Colusa Herald, Volume 45, Number 145, 26 June 1930Booking Photograph, 1930, Royal Canadian Mounted Police by Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
In the late 1920s, quaint agricultural communities peppered the landscape of Southern California, not far from the thriving metropolis of Los Angeles. One of these was the sleepy community of Wineville. In 1924, Canadian Gordon Northcott chose to carve out a life as a chicken rancher in the little town after garnering suspicion of sexual misconduct in Canada. Gordon built a home with the help of his father Cyrus Gordon, who was a contractor.
Gordon had a rough start attempting to turn the shrubbery laden land into a proper ranch. In 1926, Gordon procured help from his 13-year-old nephew, Sanford Clark, from his home in Saskatchewan. Little did the family back in Canada know, Sanford would fall prey to his pedophile uncle and become both witness and unwitting accomplice in one of the most horrific strings of child murder seen before or since.
The Disappearance of Walter Collins
On March 10, 1928, Christine Collins came home to an empty house in the Lincoln Heights area of Los Angeles. Her son, Walter, went to see a movie hours prior, but never returned. His father, Walter Sr., was an eight-time convict with many enemies in the area. Police speculated that an enemy of his father abducted the boy, or that he might have run away. The truth was much more sinister.
Walter Collins, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain Photograph
Christine worked diligently with law enforcement to make sure they left no stone unturned in the search for Walter. Plenty of people reported seeing the child in various places. One neighbor saw him on the corner of Pasadena and North Avenue that evening. A gas station attendant in the nearby city of Glendale reported seeing Walter?s dead body wrapped in newspaper with only his head visible in the back of a car. None of these sightings panned out, and Walter remained missing.
Christine Collins, ca 1928, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain Photograph
Five months after Walter?s disappearance, Christine was relieved to get the phone call that her child was found alive and well in DeKalb, Illinois. The police were relieved too since they were the subject of much criticism when they were unable to find Walter. Christine paid for her child?s return to Los Angeles.
Christine rushed to the train station to meet her son. Only, the child that stepped onto the platform and called her ?Ma? was not Walter. She told LAPD Captain J.J. Jones that this was not her son. He recommended that she bring him home anyway and try him out. They dismissed Christine as hysterical, not thinking clearly after her significant trauma. So Christine took him home.
Christine tried to settle in with the boy. He regularly called her ?Ma,? whereas Walter called her ?Mother.? At school, Walter?s teacher agreed that it was not him. The Dentist compared the child?s teeth to Walter?s records and insisted there was no possibility that this new boy and Walter were the same person. When Christine bathed the boy and noticed he wasn?t circumcised, she knew she needed to return him so they could continue the search for the real Walter.
Three weeks later, Christine returned to the police station with the mystery boy and all the evidence needed to prove the child was an imposter. Captain Jones accused her of being a dead beat intent on shirking her parental responsibilities. He remanded her to L.A. General Hospital?s psychiatric unit citing a Code Twelve. At the time, this ordinance allowed police to place a person, mostly women, into a mental hospital without due process for being annoying.
While Christine was incarcerated, the boy admitted to police that he wasn?t Walter Collins. His name was Arthur J. Hutchins Jr. He lied because he wanted to go to California to meet his favorite movie star, Tom Mix.
The Winslow BrothersUnfortunately, Walter was not the only boy to vanish during this time. On May 10, 1928, brothers Nelson aged ten, and Lewis Winslow, aged 12, disappeared after visiting the Pomona Valley Model Airplane and Yacht Club.
Lewis and Nelson Winslow, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain Photograph
Shortly after their disappearance, their parents received troubling letters that appeared to be from their sons. In the letters, Lewis and Nelson say that they?re on their way to Mexico. Their Boy Scout Den Mother told police that the pair had planned on running away to farm cantaloupe. The boys never came home.
Sanford Clark, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
In summer, 1928, Jessie Clark, who was Sanford?s sister and Gordon?s niece, became suspicious that the child didn?t attend school. She paid an unexpected visit to the Northcott Ranch. Sanford told his sister something chilling; Uncle Gordon habitually raped him. Armed with this information, Jessie went back to Canada and told her mother, Winifred Clark, who contacted American Consul, who informed LAPD.
