Wineville Chicken Coop Murders

Wineville Chicken Coop Murders

The Wineville Chicken Coop Murders[1] – also known as the Wineville Chicken Murders[2][self-published source?] – 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.[2] The 2008 film Changeling is based in part upon events related to this case.[3]



In 1926, Saskatchewan-born ranch owner Gordon Stewart Northcott took his 13-year-old nephew, Sanford Clark (with the permission of Sanford's parents), from his home in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. Once in California, Northcott beat and sexually abused his nephew.

Sanford's sister, Jessie Clark, visited Sanford in Wineville concerned for his welfare. Once in Wineville, Sanford told her that he feared for his own life and one night while Gordon Northcott slept, Jessie learned from Sanford about the horrors and murders that had taken place at Wineville. Jessie returned to Canada in the next week or so.

Once in Canada, she informed the American Consul in Canada about the horrors in Wineville. The American consul then wrote a letter to the Los Angeles Police Department, detailing Jessie Clark's sworn complaint. As initially there was some concern over an immigration issue, the Los Angeles Police Department contacted the United States Immigration Service to determine the extent of the complaint from Jessie. On August 31st, 1928,the United States Immigration Service (inspectors; Judson F. Shaw and Inspector Scallorn) visited the Northcott Ranch in Wineville. The Immigration Service found 15-year-old Sanford Clark at the ranch and took him into custody. Gordon Northcott had fled through the fields when he saw the agents driving up the long road to his ranch. Gordon told Sanford to stall the agents, or he would shoot Sanford from the treeline with a rifle. In the 2 hours that Sanford stalled for Gordon, Gordon had kept running, and finally when Sanford felt that the agents could protect him, he told them that Gordon had fled into the trees that lined the edge of Gordon's chicken-ranch property.[4]

Sanford Clark testified at the sentencing of Sarah Louise Northcott (his grandmother) that Gordon Northcott (his uncle) had kidnapped, molested, beaten, and killed three young boys with the help of Northcott's mother, Sarah Louise Northcott, and Sanford himself. Sanford said quicklime was used to dispose of the remains, and that the bodies were buried at the Wineville ranch. Authorities found shallow graves exactly where Sanford had stated that they could be found at Wineville. Upon the discovery of the graves, it was discovered that the graves were empty of complete bodies, however, there were partial body parts that remained. During testimony from both Jessie Clark (Sanford's sister) and Sanford Clark, it was learned that the bodies had been dug up by both Gordon Northcott and his mother, Sarah Louise Northcott, on the evening of August 4th, 1928 ( a few weeks before Sanford was taken into protective custody by authorities) and that Gordon and his mother had taken the bodies out to the desert where they were most likely burned in the night.[5] The complete bodies were never recovered. There were only partial body remains of hair, blood and bones found in the graves at the Wineville burial sites. It was these partial body parts, coupled with the testimony of Sanford Clark, that allowed the State of California to obtain the death penalty against Gordon Northcott and to sentence his mother, Sarah Louise Northcott to prison for 12 years. It was also this evidence that allowed the State of California to unequivocally conclude that Walter Collins, the Winslow Brothers and the Headless Mexican had all been murdered.

In addition to the three young boys murdered, Sanford stated that Northcott had also killed a Mexican youth (never identified, but referred to in the case as the "Headless Mexican"), without the involvement of his mother or Sanford. Gordon Northcott had forced Sanford to help dispose of the "head" by burning it in a firepit and then crushing the skull into pieces with a fence post. Gordon stated that "he had left the headless body by the side of the road near Puente (La Puente, California), because he had no other place to put it."[6] The Northcotts fled to Canada and were arrested near Vernon, British Columbia.[7]


Police found no complete bodies, but they discovered personal effects of the three missing children, a blood-stained axe, and partial body parts, including bones, hair and fingers, from the three victims buried in lime near the chicken house at the Northcott ranch near Wineville – hence the name "Wineville Chicken Coop Murders".[2] Wineville changed its name to Mira Loma on November 1, 1930, due in large part to the negative publicity surrounding the murders.[8][9] Wineville Avenue, Wineville Road, Wineville Park and other geographic references provide reminders of the community's former name.[1] Sanford Clark returned to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. City of Saskatoon records indicate that Sanford Wesley Clark died on June 20, 1991[10] and was buried in the Saskatoon Woodlawn Cemetery on August 26, 1993.


