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The Last Stop

A 27-year-old Virginia missing-persons mystery is finally solved—almost—with a positive DNA match in upstate New York

by Hawes Spencer on October 24, 2013 · 7 comments

Collins in life.

“You would think that knowing your child is dead is the worst time. But it was the 101 days of not knowing that were the worst. Once you know your child is dead, you can start grieving.”

–Gil Harrington, mother of Morgan Harrington, whose body was found in January 2010, three months after disappearing from a concert

On the drainboard in the young man’s kitchen there was meat left out—as if to thaw in preparation for cooking. Across town, in his university study room, there was a pair of grapefruit his elderly landlady had given him that final Friday morning. The food would be rotting by the time his absence was discovered.

It was more than 27 years ago, but it was not until earlier this month that DNA identified a human skeleton found in upstate New York as a long-lost graduate student from the University of Virginia named Pat Collins. How his bones ended up on a rock hilltop nearly 600 miles from home is a mystery that may never get a conclusive answer.

“No parent should have to bury their child,” says senior investigator Patrick Keleher of the New York State Police. “To go for 27 years and not know, that’s got to be a whole different kind of agony.”

Keleher has notified the family that the DNA match answers the question of whose bones spent a quarter-century in the evidence locker in Ray Brook, but the match raises another question: Who killed him?

The puzzle begins on March 21, 1986, in the college city of Charlottesville, then the new home to Patrick Donald Collins. A San Jose native who had recently graduated from the University of California at Davis, Collins appeared to be a very serious 27-year-old pursuing his dream of an advanced degree in cardiac physiology.

He attended class as usual that Friday, but seemed distracted when he encountered a friend that afternoon.

“Very distracted,” says John Zysk. “I don’t even think he said hi to me when he passed me in the hall. I didn’t attach any significance to it at the time.”

By the time parents, professors, and police began asking questions in early April, two weeks had passed. His observant landlady, who lived alone above his basement apartment, had been hospitalized on Sunday, March 23, the day after Collins left his last confirmed paper trail: a $40 withdrawal from an ATM.

For decades, Collins’ family—from their northern California home and on increasingly frustrating trips to Central Virginia—asserted that the young man must have been murdered. All of his means of transportation—two bikes and a car—were found at home along with his wallet and the ATM receipt. His personal effects—including books, notes, bookbag, and even his keys and driver’s license—were two miles away at his unlocked study carrel. Collins was such a stickler for security that he’d recently taped a note on the door reminding everyone to keep the room locked. A killer, the family contended, must have returned to stage his possessions.

His stepfather, a retired San Jose police detective, would butt heads with the university police department, which seemed interested in learning if Collins had suffered any recent setbacks. He had. According to his letters, the woman he considered his first true love had dumped him the previous summer, about two weeks after his dog got hit and killed by a car. A professor noted that on an exam graded a few days before disappearing, Collins earned a C+, an uncharacteristically poor grade.

“I feel like a fern in a forest of sequoias here,” he wrote the former girlfriend on the eve of his disappearance. “These people are world authorities on their subjects.”

In life: Collins went missing over 27 years ago.

On the day before Collins had seemed so distracted to his friend, he telephoned Amtrak. Since he didn’t make a reservation, the family attached little significance to the call to the passenger railroad. Today, however, a Charlottesville woman, who gave voice to the family’s frustrations, sees an entirely new picture coming into focus—a picture that isn’t winning any acclaim with the family.

In articles for Charlottesville newsweeklies, Barbara Nordin wrote extensively about the case. A freelance editor, the now-62-year-old Nordin has penned three feature articles about Collins, one of which won first place for investigative reporting from the state press association.

 Nordin found that the University police failed to interview any of Collins’ neighbors, the upstairs landlady, and many of his colleagues at UVA. Nordin notes that the campus police department rebuffed at least seven requests the stepfather submitted under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act by relying on the exemption reserved for “criminal” investigations, even after a UVA police officer revealed at a press conference that there were things missing consistent with a walk-away. He declined to specify.

From the stepfather’s notes, Nordin learned how the March calendar sheet in Collins’ apartment had been torn away as if someone were concealing evidence. Nordin now asserts that person was Collins himself.

The rotting foods had formerly convinced Nordin that Collins had every intention of returning to study at his desk in Jordan Hall and to sleep in his apartment in the Belmont neighborhood. She explored various murder scenarios at both locations. But the location that seems to have caught everyone by surprise is a wooded and rocky hilltop four states and about 575 miles away.

 Although the remains weren’t positively identified until this month, they were found one evening back in early June 1988, by three hikers on the outskirts of a tiny upstate New York village called Port Henry.

“The man probably was a hitchhiker,” a police officer theorized in the Plattsburg Press-Republican, after the remains were found without any mention of a nearby vehicle or any local report of a missing person.