Northcott Ranch House, ca 1928, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
On August 31, 1928, The police in Los Angeles sent immigration officers Judson F. Shaw and George W. Scallorn to Wineville to check on Sanford. Gordon was driving down the road with his mother Sarah Louise Gordon. They saw the officers approaching and hid out until they could hot-tail it to Canada. The officers found Sanford at the ranch with Gordon?s father, Cyrus, and took them both into custody.
San Pedro News Pilot, Volume 15, Number 106, 2 February 1928
Investigation and Trial
Gordon and his mother were arrested September 20, 1928, and extradited to Riverside County, California three weeks later. Gordon initially admitted to killing nine boys. In a later handwritten confession, he only copped to the murder of ?The Mexican,? who he sometimes referred to as Alvin Golthea or Juan Hernandez.
In one breath, Gordon blamed all of the killings on his father. In the next, he claimed to know nothing of the boys at all.Gordon also claimed that he had an incestuous relationship with his mother and that his father sodomized him in his youth. Historically, sexual perpetrators tend to start as untreated sexual abuse victims. But Gordon was a pathological liar, and no conclusion could be drawn here. Gordon?s father begged the court for leniency, stating that his son was insane.
During the trial, he played similar cat and mouse games with the victim?s parents. He would admit to killing Walter and take it back. He confessed to murdering the Winslow boys, and then claim he never saw them. Sanford, on the other hand, took full accountability and his story never wavered. Sanford led investigators to burial sites on the Northcott property. Contrastly, Gordon took them on wild goose chases. February 13, 1929, Gordon was sentenced to the gallows at San Quentin.
Sarah Louise Northcott, Wikimedia, Public Domain Image
Sarah wasn?t about to let her son go down alone. She claimed that one day, she was visiting the ranch from Los Angeles. Gordon refused to allow her near the chicken coop, which roused her suspicion. When she finally found her way inside the coop, she discovered Walter Collins sleeping on a cot. Gordon told her how he abused the boy, and Sarah decided they couldn?t allow him to live and go to the police.
Sarah devised a plan where Gordon, Sanford, and herself would take turns beating Walter with the blunt end of an ax until he was dead. Hers was the final blow that ended the child?s life. Sarah Louise Gordon received a life sentence for her confession.
Christine Collins was released from the mental hospital ten days after Arthur admitted he was not her missing child. She sued LAPD and won $10,000. LAPD never paid. Police Chief James Davis and Captain J.J. Jones were relieved of their duties because of their gross mishandling of the Walter Collins case, and persecution of Christine. She never gave up hope that Walter was alive and continued to search for him until her death in 1964. As a result of her efforts, Code Twelve no longer exists.
Sarah Louise Northcott served 12 years of her sentence and paroled in 1940. She died in 1944.
On October 1, 1930, Gordon Stewart Northcott agreed to meet with Christine Collins to finally tell her everything he could about her son?s disappearance. Only, when she got there, he insisted he never met the boy. The next day, he stumbled up 13 gallows steps, crying and pleading for his life. His final words were ?Pray for me,? before his execution was carried out. He was 23 years old.
Sanford Wesley Northcott served 23 months at Whittier State School. He made his way back to Canada and tried to forget the terrible events on his uncle?s chicken ranch. He worked hard and became an upstanding citizen who adopted two sons and refused to be defined as a criminal. If any good came from these crimes, it surely is that Sanford, a victim as much as the children who died, triumphed over evil. Sanford passed away in 1991 after 55 years of marriage at the age of 78.
The town of Winevill wished to distance itself from the sensational crimes. In 1930, Wineville became what is now Mira Loma, California.
Nothing is Strange With You: The Life and Crimes of Gordon Stewart Northcott, by James Jeffrey Paul
The Road Out of Hell: Sanford Clark and the True Story of the Winevill Murders, by Jerry Clark