Police and parents initially eyed Jordan Hall, where lax security caused Collins to pen a sign for his study room door. Across town, however, his bedroom window could be seen by "the man at the fence."
desk photo: family. fence photo by Hawes Spencer
When Pat Collins set off for Charlottesville with a canoe strapped to his Plymouth, Barbara Shannon had three children. Daughter Fawn died of ovarian cancer in late 1997. Only Michael Shannon, age 53, survives.
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?
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.”
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.”
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.
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].”
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.
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.