Sarah Louise Northcott initially confessed to the murders,[7][11] including that of nine-year-old Walter Collins. She later retracted her statement, as did Gordon Northcott, who had confessed to killing more than five boys.[12]

Canadian police arrested Gordon Stewart Northcott and his mother on September 19, 1928.[13] Due to errors in the extradition paperwork, they were not returned to Los Angeles until November 30, 1928.[14][15] 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 the death penalty because she was a woman. Sarah Louise Northcott served her sentence at Tehachapi State Prison,[16] and was paroled after fewer than 12 years.[17][18] During her sentencing, Sarah Louise 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,[11] that she was Gordon's grandmother,[19] and that he was the result of incest between her husband, George Cyrus Northcott, and their daughter.[9] She also stated that as a child, Gordon was sexually abused by the entire family. Sarah Louise Northcott died in 1944.

Gordon Northcott was implicated and participated in the murder of Walter Collins, but because his mother had already confessed and been sentenced for the murder of Walter, the state chose not to bring any charges against Gordon in the death of Walter Collins.[20] It was speculated that Gordon may have had as many as 20 victims, but the State of California could not produce evidence to support that speculation, and ultimately only brought an indictment against Gordon in the murder of an unidentified Mexican boy[7] known as the "Headless Mexican" and brothers Lewis and Nelson Winslow (aged 12 and 10, respectively).[21] The brothers had been reported missing from Pomona on May 16, 1928.[22]

In early 1929, Gordon Northcott's trial was held before Judge George R. Freeman in Riverside County, California. The jury heard that he kidnapped, molested, tortured, and murdered the Winslow brothers and the "Headless Mexican" in 1928. On February 8, 1929, the 27-day trial ended with Gordon Northcott convicted of the murders.

On February 13, 1929, Freeman sentenced Gordon Northcott to death,[23] and he was hanged on October 2, 1930, at San Quentin State Prison.[2][24]

Involved parties

Gordon Stewart Northcott

Gordon Northcott
Background information
Birth name Gordon Stewart Northcott
Born c. 1906
Saskatchewan, Canada
Died October 2, 1930(1930-10-02)
San Quentin State Prison
Cause of death Hanging
Conviction February 8, 1929
Sentence Death
Number of victims: 4-20+
Span of killings 1928–1928
Country USA
State(s) California
Date apprehended September 19, 1928

Gordon Northcott (c. 1906 – October 2, 1930)

Gordon Stewart Northcott was born in Saskatchewan, Canada, and raised in British Columbia, Canada. He moved to Los Angeles with his parents in 1924. Northcott asked his father to purchase a plot of land in Wineville, California, where Gordon built a chicken ranch and home with the help of his father (who was in the construction business) and his nephew Sanford. It was this pretext (building a ranch at Wineville) that Northcott used to bring Sanford from Canada to Southern California. Northcott abducted an undetermined number of boys and molested them on the chicken ranch. Typically, after molesting the children, Gordon would drive his victims home and let them go.

There was a rumor that Northcott had "rented" his victims to wealthy southern Californian pedophiles, but there was no evidence to prove that speculation. Ultimately, Northcott was convicted of the murder of the Winslow boys and an unidentified Mexican teenage boy. The Mexican boy was Northcott's first victim. Gordon Northcott was also implicated in the death of Walter Collins.[25]

Northcott's second murder victim was Walter Collins.[26] A few days after abducting Walter Collins, Northcott received a phone-call from his mother, Sarah Louise Northcott, informing him that she was immediately on her way out to see him at the ranch in Wineville and was going to stay for a few days. The drive from Mrs. Northcott's home in LA to Wineville was only about an hour. By then, Northcott had already held and molested Walter at the ranch for a few days. During Sarah's visit, Walter was kept in the chicken coops.[26]

Owing to prior incidents, Sarah was well aware that her son had sexually abused boys. She became suspicious of the chicken coops and Gordon's desire to keep her away from them. At some point during her visit to the ranch, Sarah discovered Walter in the chicken coop. According to Sanford Clark's testimony, she told Gordon that Walter could identify him; Gordon had once worked at a supermarket where Walter had shopped with his own mother, Christine Collins. She asked, "how Gordon could have been so stupid as to kidnap and molest a boy who could identify Gordon?"[26]

In fact, it is believed that Northcott had targeted Walter at the supermarket, saying, "Would you like to come out to my ranch and ride the ponies?"[26]

