The police Chief JJ Jones ( Jeffrey Donovan) conversing with Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) in the movie..."Changeling."

The Story behind the Movie


In March 1928, Christine Collins, was a single mother living in the Los Angeles suburb of Mt. Washington. She worked for the telephone company, and prided herself on maintaining a non-emotional, businesslike manner when dealing with men in authority. Her ex-husband was in jail for his involvement in running a speak-easy. On March 10th she gave her 9-year-old son Walter a dime to go to the movies. She never saw him again. The missing boy became a national cause and police received hundreds of false tips. Five months later, a boy claiming to be Walter Collins was found in Illinois, so the search was called off. It was chalked up as a win for the Los Angeles Police Department that arranged a public reunion hoping to negate the bad publicity they had received for their inability to solve this case and others. They also hoped the uplifting human interest story would deflect attention from a series of corruption scandals that had dirtied the department's reputation.  Even though the boy resembled her son, Christine said he wasn't Walter. She was told by the officer in charge of the case, police Captain J.J. Jones, to take the boy home to "try him out for a couple of weeks," and Collins did so under duress.  The policeman argued by telling Ms. Collins that, because of the months-long trauma that she had endured, her memory was likely failing her. The Captain insisted that the boy looked different because he had been “starving” and took advantage of her vulnerable state of mind. Any person who has been through psychological trauma–male or female–is vulnerable to manipulation by those in positions of authority. The point of the “Try him out” suggestion to Ms. Collins was that she would take the boy home and later, when the trauma and shock “wore off”, she would “remember” the boy as being her son. 

Three weeks later she went back to see Captain Jones insisting that she had the wrong child with dental records to prove her case. Jones had Collins committed to the psychiatric ward at Los Angeles County Hospital under a "Code 12" internment—a term used to jail or commit someone who was deemed difficult or an inconvenience. During Collins' incarceration, Jones questioned the boy, who admitted to being 12-year-old Arthur Hutchins Jr., a runaway from Illinois, but who was originally from Iowa. A drifter at a roadside café in Illinois had told Hutchins of his resemblance to the missing Walter, so Hutchins came up with the plan to impersonate him. His motive was to get to Hollywood so he could meet his favorite actor.  Collins was released ten days after Hutchins admitted that he was not her son, and filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department. This aspect of the case is depicted in the 2008 film Changeling, although in the film Hutchins does not confess until after Mrs. Collins has been released.

When Christine Collins was released and filed suit against the LAPD. (Two years later, Christine Collins finally won her suit against Jones, and was awarded $10,800, which he never paid.) Trying to save face, Jones then linked the Collins boy to another set of horrifying crimes, to a mass murder case that became known as the Wineville Chicken Coop.

On February 8, 1929, a 27-day trial before Judge George R. Freeman in Riverside County, California, ended. Gordon Northcott (right) was convicted of the murders of an unidentified Mexican boy and brothers Lewis and Nelson Winslow (aged 12 and 10, respectively). The brothers had been reported missing from Pomona on May 16, 1928; however, it was believed Gordon may have had as many as 20 victims. The jury heard that he kidnapped, molested, tortured, killed, and dismembered these and other boys throughout 1928. On February 13, 1929, Judge Freeman sentenced Gordon to be hanged. The sentence was carried out on October 2, 1930.

Five years after Gordon Northcott's execution, one of the boys previously thought to be murdered by Northcott was found alive and well. As Walter Collins' body had not been found, Christine Collins still hoped that Walter had survived. She continued to search for him for the rest of her life, but she died without ever knowing her son's fate. The last public record of Christine Collins is from 1941, when she attempted to collect a $15,562 judgment against Captain Jones (by then a retired police officer) in the Superior Court.

To make a long story short, Christine Collins made a positive difference; she was an unlikely pioneer. One of the final outcomes of her suing the City of Los Angeles was the California State Legislature passing a law that requires law enforcement to have a warrant before a person can be incarcerated in a (lock up) psychiatric ward/facility. Because of Christine Collins, the police can’t simply decide they don’t like your attitude and have you locked up in a psych ward to make you go away (and discredit you). 


Photos of Christine Collins and her son Walter.


Police Capt. Jones and LAPD officers search the lake in Lincoln Park for the body of Walter Collins, Los Angeles Times, April 6, 1928.