Long gone: How UVA lost Pat Collins

 Barbara Shannon was so nervous about flying overseas that she called her son in Charlottesville, where the 27-year-old had recently moved from California.

"Pat's last words to me were, ‘Don't worry, Mom, everything's going to be all right. Nothing's going to happen to you.’”

And indeed, 25 years later, his mother is still alive— but the same probably can’t be said for Patrick Collins.

After he vanished in 1986, the University of Virginia graduate student was branded a walk-away by the UVA Police Department. Instead of conducting a thorough investigation— especially in light of evidence suggesting foul play— the campus police dismissed any possibility of a crime and resolutely maintained that he must have schemed to abandon his life.

The harder the grieving family pushed for an investigation, the harder the university pushed back, finally asking an FBI agent— who had had only superficial contact with the case— for his assessment. He was happy to comply, and endorsed, on FBI letterhead, the department’s “professionalism” and “quality police work.”

Now, 25 years later, the FBI agent acknowledges that he wrote the letter without realizing that the investigation had failed to meet even minimal standards— and he did it because the university police asked him “to try to get some of the heat off them.” Now, he says, he’s sorry.

But it’s too late. The FBI letter effectively blocked every attempt the Shannons made to find their son— or, more likely, his remains.

If the question of how well the UVA Police Department handled a student’s disappearance seems settled, only one issue remains for the long-grieving family: What happened to Pat Collins?

 

A walk-away?

For a man accused of planning to walk away from his life, the final days of Pat Collins contained little evidence of that. He bought a seven-volume series of physiology texts. He studied notes from his Cell Physiology class. He took meat out of his freezer to thaw. He left behind his keys, driver’s license, credit card, wallets, bicycles, and car.

By the time professors and fellow graduate students began searching for him, two weeks had passed— enough time to flummox even seasoned homicide investigators. The UVA Police Department (UVAPD) had never before handled a possible murder, however, and seriously compromised the case by tainting potential evidence, neglecting to interview neighbors or more than a few of Pat’s fellow students, and failing to perform key forensic work.

And when the family protested, things only got worse.

 

A new beginning

Patrick Donald Collins moved to Charlottesville in December 1985 to begin a doctoral program at UVA in January. At 27, he was older than most incoming graduate students, but he was so focused on his goal of becoming a cardiovascular physiologist that he made a lasting impression.

"When he came to interview, this was a guy who was just bubbling with excitement," recalls Gary Owens, Pat's faculty advisor. "If there's any merit to him running off, he would have to be the world's best actor— and he started six months before he got here."

Pat had succeeded in such things as becoming an Eagle Scout, becoming a black belt in judo, and working his way through college against stiff odds. His mother describes Pat’s late father, Billy Collins, as a violent alcoholic who raped her 13-year-old daughter from her first marriage— and, on one occasion, choked Pat. She says Pat survived the chaos by retreating to his room and his studies.

In 1979, when Pat was 21, Billy Collins was found shot to death in his RV on a Pacific Coast Highway overlook. His murder was never solved.

 

But in January 1986, Pat was on the other side of the country, settled into a basement apartment on Montrose Avenue in the Belmont neighborhood, and enrolled in classes with professors who, he wrote appreciatively, are “world authorities on their subjects.” Along with several other grad students, he was assigned a desk in a fourth-floor room in Jordan Hall, a large building full of classrooms and laboratories on Jefferson Park Avenue that was a two-mile commute from his apartment.

It was on that room, Jordan 4-86, that attention was initially focused. Or unfocused.

 

A delayed alarm

On Friday, April 4, a fellow student realized that he hadn't seen Pat for a while. After quizzing other students, he pinpointed the afternoon of Friday, March 21— two weeks earlier— as the last time anyone had seen Pat.

A series of coincidences combined to delay the discovery. Chief among them was that his elderly landlady, Lucille Londeree, had been taken to the hospital on Sunday, March 23, and would remain there for six weeks. According to her sister, Londeree was something of a “mother hen,” who would undoubtedly have quickly raised an alarm if she’d been home.

Meanwhile, Pat's parents had traveled to South Korea as guests of that nation’s “revisit” program, which honors Korean War veterans and their families.

As for the delayed reaction in the physiology department, one of Pat's classes was a large lecture and the other two were taught by a series of faculty members. It was a schedule that meant no single professor would see him week in and week out. And having joined the department just 10 weeks earlier, he had had little time in Charlottesville to form close ties— or, at least, any that would immediately come to light.

After going to Pat's apartment with a faculty member and getting no response, the student who had first noted his absence returned to Jordan Hall and told Owens, Pat's advisor, who telephoned the family in California. Older brother Michael took the call.

“I knew,” Michael would later say, "I just absolutely knew, that something horrendous had happened for Pat to be missing.”

 

'This is a missing person'

Within minutes, Pat's parents had called Owens to share their conviction that something dire must have happened. A UVAPD officer was dispatched to Jordan Hall, and Owens says that the officer immediately began talking about how students were known for going away temporarily after, say, a breakup or flunked test. Neither applied to Pat.

"I said, 'I don't think so," Owens would later recall. "[Pat] was very mature; from every indication, he was highly motivated."

Then, as Owens and a graduate student watched, the officer began rifling through Pat's backpack. Owens, who had taken pains to avoid touching Pat's belongings— for fear of contaminating possible evidence— said, "Whoa, shouldn't you be a little more careful about how you're handling this? This is a missing person."

The officer, Tracie Craner (who has repeatedly declined requests for interviews), reportedly replied, "Oh, he's going to show up; maybe we'll find something in here that'll help us find him."

The scene in Room 4-86 was indeed puzzling. Pat's backpack was on his desk, and an overhead compartment had been unlocked and opened. A black wallet with no cash was in the backpack, along with his driver’s license and student ID, which were loose and mixed in with some papers. His keys, glasses, and a notebook were also on the desk, and a pair of running shorts and sandals were on a small shelf.

Owens recalls that the student with him remarked that it was particularly odd to see Pat’s keys there. Perhaps in response to a rash of thefts throughout the medical center following crack cocaine’s arrival in Charlottesville the year before, Pat had put a sign on the door, asking others to lock up when leaving.

Meanwhile, in California, Pat’s parents were scrambling for information. His stepfather, Clarence Shannon— a retired San Jose police detective with a background in homicide and missing-persons cases— began making notes during phone calls to and from Charlottesville.

