his disappearance is still unsolved.
Her story is the subject of the 2008 Clint Eastwood film, Changeling starring Angelina Jolie in the role of Christine.
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