While part of the skeleton was said to be scattered by animals, the intact torso was clothed in “deteriorating winter-weight clothing” with a wristwatch nearby. “Several hypodermic needles,” the newspaper noted, “were found near the remains.”

Were it not for an all-volunteer organization called the Doe Network, the identity might have remained a mystery forever, or perhaps past the lives of Collins’ mother and stepfather, both now in their mid-80s.

Nationally, says Doe Network spokesperson J. Todd Matthews, there are about 40,000 unidentified bodies. About a quarter of them have their own page on doenetwork.org. At the same time, the organization also lists a similar number of missing persons.

“It’s like those wanted posters that you used to see,” says Matthews.

Last year, volunteer Carol A. Haber, then serving as the Doe Network’s area director for Virginia, read Nordin’s latest article about the case of the graduate student who vanished without a trace.

“It would haunt me at night,” says Haber, who lives in Green Hill, Pa. “I just figured he was probably out there—one of the thousands of unidentified bodies out there.”

Haber wanted to obtain a sample of Collins’ DNA to try to match with the unidentified bodies in NamUs, a more technical database overseen by the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. When she couldn’t get the UVA police to respond to her request, Haber says she e-mailed Nordin to see if the family would agree to give DNA samples. Earlier this year, Collins’ mother and brother, Barbara and Michael Shannon, provided swabs.

“I just knew,” says Haber, “that if Patrick was alive he would have called his mother by now.”

Even before October, when technicians reportedly found the conclusive mitochondrial DNA match between Mrs. Shannon and the bones found in New York, nuclear DNA, the so-called “familial DNA,” linked the bones to Michael Shannon (who took his stepfather’s surname after his brother disappeared).

This Port Henry train station may have been the last place that anyone saw Collins alive. Dan Hill/Wikipedia Commons.

Michael Shannon says that the New York police told him of objects found at the scene—including a reflective “space blanket,” a handmade purple “ditty” bag, and a green down jacket sewn from a kit—all of which were well-known possessions of the thrifty Eagle Scout.

While Michael Shannon maintains that his younger brother’s case should be a homicide investigation, that’s no longer how journalist Nordin sees it.

Now, looking back at her own research—which includes a trove of correspondence between Collins and the woman who rebuffed him—combined with what was found on the ground in New York, Nordin reaches a very different conclusion. Spring break had already occurred, so there was no way to make a round-trip camping trip to New York without missing classes, Nordin notes ominously.

After years of pursuing an explanation for Collins’s disappearance that involved homicide, “It was hard for me to accept,” Nordin admits. “But suicide is the only scenario that fits what we know now.”

A train could explain why Collins’ car and two bicycles were found at home, as the Charlottesville Amtrak station was just 1.3 miles from his apartment, just 10 blocks from his academic building. He could have taken a train directly to New York City from Charlottesville, then boarded the Adirondack, which passes through Albany on its way to Montreal. The body was found on a hilltop with a panoramic view of Lake Champlain, less than two miles from Port Henry’s little lakefront Amtrak station.

Taking Amtrak could also explain a travel plan executed without a wallet. In 1986, as long as a train wasn’t sold out, a person didn’t need a reservation, identification, or even a ticket to board, according to Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari. One could buy an Amtrak ticket at a counter or onboard from a conductor; the one-way fare from Charlottesville to Port Henry, says Magliari, would have been about $120.

But what is it about Port Henry that attracted this reclusive East Coast newcomer? Collins had no obvious connection to the idyllic waterfront village, and his only known excursion since moving East was a weekend visit with three fellow graduate students to the Poconos.

One clue might lie in his brokenhearted correspondence with the woman he considered his soulmate, including a poem he wrote upon receiving her Dear John letter. Titled “The Flight of the Snow Geese,” it’s eight stanzas about a duo of paired-for-life North American birds migrating to cooler climes with one falling to a hunter’s bow. The last six lines:

[begin quote style]

Northward they fly at winter’s end,

Pleading and crying to find their friend.

I need not look when I hear their cry,

For I know what is in their hearts, and I sigh.

The flight of the snow geese can be like dreams in vain,

Hoping to see that face when spring comes again.

[end quote style]


Collins wrote this poem, which may have held clues to his death.

Collins sent his erstwhile girlfriend at least two copies of the poem and told her he cried while writing it. He placed his phone call to Amtrak on the spring equinox. 

Ross Saxton, the conservation and education director of the nonprofit Lake Champlain International, says that the massive water body that provides a lengthy border between Vermont and upstate New York has long attracted snow geese from the overhead migratory flyway.

“They like water for safety, and it’s kind of a nice guide for them,” says Saxton. “And because there are so many farms and wetlands and the lake itself, there’s plenty of food and shelter.”

“There’s a whole culture behind watching these birds,” continues Saxton. “If you were to be standing over there in Port Henry, you would see some pretty big flocks.”