However, since Walter could identify Northcott, Sarah told her son that Walter knew too much and needed to be silenced permanently. Sanford Clark testified that Sarah decided that all three of them should participate in the murder of Walter Collins. That way, none of them, Sanford, Gordon, or Sarah, could go to the police and implicate the two others without placing themselves at risk. Gordon Northcott suggested using a gun, but Sarah feared that the noise might alert neighbors. The blunt end of an axe was chosen as the murder weapon and was used to dispatch Walter as he lay sleeping on a cot in the chicken coop. Gordon, Mrs. Northcott and Sanford Clark (against his own will) each delivered the fatal blows to Walter. They dispatched the Winslow brothers in a similar manner.[26]

Sanford Clark

Sanford Wesley Clark (March 1, 1913 – June 20, 1991)[27]

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 in Wineville, and stayed several days. However, she became terrified of Northcott, left and returned to Canada, where she told the American Consul (in Canada) about the horror's that had taken place at Wineville.

Sanford Clark was never tried for murder, because the Assistant District Attorney, Loyal C. Kelley, believed very strongly that Sanford was innocent,[28] a victim of Gordon's death threats and sexual abuse, and that he was not a willing participant in the crimes, nor was he a criminal. Mr. Kelley told Sanford that he had "secured an entirely unique settlement to Sanford's legal situation by having Sanford signed into the nearby Whittier Boys School, where an experimental program for delinquent youths was under way. Mr. Kelley assured Sanford that Whittier Boys School was unique because of its compassionate mission of genuine rehabilitation".[29] Sanford 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, because the trustees of the Whittier School for Boys felt that "Sanford had impressed the Trustees with his temperament, job skills and his personal desire to live a productive life during his nearly two years there."[30] Upon Sanford's release from Whittier Boys School, Mr. Kelley's "punishment" of Sanford, ("that Mr. Kelley had single-handedly pushed through the Justice system for Sanford"), was now complete."[31] As Sanford boarded a ship to be deported back to his native Canada (by American authorities) he was requested by Mr. Kelley to: "Use your life to prove that rehabilitation works ... go prove that I am right about you Sanford."[31] Upon Sanford's arrival in Canada, and for the remainder of his life, Sanford kept to his heart Mr. Kelley's request. "He threw his body and soul into fulfilling Mr. Kelley's request, the only thing that he had been asked to do for the best man he had ever met, a man who believed in him. The thought of failing Mr. Kelley was intolerable. Sanford left the Whittier Boys School resolved to go after a normal life the way that a passenger who falls off a ship will swim to land."[32] Clark's son, Jerry Clark, credits Clark's wife June, his sister Jessie, associate prosecution counsel Loyal C. Kelley, and the Whittier State School for helping rehabilitate Sanford from the emotional and physical horrors of 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. Sanford Clark died in 1991 at age 78.[33] Sanford Wesley Clark was buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada in 1993.[34] Sanford's mission to honor Mr. Kelley's request had been fulfilled, with a lifetime of good deeds and acts with his fellow citizens.

Christine and Walter Collins

Walter James Collins, Sr. (February 1, 1890 – August 18, 1932)[35]
Christine Ida Dunne Collins (c. 1891 – December 8, 1964)[36][37]

Walter James Collins, Jr. (September 23, 1918 – c. 1928) presumed murdered at age nine.

Nine-year-old Walter Collins disappeared from his home in Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles on March 10, 1928.[38] Initially, Christine Collins and the police believed that enemies of Walter Collins, Sr., had abducted their son.[39] Walter Collins, Sr. was convicted of eight armed robberies and was an inmate in Folsom Prison.[40][41] The police searched a nearby lake in the hope they would find young Walter’s body.[42]

Walter Collins' disappearance received nationwide attention and the Los Angeles Police Department followed up on hundreds of leads without success.[12] The police faced negative publicity and increasing public pressure to solve the case,[43] until five months after Walter's disappearance,[12] when a boy claiming to be Walter was found in DeKalb, Illinois. Letters and photographs were exchanged before Walter's mother, Christine Collins, who worked as a telephone operator, 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 failure 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.[43]

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 inconvenient. During Collins' incarceration, Jones questioned the boy,[12] who admitted to being 12-year-old Arthur Hutchins Jr., a runaway from Illinois, but who was originally from Iowa.[44][45] A drifter at a roadside café 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.[43] Collins was released ten days after Hutchins admitted that he was not her son,[46] and filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department.[12] This aspect of the case is depicted in the 2008 film Changeling[7], although in the film Hutchins does not confess until after Mrs. Collins has been released.

