1115 Case #1: Sarah Louise Northcott

(AMH2010 11:15 Student #1) 

For this casefile investigation, I decided to go with a criminal just because I originally believed that having one person to focus on would allow me to go more in depth and find things that would have been trickier to find. I ended up picking a woman named Sarah Louise Northcott. I originally did not know who she was and figured maybe she had been convicted of something small along the lines of theft or anything smaller than that. But as it turns out, she was a murderer alongside her son, Gordon Northcott. At first glance, you would think that just because she was an older woman, she wouldn’t have committed such a heinous crime to help her son but looks can be deceiving. This woman was capable of bashing a child in the back of the head with an axe in order to help and protect her son, rather than reporting it to the police and having him put in prison. A mother’s love is strong, but this surely isn’t the way.
I originally wanted to start off watching documentaries on Louise and her son to get a better picture of just who these people were, unfortunately every documentary that I came across sounded like it was being read directly from Wikipedia. I then decided to go about constructing my research starting from the very beginning, finding out how the family had made their way to Wineville to begin with. As it turns out, the family is not from the United States at all. They were from Canada and moved to the states in 1924. Allegedly they had moved to Los Angeles at first; meaning they did not move directly to Wineville. I found out that the family did not move to Wineville until 1926 because Gordon asked his father to purchase land there.
This is jumping slightly ahead but it convinced me to search for the actual whereabouts of the father because as the story goes that all murderers must have had something happen to them in the past for them to act the way that they do. While on trial, Gordon claimed that his father sexually assaulted him at the age of 10. When trying to look further into this, no one had confirmed nor denied that this did happen. It was only a statement made by Gordon. I found that his father was named Cyrus George Northcott, and another bit of information that did not add up is that two articles I had come across that were not linked to a reliable source. They claimed that Cyrus spent the rest of his life in a mental asylum due to unknown reasons, but in an actual news article from the 1920’s (the very first article I read), it claims that Cyrus was present for Gordon’s trial. It did not state whether he was with or against his son either, only claiming that he had accidentally provided Gordon with items that were used to dissolve DNA from his victims, which I will link back to for this all to make more sense. I was able to confirm that Cyrus was in fact with the family when the murders took place because when he purchased the land for Gordon, I found that he had his own construction business (I couldn’t find the name of it). This debunked the theory that he was in an insane asylum.
            Once Cyrus agreed to buy the land, Gordon built a house and a chicken coop which he claims later on was to help his father with his business. The reason as to why the chicken coup is most important is because that was the area where an undocumented official number of boys had lost their life at the hands of Gordon and his mother and received horrific amounts of sexual abuse and torture. Gordon kidnapped these children and did whatever he pleased with them. What I found most unsettling is that he had allegedly let two of the boys go after sodomizing them. But the boys who he let go never came to testify against him which led me to believe that maybe that was a lie. And with no name of the boys he claimed to have released, there was no research that I could have conducted further for this part. I also thought that the father was not present during the murders and that only Louise and Gordon knew what was happening, but he did know. He knew of the Winslow brother’s disappearance but never mentioned anything of it to the police. In the same newspaper that I found this information from, Cyrus also told investigators that Louise would do anything for Gordon. No matter what it was, she was willing to put everything on the line for him. But this time she had gone too far to protect him.
            Among the people on the ranch while the murders were taking place was Gordon’s cousin Sanford Clark. This was also a bit hard to get solid information on because Sandford claims that Gordon had kidnapped him from his home in Canada. But it was also stated that Sandford used to willing go with Gordon to visit the ranch. But the last time he had went with Gordon to the ranch, he stayed there against his will and was forced to participate in these crimes alongside Gordon and his mother. And while he was there as well, Gordon sexually abused him and beat him daily. This was found to be true by his sister, Jessie Clarke, who came down to the ranch to check on her brother after a few weeks in August of 1928, being concerned about his well-being. When Gordon was not around, Sanford told his sister that every day he was with Gordon and his mother, he feared for his life. He also told her about the killings of the boys. As soon as she was told this information, she returned to Canada and told the American consul, which then led the report being given to the Los Angeles police department. I noticed that instead of actual police officers coming to the ranch to arrest the Northcott’s and rescue Sanford, United States Immigration inspectors showed up to the ranch instead. This was on August 31st on the same year. Another interesting bit of information that I found is that Gordon had seen the men coming up the drive and decided to leave the scene as soon as possible. What doesn’t add up, yet again, is that in all articles I could get to where Sanford was being quoted, it only notes of Gordon escaping the house while the inspectors came in. Nothing ever tells of his mother leaving with him at the same time, articles just jump to the fact that Gordon and Louise later escape and flee back to Canada. I wondered on whether or not this meant that he came back to get his mother and then left, or did she leave with him originally. But she couldn’t have left with him originally because Gordon had told Sanford that while he was escaping, if he said anything to the police, he would shoot him with a rifle.