In one of the poignant passages Nordin found in Collins’ correspondence, he admits he got stumped when the GRE asked for his home address.

“I don’t have one!” he tells the ex-girlfriend. “I was born and raised in California, but I don’t consider it home. In fact, I never had a house that I considered home. It was just a place I lived in for a moment.”

Nordin learned that Collins had been beaten by his biological father, who was found murdered in the late 1970s at a scenic overlook on the Pacific Coast Highway.

“Home is a special place that brings back good memories, and a feeling of security,” Collins wrote. “The places I’ve lived at were more like sharing a foxhole at the front. It was a place to stop, but it was never secure and had few good memories. I really long for a home. It must be a nice thing.”

Collins’ best friend and most ardent hiking partner from their college years in California, Rick Covin, initially had been one of the people who insisted that Collins must have been murdered.

“I know Pat well enough to be sure that he would never—under any circumstances—leave his studies and sever all communications with his family and friends,” Covin wrote to the UVA police chief in 1986. “I can not imagine anything that would tear Pat away from his studies for a day—let alone a month!”

Told of the poem, the pleading letters, and the circumstances of his friend’s penultimate resting place, Covin reconsiders.

“It sounds like he went up there and killed himself,” says Covin. “Pat was never a gun type of guy; I can see him researching drugs like tranquilizers and doing it that way.”

“He was very smart,” adds Covin. “Now you can Google it, but it wasn’t as easy to find information back then.”

J. Anderson Thomson, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia, says that it’s a common misconception that people who kill themselves leave a note. One recent Canadian study found that about four out of five don’t leave a note.

“Usually, when people commit suicide they’re in a fair degree of pain, so not leaving a note doesn’t surprise me,” says Thomson.

“Sometimes, people leave notes, and they’re not discovered,” says Thomson. With Collins, “He could have left a note on his body, and it decomposed.”

Thomson says that the Lake Champlain location could have had its own meaning: “That may have been his coded suicide note.”

The New York State Police, which entered the DNA of the bones into the NamUs database in 2007, will close the case as an “undetermined death,” says Investigator Keleher, noting that the bones found at the scenic rock outcropping near Port Henry’s Potter Lane showed no obvious signs of trauma, and forensic tests on the syringes were inconclusive.

 If Collins did take his own life, some might say the news validates the work by the UVA Police Department. Not Liz Seccuro.

 “I don’t think this is cause for vindication,” says Seccuro, whose 2011 book Crash Into Me told of the alleged noninvestigation after she was allegedly raped in a UVA fraternity three semesters before Collins disappeared.

“What matters is that they didn’t investigate the circumstances of his disappearance when it was timely,” says Seccuro, who now lives in Greenwich, Conn. “And then they didn’t enter his DNA into the database. When I hear that UVAPD failed a family again, it makes me sad.”

Gil Harrington, whose daughter Morgan was killed after leaving a Metallica concert at UVA’s John Paul Jones Arena in 2009, contends that there’s an inherent conflict of interest in letting any university handle big crimes.

“It’s like regulating yourself,” says Harrington, who quickly got UVA to cede control of her daughter’s case to the Virginia State Police. “I’m a nurse,” says Harrington. “You always need some outside person to verify.”

One thing Harrington learned the hard way was the primal human need to escape the uncertainty about a missing loved one.

“The return of Morgan was not a pretty thing: a box of bones and a skull with teeth falling out of it,” says Harrington. “But it was something. It’s a relief to have an answer.”

“What you’re hoping and praying is that someone you love is being held against her will,” continues Harrington. “That’s an ugly best-case scenario. Once you know your child is dead, you can start grieving.”

For the Shannons, 27 years of agony have taken a toll. 

Like his wife, stepfather Clarence Shannon is now 85 years old. And the man whose investigative notes filled six large ringed binders now suffers from the after-effects of multiple heart attacks and long-term diabetes, says his wife. Neither of them, she says, feels capable of traveling to New York.

“It’s very difficult emotionally,” says Barbara Shannon. “When you lose a child, you review every minute from the day he was born.”

A year after Collins disappeared, the UVA police drew the wrath of the local daily newspaper’s editorial page for refusing say why they contended he was the agent of his own departure. Barbara Shannon still yearns for that information.

“The university police are nothing but door-shakers,” she says.

 Retired Chief Michael Sheffield, who presided over the first 14 years of the Collins case, declines comment. Current Chief Michael A. Gibson refers questions to UVA Police spokesperson Melissa A. Fielding, who declines to take questions but does, via e-mail, express gratitude “for a degree of closure.”

The family may be stepping away from its 27-year agony.

“We’re going to quit theorizing and go back to healing again,” says brother Michael Shannon. “We’re going to get Pat’s remains back. We feel like we’ve won the lottery.”

Hawes Spencer is an award-winning journalist living in Charlottesville, Va. In his spare time he raises three kids and three chickens, as well as untold glasses of beer.