Craner went to Pat's apartment later that evening, and another officer returned on Saturday. They found his aging red Plymouth parked on the street and his two bicycles inside. If Pat’s keys and vital personal effects were at Jordan Hall— but his three forms of transportation were at Montrose Avenue— how had he gotten to Jordan Hall?

 

Taking it to the press

Inside the apartment, the officers found his Visa card and checkbook on the desk, as well as a nylon wallet in a drawer (Pat’s mother, Barbara, would later explain that Pat used that wallet— which was empty except for an ATM receipt— for cash).

The March 16 edition of the Cavalier Daily was in the trash, and the bedroom light had been left on. A City police officer present for one of the visits would later reveal the detail about the long-thawed meat.

The Shannons urged the UVAPD to alert the public to Pat’s disappearance, but Craner allegedly resisted— because, Clarence claimed, she worried that if Pat returned, the attention might embarrass him.

Believing that the attention might also produce clues, the Shannons contacted the media directly. By the time a story appeared in the Daily Progress on April 9, Pat had been gone for 18 days.

The article stated that, according to the UVAPD, Pat had withdrawn $200 on March 20, which “left [his] checking account with a zero balance.” This was not true: The transaction had been an advance on his credit card— not a withdrawal from checking account, which still had a healthy balance.

 

The Shannons later learned that Pat had used the $200— a transaction that occurred on the 19th, not the 20th— to pay for seven physiology texts he had ordered from a Corner bookstore; the books were later found in Room 4-86.

The UVAPD retracted their claim the next day and also revealed, correctly, that on the afternoon of Saturday, March 22, Pat had withdrawn $40 from the Central Fidelity ATM at the Citzens Commonwealth Center on Preston Avenue.

Next, the UVAPD reported that on April 17, two people— one of whom knew Pat slightly— claimed they had seen a man “resembling” Pat on 11th Street, which borders the medical center. Even though false sightings are common in missing-persons cases, on May 10 an officer told the Progress that the UVAPD was “convinced” the man in question had been Pat.

“We do know he was alive at that time [April 17],” the officer declared. When the Shannons later showed the witnesses more pictures of Pat, however, both retracted their claims.

From California, the Shannons spoke frequently with members of the UVAPD, but finally concluded that the campus police were unable or unwilling to investigate the case as a crime. On May 8, Barbara and Clarence arrived in Charlottesville and launched an investigation of their own.

 

A clash of wills

During their month-long stay in Charlottesville, Clarence kept careful notes, which would eventually fill six large binders. He and Barbara met with UVA and City police, went from floor to floor in Jordan Hall, took photographs of Room 4-86 and the nearby construction site for the new hospital, talked with students, faculty, and staff in the physiology department, and interviewed Pat’s neighbors and landlady. They also searched his apartment and car.

Two things in the apartment disturbed them. First, the calendar page for March had been removed, even though Pat had disappeared ten days before the beginning of April. Spotting some impressions on the underlying sheet and thinking that Pat might have written an incriminating name or phone number on the missing page, Barbara and Clarence delivered the calendar to the UVAPD and were told that it would be sent to Richmond for analysis of any pen or pencil impressions.

When they later asked about the calendar, however, they were told nothing useful had been found.

Second, there was a Kool cigarette butt in the trash. Pat was a nonsmoker, but a guest might have stepped outside to smoke and then disposed of the butt inside. Since neighbors later told the Shannons they had never seen any visitors, however, this was an intriguing detail.

On May 16, the Progress reported that a Richmond FBI agent would advise local police, but would not “formally enter the case.” Later, Special Agent Edward Sulzbach told the Progress that “the only conclusion you can come up with logically is foul play.” In the same article, however, UVAPD Sgt. Charles Tyler asserted that “the elements are just not there to indicate a crime has occurred.”

The Shannons, in contrast, not only believed that Pat had been murdered; they also believed they knew where, when, and by whom.

In April, fellow grad student Brad Cobb— who had a desk in Room 4-86— had discovered, while going through his bank statement, that three blank checks had been stolen, forged, and— between March 24 and 27— cashed. Because Room 4-86 was the only place he ever left his backpack unattended, Cobb wondered whether there could be a connection to what had happened to Pat.

According to Cobb, however, the UVAPD mainly seemed interested in getting him to say that the checks could have been stolen somewhere else, even though neither his car nor apartment had shown signs of forced entry.

Indeed, the forged checks were quickly traced to a former Jordan Hall asbestos-removal worker, Michael Gilbert, who was later convicted of stealing a credit card from a fourth-floor employee’s purse. Gilbert was known to run with two cohorts, and the Shannons concluded that Pat must have interrupted a burglary in Room 4-86 and been killed by the trio.

His body, they believed, could have been disposed of in one of the pits that dotted the hospital construction site next door.

On June 7, grieving and exhausted, the Shannons left Charlottesville. From San Jose they continued to implore the university to mount an aggressive investigation, but with no results. President Robert O’Neil, for instance, waited almost 10 weeks after Pat’s disappearance had been discovered to contact the Shannons, and then only in a brief letter.

In response to the family’s complaints, Raymond Haas— who, as Vice President for Administration, oversaw the UVAPD— wrote FBI agent Sulzbach on September 10 and asked for his “independent assessment.”

Sulzbach responded warmly, saying that he was not “aware of anything that could have been done by the University Police regarding the disappearance of Patrick Collins that has not been done.”

After discussing obstacles such as the two weeks that had elapsed before Pat’s disappearance was discovered, Sulzbach closed with, “You can be proud of the professionalism of your Police Department. From Chief Sheffield to the investigators assigned this matter, quality police work is the norm.”

For years, Sulzbach’s letter was used as proof that the FBI had officially endorsed the investigation. In 1987, a special grand jury turned down an effort to review UVA's handling; in 1988, in a six-page report, Virginia Attorney General Mary Sue Terry followed suit.

In a recent interview, however, Sulzbach— now retired and living in the Lynchburg area— admitted he had not known, when he wrote the letter, that the UVAPD had failed to conduct a forensic examination of Room 4-86, of Pat’s apartment, or of his car; had declined to interview more than a few faculty members or students; and had even neglected to question Pat’s landlady or neighbors.

“The [police] department was catching hell from various sources,” Sulzbach says today. “As I recall, they asked me to try to get some of the heat off them so they could continue their investigation.” He says he’s “sorry about that.”