On September 13, 1930 Collins won a lawsuit against Jones and was awarded $10,800 (approximately $147,000 in 2011 dollars[47]), which Jones never paid.[12] The last newspaper account of Christine Collins is from 1941, when she attempted to collect a $15,562 judgment against Captain Jones (who was then-retired) in the Superior Court.[48]

Christine Collins and hope

Christine Collins first became hopeful that her son Walter might still be alive after her first interview with Gordon Stewart Northcott (when he was extradited from Canada to the Riverside County Jail Hospital on December 7, 1928). Mrs. Collins asked Northcott if he had killed her son, and after listening to his repeated lies, confessions, and recantations, concluded that Gordon Northcott was insane. Because Northcott did not seem to know whether he had even met Walter, much less killed him, Mrs. Collins clung to the hope that her son was still alive.[49] Just a few hours prior to Gordon Northcott's execution, Mrs. Collins became the first woman in more than three decades to receive permission to visit a serial killer on the eve of his execution at San Quentin. In October 1930, Northcott sent her a telegram saying he had lied when he denied that Walter was among his victims. He promised to tell the truth, if she came in person to hear. But upon her arrival, he balked. "I don't want to see you," he said when she confronted him. "I don't know anything about it. I'm innocent." A news account said, "The distraught woman (Mrs. Collins) was outraged by Northcott's conduct – 'All he told me was another pack of lies' – but comforted by it, as well: Northcott's ambiguous replies and his seeming refusal to remember such details as Walter's clothing and the color of his eyes gave her continued hope that her son still lived."[50]

The boy who came forward and spoke of Walter's escape

There was a boy that, along with his parents, spoke to authorities five years after the execution of Gordon Northcott. Authorities initially speculated that this same boy had been a murder victim at Wineville. Rather, Gordon had taken the child to Wineville, molested him, and then returned him to Los Angeles County. This would have matched what Gordon had done with previous victims. Initial reports also speculated that Gordon Northcott might have murdered as many as 20 boys at Wineville, but this was never confirmed. Sanford Clark also never told authorities about any escape attempts from the chicken coops. The historical record and Sanford Clark's own testimony indicate that only three boys were ever held in the chicken coop, Walter Collins and the two Winslow brothers, all of whom were murdered.[26]

Partial body evidence

During the murder investigation, police searched the three graves that Sanford Clark had identified to authorities, and discovered "51 parts of human anatomy (partial-body) ... those silent bits of evidence, of human bones and blood, have spoken and corroborated the testimony of living witnesses".[51] While Walter Collins 'whole-body' had never been found, it was this 'partial-body' evidence that allowed authorities, and the State of California, to conclude that Walter Collins had been murdered (coupled with Sanford Clark's testimony at the sentencing hearing of Sarah Louise Northcott).[52] While partial-body parts had been collected at Walter's grave, they were never introduced as evidence in a trial against Gordon Northcott. Amongst the reasons to not introduce the Walter Collins partial-body evidence during the trial of Gordon Northcott, was that the State of California already had enough evidence (they believed) to convict Gordon Northcott for murder of the Headless Mexican boy and the Winslow brothers (which ultimately resulted in Gordon Northcott's conviction and execution). In addition, Gordon Northcott's mother, Sarah Louise Northcott, had already confessed and been sentenced for the murder of Walter Collins. As Walter Collins' entire body had not been found, Christine Collins still hoped that Walter had survived. She continued to search for Walter for the rest of her life.[53] Christine Collins stayed in denial over the murder of her son Walter, and chose to believe that Walter may have still been alive in spite of the fact that the State of California had absolutely no doubt that Sarah Louise Northcott, Gordon Northcott and Sanford Clark had all participated in the murders of the two Winslow Brothers and Walter Collins, and that Walter Collins was indeed dead.

Arthur J. Hutchins, Jr.

Arthur J. Hutchins, Jr (c.1916 – c.1954)

In 1933 Arthur J. Hutchins, Jr. wrote about how and why he impersonated the missing boy. Hutchins' biological mother had died when he was 9 years old, and he had been living with his stepmother, Violet Hutchins. He 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 reached adulthood, he sold concessions at carnivals. He eventually moved 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."[54]

Rev. Gustav Briegleb

Dr. Gustav A. Briegleb (September 26, 1881 – May 20, 1943)