            While Sanford was being taken away with the inspectors, after they had convinced him that he was safe from Gordon, he told them all the information that they needed in order to convict Gordon and his mother. But this is where Gordon and Louise are still on the run from the police, but they are found shortly after in British Columbia. They are both taken into custody and start to fess up to what they’ve done. Gordon at first claims that the things he has been convicted of are all false and that he and Louise ran away because he wanted to shield her from the chaos that was being spoken about him. That was clearly a lie. He eventually gives that idea up and tells the truth of him killing 3 boys, the Winslow’s and a boy dubbed “the headless Mexican” who I later found out his last name was actually Gonzales. No words were spoken of Walter just yet. His mother is the one who confessed to police that she was the one who killed Walter. She admitted to bludgeoning Water Collins in the back of the head with an axe and disposing of the body with Gordon. She was charged with the murder of Collins, while Gordon was charged with the murder of the other three, despite him being accused of killing more than 20 boys. Louise was sentenced to life in prison in 1930, and her son was sentenced to death by hanging.
With the rest of the boys that Gordon never released, he killed them off because he believed that if he let them go, they knew too much and would be able to identify him to the police. He murdered them with an axe and dismembered them. He then had used “quicklime” to cause the body to decay at faster rate. This also made the police struggle when it came time to find the bodies and search for DNA on the remains of what they could find. As I had mentioned before that Gordon’s father said that he had accidentally provided his son with items that were used in the murders, Cyrus had noted to the police that he had given his son massive amounts of quicklime throughout their time while staying in Wineville. Now, the number of boys that Gordon had murdered was tricky because he claimed he had killed 5 but once again, nothing was confirmed and with the lack of bodies showing up, it was hard to pin all of the murders to Gordon.
The crimes that Gordon were responsible for are somewhat all over the place. It is for sure that he sodomized and murdered between 3-5 young boys, but Gordon was tricky. He would claim that 3 was the amount that he had killed but he would retract his statement repeatedly to confuse the police. When he was being convicted of the crimes, he led the police all over the place to search for the bodies. The actual number is unknown because only the remains of three were very identified. Louise also took place in this because while she and her son were on the run from the police, they traveled back to the area where they had buried three boys (could not figure out which three boys it was) and dug up most of the body parts that they could find and then burned them in a barrel to try to get rid of the evidence. I couldn’t find whether the boys had already been dismembered before they were buried the first time or if they were after Louis and Gordon dug them up again. The boys that were confirmed to have been killed by Gordon and his mother were Lewis and Nelson Winslow, a Mexican teenage boy who was dubbed “the headless Mexican,” and allegedly Walter Collins. In news articles, the unknown boy was only referred to as “the headless Mexican,” but his name was actually Jose Gonzales. This information was not in regular webpages and I came across his real name in a newspaper (first newspaper I uncovered).
One the most well-known boys that lost their life to Gordon and his mother is Walter Collins. There have been different reports saying that Walter was abducted from his home in Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles where he lived with his mother, Christine Collins, but one of the articles that I came across said that he was taken after his mother had given him money to go to the movies (cinema). So, I concluded that would have been impossible for him to have been taken straight from the home, his mother also would have probably heard someone breaking in and taking her child. Christine was married to Walter J Collins Sr. who was a criminal. He had allegedly been involved with robbery but got released from prison and gotten his life together. He also hid his criminal past from her beforehand. He had been doing well until the passing of his mother, then the criminal behavior came back. I tried to search to see if Walter Sr. was in prison during the time of his son’s disappearance, or if Christine had ever told him, but nothing came up. Not even information on whether he had been alive when all of this took place. But after Walter had been kidnapped, Christine reported to the police as soon as possible about the disappearance of her 9-year-old son on March 10th of 1928. They investigated it and claimed to have found the child after searching for around five to six months. A police captain by the name of J.J. Jones, claimed to have found the son. To make sure it was the correct child, pictures of the boy were exchanged between the police and Christine until she agreed to pay for the child to be brought to LA. This is where my research started to drift into a completely different direction. Once the child had arrived in LA to be reunited with the mother, it was not Christine’s son. She told the police that the boy was not her child, although he did resemble him by a great deal. Jones basically forced the child onto her and told her to take him home and “try him out.” She was forced to take him, and it upset her because a mother knows her child like the back of her hand. Christine went back to police to tell them that the boy was not hers and it resulted in her being sent off to a psychiatric ward under a code 12. This code, during this time, meant that the person was deemed a hassle or difficult to work with. This led me to another question, if Christine was in a psychiatric ward, who was watching the boy who claimed to be her son, and no one was there to watch her home while she was taken suddenly. I had no idea that police could have you sent to a mental health facility as well. It is also very unjust to have someone locked away in a psychiatric ward without proper reasoning or a warrant.