And adds: “Not to pursue an investigation where a young fellow is MIA is beyond my understanding. That’s craziness.”

As for the UVAPD’s insistence that Pat walked away from his life, Sulzbach is emphatic: “That, to me, was not even a consideration.”

 

The press conference

On the eve of the first anniversary of Pat's disappearance, Jordan Hall was back in the headlines. Around 10:30pm on March 5, 1987, a third-floor graduate student, Moira Erickson, was attacked and her throat slashed. Students in a nearby lab heard her scream and chased the attacker— a construction worker from the new-hospital site— to the first floor, where he was arrested. Erickson survived.

Two weeks after the assault, the UVAPD held a press conference to announce new security measures for Jordan Hall. For the first time, doors would be locked after hours. When a reporter in attendance asked whether the recent attack could have any connection to the disappearance of Pat Collins, Sgt. William Morris of the UVAPD answered emphatically.

“There is no evidence of any foul play concerned with his disappearance,” Morris replied. “There are items missing which would be consistent with a person who decided to walk away.”

According to the next day’s Progress, when a reporter asked what was missing, Morris “refused to discuss the nature of the items.”

Barbara would never forget that day, because a radio reporter telephoned her after the press conference.

“Within five minutes, the reporter called us and said, ‘Did you know Pat is alive?’ You can imagine the elevators of hope, and all kinds of emotion— and then when he continued to tell me the rest of the story, the letdown. And I realized what a horrible crime they were committing against us, to say this untruth that dishonored my son’s memory— that he would leave. They compounded our grief, our suffering, our loss.”

 

Official denial

One reason UVA may have been eager to downplay the possibility of foul play is that colleges and universities have a long history of avoiding bad publicity. Coincidentally, their ability to downplay or hide crimes on campus began changing the day after Pat’s disappearance was discovered.

On April 5, 1986, in her Lehigh University dormitory room, a student named Jeanne Clery was raped, tortured, and strangled to death. After learning that the university had been aware of security lapses, her parents sued Lehigh for $25 million and settled for an undisclosed amount. They used the money to establish a nonprofit organization, Security on Campus, to press for new legislation.

Their triumph was the Clery Act. Enacted in 1990, the federal law forced colleges and universities to warn students when there is any reason to suspect they may be in danger and to publish and distribute crime statistics annually.

Even so, the lengths to which a university will go to avoid bad publicity was recently illustrated by the Laura Dickinson case. A student at Eastern Michigan University, the 22-year-old Dickenson was raped and murdered in her dormitory room in December 2006. Although court documents showed that Eastern Michigan police had “reason to suspect from the beginning that she was a victim of a violent crime,” according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the university “announced they did not suspect foul play,” and students were told “there was no reason to worry.” Her killer was later arrested.

Was UVA worried that if Erickson could connect her attack to previous violence in Jordan Hall, she might sue? In an interview, Erickson revealed that the UVAPD investigator assigned to her case had claimed not only that Pat’s disappearance had not involved foul play, but also that investigators “really felt it could have been a very well-thought-through, premeditated disappearance.”

 

Shielded information

On March 20, 1991, Clarence Shannon sent a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to then-UVA Police Chief Michael Sheffield, asking for the original case dossier. Sheffield replied on March 28 to deny the request, claiming the file was excluded from release because it concerned “an investigation that remains active.”

Sheffield, who has since retired, cited the relevant section from the Virginia Code, which specifies exclusion of materials “related to a criminal investigation”— even though the UVAPD had stated, on the record, that there was no evidence of foul play.

Since then, Sheffield and his successors, Paul Norris and Michael Gibson, have refused six FOIA requests by consistently describing Pat’s case as “ongoing” or “active.”

To date, there has been no mechanism for challenging such claims. That may change soon, however, due to a bill (SB1467) in the General Assembly that would specify that excluded items must be “related to an active or ongoing criminal investigation.”

If the bill passes, law-enforcement agencies would presumably have to prove that they are actively investigating a case to shield it from FOIA. Another bill, inspired by an unpunished rape at UVA, would have forced campus police departments to relinquish control in cases involving a death or alleged rape. The measure, known as Kathryn’s Law, died in committee.

In a recent email, university spokeswoman Carol Wood stated that “since [Pat’s case] is still considered an open investigation, all the evidence needs to be protected, whether it is designated a criminal case or a missing persons case.”

Along with other open cases, she continued, Pat’s is “under a current review… to determine its status and determine next steps”; when the review is complete, the file will be made public. As for when, however, there is no “firm date.”

Sheffield and Craner declined to comment for this article; Morris died in 1996.

 

Conflicting scenarios

Along with just about everyone in Charlottesville in 1986, I was riveted by the puzzle of Pat’s disappearance. In 1992, I joined the support staff in physiology. (Disclosure: I’m also a UVA alumna, and, as a freelance editor, a registered vendor.) Four years later— still intensely curious— I launched my own investigation, which resulted in two 1997 articles in C-Ville Weekly.

Readers of those stories offered valuable insights. One proposed a scenario in which Pat voluntarily goes off with his killer, which would explain why his bikes and car were at his apartment— and why there was no evidence of a struggle, either there or in Room 4-86.

This would jibe with what Mrs. Londeree later told the Shannons: that Pat’s car had been parked out front all day Saturday, which suggests that he may have been someone else’s passenger.

The reader also asserted that the missing calendar sheet seriously undermines any interrupted-burglary theory, since its removal suggests that the killer knew where Pat lived, went there afterward, and took his backpack and keys to Jordan Hall— forgetting, in the process, that he had left the bedroom light on. This further suggests a killer familiar with Jordan Hall and with Pat’s desk in Room 4-86.

To many who have followed the case, this scenario seems more plausible than one in which a black belt in judo is murdered by three petty criminals— none of whom had a history of violence— without disturbing anything in a cluttered room full of computers and other equipment.

Whichever scenario is correct, however— unless one believes he walked away— the result is the same: Pat’s body was never found, and his killer went free.

Had Pat’s life in Charlottesville been more complicated than it appeared? Only one event stood out in an otherwise solitary existence— yet, on examination, it would raise questions of its own.

 

A weekend away

Around the middle of February, Pat spent a weekend in the Poconos with others from the department. Because it was the only time he’d spent time away from Charlottesville, I was curious about the trip.