Briegleb was a Presbyterian minister and pioneer radio evangelist. He was the pastor of St. Paul's Presbyterian Church, Jefferson Boulevard at Third Avenue, Los Angeles, California. He took up many important causes in the City of Los Angeles in the 1920s and 1930s, most notably the poor handling of the Walter Collins kidnapping case in 1928. He fought to have Christine Collins released from a mental hospital after she was committed there as retaliation for disagreeing with the LAPD's version of events.[55][56]

Lewis and Nelson Winslow

Lewis Winslow (c.1916 – 1928)
Nelson Winslow, Jr (c.1918 – 1928)

Lewis, age 12, and Nelson, age 10, were the sons of Mr. and Mrs. Nelson H. Winslow, Sr. They went missing on May 16, 1928, from Pomona, California. On May 26, 1928, H. Gordon Moore, a local Scoutmaster, reported that they ran away to Imperial, California, to pick cantaloupes, and helped with the search for the two boys.[57] Gordon Northcott was convicted of kidnapping and killing the Winslow brothers. Nelson Winslow, Sr. led a lynch mob with the intent of hanging Gordon Stewart Northcott after completion of the trial but before sentencing. The police convinced the group to disband before seeing Northcott.[58]

Popular culture

  • "The Big Imposter", an episode of the radio series Dragnet, which aired on June 7, 1951, was based on these events. When the show moved to television, the radio script was adapted into a teleplay and broadcast on December 4, 1952. The plot focuses primarily on the story of Arthur Hutchins' impersonation of Walter Collins. In this version, the parental figure who reports the disappearance of the character based on Walter Collins is a widowed grandfather, raising the child on his own after the deaths of the boy's parents, rather than a single mother.[59]
  • Changeling, a 2008 film written by J. Michael Straczynski and directed by Clint Eastwood, is also based in part on the Gordon Stewart Northcott case. The film primarily depicts the plight of Christine Collins (played by Angelina Jolie), the mother of Walter Collins, and her search for her real son. The film depicts all the major figures in the case except for Gordon Northcott's mother and accomplice, Sarah Louise Northcott, who was convicted of killing Walter. In the film, there is a reference to a boy who came forward several years later after Northcott's execution and related having escaped from the chicken coops, and suggesting that Walter Collins may have also escaped. There has never been any substantiating evidence put forward that such an escape ever occurred, or that the boy who came forward even knew of a Walter Collins, to support this notion presented in the film. Jolie was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for this film.
  • "Haunted" (Episode 93) of Criminal Minds includes a man who survived a similar event to the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders.


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  56. ^ Harnisch, Larry (2008-12-27). "Voices – Christine Collins, November 6, 1930: The Christine Collins letters". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2009-05-07.  Republished letter dated 1930-11-06 from Dr. Gustav A. Briegleb to Mr. Charles L. Neumiler, President, State Prison Board, Represa, California.
  57. ^ "Boys Trailed to Valley: Scoutmaster Reports Pomona Lads Ran Away Into Imperial to Pick Cantaloupes". Los Angeles Times. 1928-05-26. Retrieved 2009-07-13. 
  58. ^ "Northcott in Terror: Mob's Jail Visit Arouses Fear". Los Angeles Times. 1929-02-11. Retrieved 2009-07-13.  Reprinted in The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Mirror: Changeling – Part IX, 2008-11-05.
  59. ^ "Dragnet 51-06-07 ep104 Big_Imposter" (audio MP3). Old Time Radio. Internet Archive. 2001-03-10. Retrieved 2010-09-03. 

Further reading

  • Duffy, Clinton T. (1962). 88 Men and 2 Women. Doubleday. 
  • Flacco, Anthony; Jerry Clark (November 2009). The Road Out of Hell: Sanford Clark and the True Story of the Wineville Murders. Union Square Press. ISBN 978-1-4027-68699. 
  • Jenkins, Philip (2004). Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America. Yale University Press. p. 221. ISBN 0300109636. 
  • Jenkins, Philip (1994). Using Murder: The Social Construction of Serial Homicide. Aldine Transaction. p. 184. ISBN 0202305252. 
  • Leon, Chrysanthi Settlage (August 2011). Sex Fiends, Perverts, and Pedophiles: Understanding Sex Crime Policy in America. New York University Press. ISBN 978-0-8147-5326-2. 
  • Paul, James Jeffrey (September 2008). Nothing is Strange with You: The Life and Crimes of Gordon Stewart Northcott. Xlibris. ISBN 978-1-4363-6627-4. 
  • Rasmussen, Cecilia (October 1998). L. A. Unconventional: The Men & Women Who Did L. A. Their Way. Los Angeles Times. ISBN 978-1883792237. 

External links

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