Today I’m sharing the second part of my series of Forgotten Crimes of the Century! You can read the first one about the Murder at Madison Square Garden at this link. This case I’m covering today is as creepy and sensational, if not more so than part I!
The Wineville Chicken Coop Murders
You may or may not be familiar, but this story was the subject of Clint Eastwood’s 2008 film, Changeling, starring Angelina Jolie. Jolie plays the real life Christine Collins, albeit more glamorously, whose son Walter disappeared from their home on March 10, 1928. Strangely, a runaway boy from Illinois claimed to be the missing Walter and the Los Angeles Police Department organized a reunion due to mounting pressure to solve the case and diminish negative publicity surrounding police corruption at the time. Christine was then committed by Captain J.J. Jones to a hospital psych ward for refusing to accept this stranger as her son, but was released days later when the runaway, Arthur Hutchins Jr., finally admitted he wasn’t Walter; in fact, he was just on an adventure and looking to get far away from his stepmother back in the midwest.
As interesting as that part of this bizarre story is, I want to focus on the main perpetrator, Gordon Stewart Northcott, a native from Saskatchewan, Canada and undoubtedly one of the many troubled, mentally ill, and criminal members of his dysfunctional family. In 1924, he moved to Los Angeles with his parents and lived at a chicken ranch in Wineville that his father purchased for him. The story unraveled when Northcott’s nephew, Sanford Clark, confessed to being an unwilling accomplice in the atrocities occurring there between the years 1926 and 1928. Originally, Sanford was there to tend to the chickens, but quickly found that he was in danger. His uncle repeatedly raped, beat, and threatened him. Sanford claimed that Gordon was responsible for the abduction, rape, assault, and murder of Walter Collins (aged 10), two brothers, Lewis and Nelson Winslow (ages 10 and 12). Police would find blood and scattered human bones buried shallowly around the property or in a fire pit.
Sanford’s sister Jessie had become concerned about her younger brother Sanford when he had been sending her strange letters, so when she came down from Canada to check on him, she only stayed briefly as she was afraid of Gordon. During her visit, Sanford told her about the crimes and his own abuse from their uncle. When Jessie returned to Canada, she wrote to the American consul who then informed Los Angeles police. Police came to the ranch, took Sanford into custody while Gordon fled. Sanford’s confession was corroborated by the evidence around the ranch. He also told of how Gordon’s mother, Sarah Louise, was also involved. She and Gordon were eventually apprehended in Canada, but were extradited to Los Angeles where he was given a death sentence and she a life sentence.
In her confessions, Sarah Louise claimed that Gordon was the result of an incestuous relationship with her husband and daughter and that she was actually his grandmother. She also said that Gordon was sexually abused by the entire family, which Gordon has also claimed. Sanford stated that when Sarah Louise came to the ranch, she had seen Walter Collins imprisoned in the chicken coop and that it was her decision that they all needed to participate in murdering him to prevent him being a future witness.
Another strange part of this story is that Christine Collins took to visiting Gordon while he was incarcerated to find out the truth about her son, as she was not convinced he was dead. He would go back and forth with confessions and recantation. Ultimately, this became too much for her and she decided he was truly insane. It is suspected that Northcott may have had up to 20 victims total, based on the amount of human remains found on his ranch. On October 2 (my birthday, ick), 1930, Gordon was hanged to death at the age of 23 at San Quentin State Prison. This scene in the movie is bone chilling. The actor that played him, Jason Butler Harner, is exceptionally nuts!
This story is incredible fodder for a movie, and I really did enjoy Changeling. I just can’t think of a more twisted, creepy plot and it’s hard to believe it was based on a real story. From Gordon’s perversions and sickening smirk, to the LA police committing an innocent woman to an asylum simply because she rejected a random stranger as her son, to Sarah Louise’s involvement and claims, to a random 12-year-old boy having the gumption to travel across the country to get away from his stepmother, to Christine Collins placating to her son’s murderer; it’s beyond strange and macabre. It will continue to fascinate me as one of the forgotten crimes of the century!
Blanco, J. I. (n.d.). Gordon Northcott | Murderpedia, the encyclopedia of murderers. Retrieved from http://murderpedia.org/male.N/n/northcott-gordon.htm
Bovsun, M. (2012, December 29). As many as 20 boys in Wineville, Calif., die at the hands of sadistic sex maniac Gordon Stewart Northcott in the late 1920s – NY Daily News. Retrieved from http://www.nydailynews.com/news/justice-story/california-crop-horror-1920s-article-1.1229595
Eastwood, C. (Director), Eastwood, C. (Producer), & Eastwood, C. (Writer). (n.d.). Changeling [Video file].
Wineville Chicken Coop Murders. (2018, June 09). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wineville_Chicken_Coop_Murders#Walter_Collins_(September_23,_1918_–_March_15,_1928)
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