In November 1996, when I had just begun my research, Doug Creedon— a former graduate student who had left a message on Pat's answering machine April 4— visited Charlottesville and came by the department for a visit. Knowing that the Progress had named Creedon as one of those who had made the trip, I was eager to meet him.

After we'd been introduced, I said, excitedly, “You’re one of the guys who went to the Poconos that weekend with Pat!” Looking me in the eye, he replied, “No, I wasn’t, Barbara.” I was surprised, but assumed the Progress had been mistaken.

I spoke with Creedon again the following April, this time by phone. I asked whether he’d ever been to the cabin in the Poconos— which was owned by the parents of another student, Jeff Weiss— because I knew that Weiss had organized other trips.

Creedon said he had, but reiterated— this time without being asked— that he hadn’t been there when Pat was. That group, he said, had consisted of Pat, Jeff Weiss, and a postdoctoral fellow.

I said I was eager to learn more about the weekend, and he suggested I talk to Weiss, saying he had a “sharp memory” and would undoubtedly remember the weekend in some detail. When I spoke to Weiss, however, he said he had an “atrocious memory” and could remember almost nothing about it.

That struck me as odd: If I had vacationed with someone who mysteriously vanished just a few weeks later, I was pretty sure I’d remember at least the outlines of the trip.

Things got stranger still when I spoke to John Zysk, the former postdoctoral fellow who had been part of the group, and learned that the Progress hadn’t been mistaken after all: Creedon had, in fact, been there.

I emailed Creedon in 2001 for confirmation, and he replied, “I was among those who visited Jeff’s cabin, but I can remember very little of the trip.”

Zysk, in contrast, remembered a lot: Weiss, he said, rode a snowmobile, and Creedon went cross-country skiing in a cornfield in the moonlight. Zysk and Pat, meanwhile, had each brought telescopes for stargazing; Zysk even remembered that Pat’s was a Celestron C90.

Neither Creedon, who is now on the faculty at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, nor Weiss, who is on the faculty at Northwestern University in Chicago, responded to recent requests for comment.

 

Man at the fence

Although the UVAPD had not interviewed Pat’s neighbors, I knew that his parents had, and had learned little of value. Soon, however, I uncovered a possible circumstance that a sympathetic neighbor might have been reluctant to share with a parent.

Pat’s next-door neighbor, Agnes Beard— who has since died— told me in a 1997 interview that on “five, six, seven” occasions, around 7pm, she had seen a man standing on her side of the fence that surrounded Lucille Londeree's yard. The man appeared to be watching Pat's apartment, and sometimes— but not always— she would see Pat come out of his apartment and the two would leave together.

“What really struck me,” Beard said, “is that it may have had something to do with his disappearance. It's nothing that I could put my finger on, but it's stayed with me, wondering if there was a connection.”

If the man knew Pat well enough to come to his apartment, why not just go to the door instead of watching from a neighbor’s back yard?

Lucille Londeree died in 1987, but in 1997 one of her sisters, Myrtle Snead, told me about another odd incident with a man.

“I believe one night Pat had come home, or something,” Snead said, “and Lucille looked out and saw some kind of commotion— somebody out front, or something like that. Maybe someone had brought him home; I don’t know.”

The two incidents seemed odd, and I looked for explanations. Could Pat have been gay? I knew that a department lab tech, who has since left Charlottesville, had been openly gay. I contacted him, and, speaking on condition of anonymity, he shared his impressions of Pat.

“I don’t have any solid evidence,” he said, “but his mannerisms, his ambience around people— I can only assume that [he was gay].”

 

Mem Gym

The only place I could think of where Pat might have met people regularly— besides the physiology department— was UVA’s Memorial Gymnasium, where he worked out every week with the Gymnastics Club; he may have gone there at other times as well.

Athletics had long been part of Pat’s life: When he was younger he had been stocky, but in college he’d gotten so serious about fitness that he could walk 50 paces on his hands. He also loved outdoor sports, and brought his canoe and two bikes with him to Charlottesville.

By using Mem Gym, however, he may have stumbled into a subculture that had a dark side. The Mem Gym men’s locker room had been known, for many years, as a gay cruising ground that frequently crossed the line from benign to aggressive and, at times, to harassment.

According to many reliable sources (some of whom I found by placing classified ads seeking men who had worked out at Mem Gym in the mid-80s), a circle of older gay men— most of them married and firmly in the closet— would hold court in the Mem Gym sauna every day at happy hour. (In 1986, for a $600 donation to the Virginia Student Aid Foundation and a $225 fee, anyone could gain access to UVA's recreational facilities, a policy that has since been eliminated.)

The men were notorious for targeting younger men, and so egregiously that they broke the most basic rule of cruising: They didn't wait to see whether the other man was interested.

Aggressive come-ons became such a problem that, according to the late Intramural-Recreational Sports Director Mark Fletcher— who I interviewed after the 1996 opening of the $18.5 million Aquatic and Fitness Center— the design of the new facility’s sauna was an "intentional" reaction to Mem Gym: The new sauna is coed, has a glass front, and is in full view of a 16-person whirlpool.

There is nothing to suggest that one of Mem Gym’s older habitués targeted Pat. But he could have met someone younger who, on the surface, seemed friendly and easy to talk to— but, with time, turned possessive.

 

A brief involvement

In wondering whether Pat might have been gay, one thing initially stopped me: By the Shannons' account, Pat had been romantically involved with a woman named Maria (last name withheld to protect her privacy). While researching a 1997 article, I contacted her and we spoke at length about her relationship with Pat— which, I discovered, had not been as I'd imagined.

Maria and Pat had met in a zoology class their final semester at the University of California at Davis and were briefly involved romantically between their graduation in June and Maria’s departure for graduate school in Florida in July. Shortly after leaving, she admitted to him that she had been involved with a man in Oregon for some time, and that he had moved with her to Florida.

Pat was deeply wounded; he wrote a poem, "The Flight of the Snow Geese," and sent it to her. They continued their correspondence, and in 1997, Maria agreed to let me see Pat’s letters. Finally, I heard Pat in his own voice— warm, funny, and open.

When I asked Maria whether Pat might have been gay, she hesitated and then said, “He was a very vulnerable person, and probably would have been open to something new— and open to manipulation.”

Pat’s family denies that Pat could have been gay, but concedes that whether he was or he wasn’t, he could have attracted someone who became fixated on him— fixated, perhaps, to the point of murder.

 

Stop time

What happened to Pat Collins? There he is, at 2:27 on Saturday afternoon, March 22, at the ATM at Commonwealth Center. It’s a clear, crisp day; behind him, at Vinegar Hill, Crossover Dreams is playing. He turns, puts $40 and the ATM receipt in his wallet. And then he is gone.

Perhaps he set out that evening to stargaze; Halley’s Comet was crossing the skies in 1986. Or perhaps he stayed home to study— and opened his door to the man at the fence.

Whatever happened that night, by morning he was gone.

 

‘He’s calling out to me’

The family never recovered, first from losing Pat, and then from their treatment by the UVAPD, the administration, and— in the form of Edward Sulzbach— the FBI.

"He did not and would not disappear of his own action," Pat's half-sister Fawn wrote in a 1986 letter to Charlottesville's police chief. "No matter what our choices were in the direction of our lives, my brothers and I knew that we had the support of each other and my mother and stepfather."

Fawn died of cancer in 1997; older brother Michael knows that, eventually, he'll be the only family member left.

For 25 years, Michael says, he's had a recurring nightmare in which he and Pat are doing the kind of thing they did so many times together— rock climbing, canoeing, hiking. But the dream is always the same: “He’s calling out to me for help, and I can’t help him. Either I’ll lose his hand, or the canoe turns over, or the rope snaps, and I can’t get to him.”

Michael, 53, recently married and became a parent for the first time. He named his son Patrick.

Barbara, now 83, remains deeply embittered. “There were so many clues,” she said in a recent interview, adding that UVA “didn’t want to believe that those kinds of things can happen at that university.”

I was disappointed to learn that I wouldn’t be talking to Clarence. The Clarence I remember— the one who came to Charlottesville determined to find the stepson he cherished, and then, when he failed, devoted years to imploring reporters and public officials to listen— has, after a series of heart attacks, fallen into such frail health that Barbara and Michael worry that raising the subject of what happened in Charlottesville could be fatal.

Clarence’s feelings about Pat are summed up by something he has said to Barbara over the years, remembering his time in the Korean War.

“We never left our dead,” he would tell her. “We always brought them home. I can’t bring Pat home.”

~ 

Barbara Nordin has assembled many of the documents in this case— including audio from Pat's answering machine— at patcollinscase.com.

~

Note: This story was originally put online at 2:59pm on March 16.

45 comments

Admire the author's continued perseverence on this story, but the speculation about the missing man's sexuality seems more than a little misplaced. Do only homosexuals vanish? Are only homosexuals victims of violent crime?

Just don't see the point. Seems like sensationalism beneath even the Hook.

The speculation used to be better. That Kool cigarette butt? Well, that just proved that he had a gay black lover.

An astounding story. I am an alumnus, and love the University, but something like this is a black stain on it's reputation. We used to joke about the 'Unicops' but this is unconscionable. They are more like the Keystone Kops. Rifling through the backpack is something a mall security guard might do. And the 'see no evil' aspect of the investigation is, frankly, sickening. I don't wonder that the family is bitter. I'd be bitter, too. Families send their kids off with the expectation the in university will act 'in loco parentis,' at least to some degree. That the police would so blatantly ignore an apparent plethora of potential evidence, while trying to protect the University above all, is appalling.

There's a pattern here. What is it you may ask? The UVA police and the University of Virginia so blatantly ignoring an apparent plethora of potential evidence in criminal cases, while trying to protect the University above all, is normal and routine. This isn't the first serious crime they have tried to make go away or totally ignored, and it won't be the last.

Thank you Barbara, I respect you and admire you and all you have done.
My brother, friend and closet confidant is gone now but he is still in my heart and soul.
It is all the university has left me of my brother. But the university has left all it's students, staff and suranding community something special ! A murderer walking free.
I'll I pray for, hope for and dream of is him home to use, the reward is from me it is all I have. You have taken his life, take the money too we just want him back!

@Yes, a black man just told me that blacks who smoke pot prefer Newports. He says that he doesn't know any blacks who smoke Kools. It is mainly smoked by non-blacks.
@JoeFriday Michael Shannon seems to have nothing but praise for the story. If he doesn't have a problem with it, I'm sure you don't.

That an article would appear on the 25th anniversary of Pat Collins' disappearance was inevitable, and that its author would be Barbara Nordin was predictable. She has, as she said, made a project of the case, and her story reflects both the quality and quantity of her research. Still, I hope that everyone who reads her well crafted piece will keep its major omission in mind. That is, it does not include the information that lead police investigators to conclude that Pat Collins engineered his own disappearance.

My perspective is that of a former state correspondent for The Richmond News Leader. Between 1983 and 1987 my beat included U.Va. and Charlottesville. I covered the Collins story. On it as well as on other U.Va. police matters, my contact was Sergeant William Morris, mentioned prominently in this story as the officer who asserted "emphatically" at a 1987 press conference that no evidence supported foul play.

Some of my fellow reporters disliked Bill Morris because they thought he withheld information purely for the sake of withholding. Certainly, he was not a happy talker like a few others in local law enforcement. But I never detected either compulsive obstinancy or compulsive protectiveness vis-a-vis the University's reputation. He always seemed to me a peculiarly straightforward and unpretentious guy -- a professional, not a Keystone Kop.

It was obvious, however, that he didn't like reporters he perceived as wanting him to do their work for them by giving detailed specific answers to generic questions or to questions laden with implied accusations. If he saw that a reporter was really working on a matter -- which he apparently did with me -- he would reward that work with relevant information. So we got along fine. And at one point, he surprised me with an actual conversation on the Collins case.

I wish I could quote from that conversation or at least paraphrase with some confidence of accuracy. Unfortunately, too much time has passed. But I can summarize it in my own words.

Sgt. Morris believed firmly that solid evidence pointed to Pat Collins staging his own disappearance. And he believed just as firmly that that evidence would satisfy neither Collins' family nor others energetically asserting foul play. In his view, family dynamics were a crucial factor both in the case and in how it was being presented to the public. Given that presentation, he was resigned to being criticized as incompetent, insensitive, or worse..

I don't know what happened to Pat Collins, though like everyone else I wish I did. Such unresolved situations unsettle us all even as they continue to pain those closest to the missing person. Meanwhile, I do know that Barbara Nordin and others have made every effort to learn what the walkaway evidence was, although I expect it would have little chance of convincing Collins' family members. After all, if he did walk away, he walked away from them -- something no one would ever want to believe.

Most relevant here, however, I know that Bill Morris died long before his time and cannot now, even if he were so inclined, speak for himself. So, as I said, I hope that readers of Ms. Nordin's well written recap will keep that in mind.

CVilleEye, Kool cigarettes were at one time the market leader among menthol cigarettes and specifically marketed to African-Americans:

http://www.trdrp.org/Docs/CNTR_06_S1_07.pdf

It seems like the job of the UVA police department has long been to cover up, dismiss, and otherwise throw cold water on ANYTHING that might damage the reputation of the University: date rape, missing persons, assaults, etc.

"Nothin' to see here, boyo. Move it along."

Mr. Antoinette W. Roades , we as his family would have welcomed ANY evidence of Patrick walking away, from us, his life or any other reason. Alive is alive and I would loved and support any decision Patrick made. I hope the readers keep that in mind too. Lastly, I do have some issues with some of the story but my praise is genuine for Barbara and her efforts.

What a great piece of investigative reporting again Barbara. Interesting case indeed- I as a gay man having known Barbara for nearly 40 years believe she would certainly know from the information she has dug up if the man were gay. She has a wonderful ability of sizing up people very quickly with the most limited information. Therefore if Barbara suggests the man was gay there is no question in my mind he indeed was. This sounds like a case of poor investingating and cover up. Keep up the wonderful work Barb.
Craig B. Brunell

Mr. Shannon:

I hope sincerely that your brother walked away from his life here and is alive and well elsewhere. And I also hope sincerely that your family, Barbara Nordin, and others who've tried succeed in gaining access to investigative records -- or, at very least, that a new objective independent review can be arranged. While I don't doubt that it's technically true that the case is still open, I can see no excuse after 25 years for U.Va. to withhold what's known.

I wrote for the reason I said. That is, that Ms. Nordin's story does -- through no fault of hers -- omit an important set of information without which it is simply not possible to judge definitively the competence of the investigation into your brother's disappearance. And even with that information, it would not be possible to judge definitively the motives of the investigators. Also, it concerned me to see negative characterizations of people who are no longer able to speak for themselves.

Beyond that, it seems to me unhelpful at best and counterproductive at worst for so many to make such vast generalizations about U.Va.'s supposedly long zipped corporate lip and cartoon police department that works hard at doing nothing. I cannot recognize the institution I've known all my life in those generalizations.

My U.Va. connection has been multifaceted. I had summer jobs there as a teenager and went to summer school one summer as a college student. In the '80s I covered U.Va. as a print reporter, in the '90s as a radio correspondent, and in both decades as a freelance magazine writer. In those decades, too, I wrote for at least five U.Va. publications and also taught news and feature writing in several departments. So I've sat through countless Board of Visitors meetings; interviewed dozens of officials, faculty members, employees, and students; worked with a number of different editors and other bosses, and dealt with an array of public information officers. And what I've seen more than anything else is change.

The U.Va. of my growing up years was notably different from the one I reported on and did work for as an adult. And that U.Va. was very different indeed from the one now expanding toward my City doorstep even as it also marches out into Albemarle County. And all those U.Va.'s are a world away from the 1826-1866 U.Va. that I've explored through years of primary source research.

There's a lot about today's U.Va. not to like. And there's no question that the bigger and richer U.Va. gets, the more those in charge seek to maximize control and minimize liability. But that urge is frequently thwarted by the fact that people are people. And my own experience with and observation of the sort of U.Va. people relevant to this particular situation is that their behavior is far more likely to be a function of their individual personalities and backgrounds than a function of any policy, much less any conspiracy.

And one last thought re the persistent allegation of cover up: There's a lot we don't know about what goes on around us here these days. But often as not, that's because there's no one to inform us -- which is to say that real local news coverage has shrunk consistently since the 1970s. There's no need for a cover up if no one's covering.

@Antoinette W. Roades Perhaps I missed something in both of your comments, but where is the information you allude to that led Morris to believe Pat Collins disappeared of his own accord? Simply stating that the former police sergeant "believed firmly that solid evidence pointed to Pat Collins staging his own disappearance" is really not good enough -- especially since it has been established that the department failed to conduct a full and proper investigation. If Ms. Nordin neglected to include vital information in her article and you are privy to that info, why not share it here instead of making vague references to it?

erin:

You did indeed miss something in both of my comments -- that is, their main point. As I said, I wrote to remind all who read Ms. Nordin's excellent essay that we do not know what information led investigators to conclude that Pat Collins walked away and therefore cannot definitively judge that information, much less the motives of the investigators. And I also made clear that I was relaying only what I could remember accurately -- which is to say I was not being vague intentionally.

To that I would add that I thought it appropriate to relay what I did because Sgt. Morris saying anything at all about any aspect of any case without being asked was, in my experience of him, an event in its own right.

Additionally, you seem to have missed my saying, "I don't know what happened to Pat Collins, though like everyone else I wish I did." Personally, I would like to see the appointment of a highly qualified, independent task force to review both the elements of the case itself and the handling of those elements by all concerned.

One other thing: I notice that Michael Shannon addressed me as "Mr. Antoinette W. Roades." That "Mr." may have been a typo,of course. But on the chance that it wasn't, I would note that I am not "Mr." anybody. Antoinette (for my grandmother Antoinette DuPre) W. Roades is my real name, one that I began signing to school papers as a second grader and have used as a byline on published writing for 44 years.

UVA police are pathetic when it comes to real crime , this needs to be solved and the FBI needs to share in the blame. FBI needs to pick up the ball they dropped cause uva police are never gonna solve this crime

What a surprise, the University acts to suppress anything that would besmirch its reputation instead of actually doing something to prevent it. Has been the case forever and continues to be and will be after we're all dead and in the ground. Total incompetence: your Charlottesville.

Sounds like some of the "Good Ole Boys" (at uva) where on the "Down low" and this guy was going to out them. Its kind of freaky that so many guys who go to UVA stay and work (and apparently play) at UVA. It was an all "boys" school wasn't it? Sort of like what's happening with the catholic priest thing!! This is something that would make a great movie if you could get the real deal out of anyone at UVA.Wow just thought of all the secret societies at good ole UVA. Is the secret out???

Thanks Barbara for for the interesting and saddening article, and thanks to Miss Roades for your comments.

Miss Roades (or Mr Collins)

As far as you know, did the UVAPD inform Pat's family of the reasons why they were confident his disapperance was planned? I can think of no reason why they would not. Obviously, his family would not want to believe that he would do such a thing even if those reasons seemed substantial and full of merit.

It is only natural to doubt just how plausible their evidence was when they are still refusing to to open up their files to outside parties. They, or their lawyers, must not be too confident that their department and it's handling of the investigation will not result in criticism or litigation if the records are released to the outside parties. Thus, they are still shielding the records of their investigation.

In my mind, no matter whatever information is in them there is absolutely no reason why the UVAPD should be allowed to keep the case files hidden from Pat's family. It is a black mark on their record. Give his mother some peace of mind, if possible.

@Patrick: Although then-Chief Sheffield had written the Shannons shortly before the press conference to say that William Morris would be staying in contact with them and would let them know about any new developments, no one at the UVAPD ever said anything, before or after the press conference, about having evidence that Pat had walked away. The family believed that Morris's claim--that "items were missing consistent with a person who walked away from his life" wasn't true; they had inventoried Pat's possessions and concluded that the only things missing were the clothes he was wearing, his diver's watch, the $40 he withdrew on the afternoon of March 23, and his body.
If anyone is familiar with police protocol and would be willing to comment, I'd be curious to know what the ethical (and, potentially, legal) ramifications would be for an officer who developed a private theory in a missing-persons case, shared it with a reporter, and declined to inform the family.

Patrick:

I know nothing of what any U.Va. investigator said to anyone other than what's included in letters posted on the Pat Collins website.

Ms. Nordin:

Re "what the ethical (and, potentially, legal) ramifications would be for an officer who developed a private theory in a missing-persons case, shared it with a reporter, and declined to inform the family," I fear that you are overstating what I reported remembering.

For one thing, I have no idea whether what Sgt. Morris said to me reflected "a private theory" or a view also held by others. For another thing, the little that he said to me did not include any specifics -- a minimal requirement, I think, for a "theory in a missing-persons case."

Again, my only point in posting what I recalled was that it was highly unusual in my experience for Sgt. Morris, who did not talk much, to volunteer any comment at all when under no pressure to say anything. And it also struck me that he had no reason to say what he said to me if he did not believe it to be true.

Several times during your WNRN interview Sunday you stated flatly that Sgt. Morris "lied." To lie is to say something one knows to be untrue. To say something untrue in the belief that it is true, however, is an error rather than a lie.

Understand, please, that I am not defending what should not be defended -- an inadequate investigation, an unjustified withholding of long ago gathered evidence, etc. What I am trying to do -- probably in the wrong forum -- is to suggest to those who hear your evidence more thought and less conclusion-jumping plus a rhetoric more proportional to the very little that is actually known.

As a fellow writer and information handler you know what force multipliers even the smallest word choices can be. It's said that a good prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich. Well, a good writer can with equal ease get that ham sandwich hanged or off the hook in the court of public opinion. One reason, of course, is that a good writer can introduce elements and use language that would not be admissible in a court of law. Another is that a good writer will inevitably tidy up the messiest batch of ingredients.

I am not criticizing you here, so please don't take what I've said as any such thing. You've done a remarkable job of independent investigation. I'm just watching with increasing distress the increasingly wide and wild generalizations your piece has set off. I half expect some anonymous poster to assert any minute that U.Va. officials helped a known murderer hide Pat Collins' body. That sort of stuff won't get anyone any closer to the truth.

Excellent post !! What blog platform do you use on your www ?

It's astonishing how much UVAPD dropped the ball in this situation. Very sad... Things need to change.

Barbara,

Does UVAPD still have the Kool cigarette that was found in the trashcan? They should process it for DNA (and also use familiar DNA)

Such a sad story. UVAPD majorly screwed this one up, with the help of the FBI.

@strikeforce betting: WordPress--super easy to use. @Mustang, that's a good question (about the cigarette butt); the answer may be somewhere in the case notes.

The difference between a Memorial Gym designed in 1924 (when there were no women) and a redesign in the 1990 or 2000's is (from Mark Fletcher dec'd) because of a gay scene there in the 1980s of geysers preying on college students. I bet most college students could knock the Hell out of some old geyser coming on to them. I suppose the anonomous donor who gave 1.5 million to redo it, and the architect were taking this notorious 80s gay scene into account instead of UVA being Coed and basic safety reasons (such as being able to see if someone slipped and fell) when they were designing a sauna with a glass front/being open. I agree the UVa should answer a family FOIA request. To say its still an on going investigation is why we can't release it is bogus.

Is there some type of definitive criteria for "an ongoing Police Investigation"? Such as X amount of man hours spent in the past year. You would think that to continue to use this excuse there would be some way to quantify it.

I know this case has obviously been rehashed completely over the years . First time i have read the details and am wondering if Pat had planned his disappearance many months in advance then was it something to do with the murder of the father Billie ? The mysterious visitor part of Pat's arranged plan off Billie and re-invent a new life in the event of him coming under problems with regard to Billie's murder .Pat would have to leave the entire family rather than fein innocince over the years going forward .Pat's friend may have been the brains and actual shooter . The mysterious friend may have stayed out of Pat's apt to avoid leaving trace evidence (fingerprints etc) of his identity ....Was this the scenario that Willie Morris perhaps had concluded ??

Frank Speaker:

Willie Morris, the late Mississippi-born writer and editor with the lyrical style and Gothic imagination, might well have drawn such a conclusion from the information presented here and on the Pat Collins website. I don't know whether the matter-of-fact Sgt. William (aka Bill) Morris ever thought in such terms. But I do think you're right to suggest that there are more potential scenarios than have been advanced so far. Indeed, there would have to be more to accommodate the welter of often contradictory clues itemized.

As for the case having "been rehashed completely over the years," however, I don't think that's true. In fact, it's never been completely hashed even once. That's why I'd like to see a fresh and independent expert inquiry.

And a note on clues (or not): Anyone who poked through my trash would be very likely to find cigarette butts despite my being a ferocious anti smoker. They'd be there because I pick up and dispose of trash that others drop near or toss onto my property. Perhaps Pat Collins was just neat.

Real life doesn't subscribe to classic theatrical unity. In real life, things put on stage between first and last curtains might not have any relevance to the plot at all. Meanwhile, crucial action can and often does occur before the house lights go down and even during intermissions.

Ms. Roades, I never thought about the cigarette butt's possibly having been trash he picked up--but you're exactly right. It would be in keeping with what I know about his habits, and I suspect you may be right.

Ms. Nordin:

Thank you for the comment. Of course, I'm not suggesting that the butt found in the apartment should not have been preserved and tested to whatever extent possible. It should have been.

Also, a couple of family items confuse me, and I'd be grateful if you could help. For one thing, when I do the arithmetic with various age references to brothers Pat and Michael in your article and in letters on your website, I get 1958 as likely birth year for both. That can't be right if Michael is, as you wrote, the older of the two. For another, was Michael Shannon born Michael Collins? Or is he Clarence Shannon's son and Pat Collins' half brother? I'm just trying to keep folks straight.

Good questions. Michael's older than Pat by just 15 months or so (at the most--don't know exactly). Pat was born in August 1958.
And Michael changed his last name from "Collins" to "Shannon" as an adult.

Thanks much.

This is a riveting story and sadly shows yet another incident of UVA cover ups that have been documented over the years by the flagship University of the State of Virginia. I've noticed in the comments that readers have no problem agreeing that UVA cops mishandled the investigation, but remember, many people's lives are affected every time a cop fails to document evidence. This man was someone's child, and his parents deserve his death to be investigated properly. Parents left to grieve have no recourse to challenge the poorly handled investigations of campus cops - not now, not 25 years ago. When will you people in Charlottesville wake up and do something about jurisdiction? Make your city safer by supporting laws that allow for a joint investigation when a felony crime occurs.

Typical Ivy League wanna be --- take responsibility for a change, UVa/UvaPD.

Patrick and I our 13 days short of one year apart in age we are from the same mother and father. So as children we were confused as to why he was the same age for 13 days! It was rather fun for us in later years, we would introduce our salves as old and young brothers on double dates only to then say we are the same age. It does not explain well here but it was fun for us. Lately Patrick did not walk away, and Ms. Roades your post that he " walked away from us" was hurtful, crule and just plan mean. It's not a believable sannarrey that a professional law enforcement Sgt. would have proof or a workable therory, keep it to them selves, oh except for you of course, deliberately torture my family, bring ridicule miss trust to his department and not mind it because we will not believe him ? This site is for Pat and to help resolve his loss to us all. And I do appalogies for using Mr. In your title no offense was intended. Thank you all for intreset in my brothers case.

Mr. Shannon:

I am sorry that anything I reported from the past or said on my own caused you and your family distress. Certainly, that was not my intention.

Michael -- Sorry for your loss and pain . This is a public story open to comments and most try to be delicate but also still discuss details , no disrespect meant .The walk away theory sounds like it could have happened until one hears Pat's voice . He seems too open , honest and sensative to be able to author such a plan . His girlfriend says he was the opposite to one who would do that . He was not a manipulator but was in fact vulnerable to the plans of others . Something happened on that Saturday evening perhaps involving whoever was driving him around . Different theories are up in the air but the bottom line is that no one that is searching for answers knows what happened . Your family has two tragic unsolved situations which from a stranger's point of view seems to be too big of a coincidence . Wondering if you could advise the theories on your dad's case ??

Regardless of the anticipated response, the Police not sharing the ""solid evidence pointed to Pat Collins staging his own disappearance" is a heinous. If the police believe they know what happened, they should share that information with the family. It should not be a question of whether they choose to believe or disbelieve, the so-called evidence should have been presented to them, and I would like to know, what steps can we, the public, take to see that it is done.

@Barry: The VA Crime commission is meeting this spring/summer to take a look at felonies that occur on campus. Although Pat's disappearance occurred many years ago, the attitude of the campus is relevant. I would urge you and all readers to send an email to the VA Crime Commission to express your interest in toughening the laws for investigation of felony crimes on all Virginia campuses. The UVA lobby is fighting this new law very hard and it will take an email campaign from those of us who are tired of the cover-ups to influence the Crime Commission to tighten the jurisdictional laws that hinder the investigation of campus crime. You can also send emails to me and I will forward them (uvarape@cox.net). Thanks!

File this story under More Evidence The UVAPD Sucks.

In response to Joe Friday. Whether he was gay or not has enormous implications. Very few men disappear because their girlfriend killed them and buried them out in the woods. Boyfriends however commit that crime every day.

(Since I'm just a legal assistant and not an attorney this is just a flippant answer to a Hook article and not legal advice, but I informally asked an attoney here at work) If the last FOIA (freedom of Information act) request was recent (within the last two years at max) it could be challenged in Court, since Carol Wood (the UVa spokesperson) has taken the position that it is an active ongoing case and will not be released. Whether she looked at the file and saw "reviewed file" recently or someone just told her to say this? (the attorney said B.S. to the case being actively investigated). The problem is the remedy is either its going to be released or not and there is no money in an attoney taking it on contingency basis. Most are charging close to $300 hour. So it would take thousands of dollars to have an action in Court over it, a Judge would look at it sealed. It would be bad for UVA if a Judge looked at the file sealed and not even a "reviewed file" notation is in the file for the last 15 years after Carol Wood says its an active case. There is no duty of someone/policeman in Va "to do a good job" to a 3rd party in Virginia. You only owe a duty to your employer to do a good job. There is no cause of action against the investigator and he has been deceased also. Maybe the Rutherford Institute would get into it?

Not meaning to be flippant either but why do you need an attorney for a straight forward Access to Information Request even if say a reporter does it and has to ask a judge . Lawyers can only talk , a quality ,however,that is not restricted to them only . It is just like any other civilian making a request through the burocracy . A person has to go through the steps ,fill out forms and talk whenever to whomever until you get what you want . Reporters and other folks are constantly doing these requests without the baggage and expense of being held up by lawyers .This is a straight forward cold case where it is easy to put the onus of proof on the University to prove that it is being actively worked on . A reporter would make the judge think twice and not shirk hisher duties.

You don't need an attorney to do a FOIA. The story says 7 FOIA requests have been done and all denied. In Va., an active criminal case is not subject to FOIA and the UVA has claimed each time it is active case. At this point you would have to file a case against them in City or County either "pro se" (without an attorney but you better know something how to do it) or with an attorney who will probably charge by the hour, which I agree is a high cost.

The reward is now 25,000.00