While Christine was locked away, J.J. Jones began to question the boy who claimed to be the missing boy. As it turns out, it was not her son. Instead, it was a 12-year-old named Arthur Hutchins who had ran away from his home in Iowa. Allegedly, the police in Illinois simply asked the boy if he was Walter and he agreed, only to be taken to LA in hope of meeting his favorite actor rather than reuniting with the woman who he claimed was his mother. As soon as this news broke, Christine was notified but was still unable to leave the ward for another ten days. As soon as she was freed, she sued the Los Angeles Police department and won the lawsuit, winning over $10,800 which today would be the equivalent of $150,000. Jones never paid Christine the money that she won in the case, even after she had taken him back to court for an even greater sum of money. But one of the most shocking details in Christine’s story is that Gordon invited her to see him before his execution, that she was also invited to watch him die. Gordon had said that he would tell her of the true fate her son had endured but decided against it at the last second.
In the film titled Changeling, starring Angelina Jolie, Christine is rather aggressive towards Gordon and pushes him against a gate, trying to pry the answer from him. She also slaps him when he continues to dodge the question of what happened to Walter. But in real life, there doesn’t seem to be any recollection of her being aggressive towards him or watching him as he was hanged. I didn’t want to jump to conclusions ad say that the movie added that in for dramatic effect, but if there is no set evidence that she was there, it makes it more difficult to believe. But it is noted that Christine had seen pictures of the boys Gordon had killed and their resemblance to her son, it raised her suspicious that he had done something to her son. Also, in the film, there are clips of numerous boys escaping the chicken coop. This didn’t add up because it was never confirmed just how many boys were in the coop all at once, nor did all of them escape. The film continues to put Walter in these scenes but in real life, there are so many articles claiming that the Northcott’s did kill Walter, and others claim that the whereabouts of the boy are unknown. In the same article that tells of the father knowing that the Winslow brothers came to the ranch, it also states that Walter was brought to the ranch on March 10th and murdered on April 16th. Another factor in the movie that didn’t make sense because the film placed Walter Collins and the Winslow brothers in the same scene which we now know is false because the brothers showed up in May; after Walter had allegedly been killed already.
Even after Northcott refused to tell Collins what had happened to her child, she never gave up the search for her child, even until she passed away in 1964, she believed that he was still out there. People years later wondered why police never tested the remains of the boys that they did find and the reasoning behind it is that once they were burned and dismantled beyond belief, there was no chance of being able to retrieve DNA from the bones. This was also during the late 1920’s and early 1930’s so there wasn’t as advanced technology around as there is today. Police could only go off what Louise and Gordon confessed to them.
To focus a little more on the differences between the film Changeling, and what happened in real life, it was somewhat easy to find the differences. Because the film was more focused on Walter and his mother, Christine, it was clear that some things would be added for dramatic effect. The film never showed much of the mother, despite her being a huge helping hand throughout the murders. The film focused much more on Sanford and Gordon’s relationship and the role that Sanford played in the murders, which was accurate. But the film included information that I couldn’t find more details on, including that Sanford was the one who led the police to the bodies of the Winslow brothers; in actual newspapers, it states that Gordon was the one who told police where to look for the bodies. Gordon often led them to dead ends just to toy with the police. There was also a scene where Sanford is picking out pictures of the boys that Gordon has taken, and he placed down more than 10 pictures of boys. Nothing was ever mentioned of all the boys he had placed on the table. This was more than likely due to Gordon not telling the police of the whereabouts of every child that her murdered.
Going back to Louise, I used the Ancestry website to confirm that she was in fact Gordon’s mother. This was because while she was in trial, she claimed to be his grandmother instead and that everyone in the family had abused him before. She was in her later 40’s when she claimed this, and Gordon was in his early 20’s so this was quickly seen as a lie and her attempt to save her son once again. What I found most interesting is that when Louise and her son were receiving sentencing, she was only given life in prison while Gordon was instantly sentenced to death. I found out that the reasoning behind this was not due to him admitting to killing three of the four boys, but because his mother was a woman and the court felt as if the death sentence was too harsh for her. In my own opinion, I believe that if she knew of all the information and murders that her son had committed on his own and then chose to help him, she should have received the same punishment. I also found that she did not even serve a life sentence because she was released in 1940 only to be paroled and moved back in with her husband in a new state (I believe it was Maryland) until she died in November of1944, a few months after her husband. It looks as though in total she only served between 10-12 years. There was no clear evidence that stated whether she was sentenced in 1928 or 1930. She also was not present during the hanging of her son, so this led me to believe that she was already in prison or she refused to see. She was cremated just like her husband was and had her ashes scattered. After the chaos of the murders and the city of Winterville’s name being tarnished, the name was changed to Mira Loma in 1930. And there is actually a family that stays on the ranch to this day and plan on keeping it in their family for as long as they can.
To finalize all of my findings throughout the research, I can conclude that this was certainly a harder topic due to the massive amounts of information that would continue to pop up. Just when I thought that I had reached the end of one topic, more would pop up and some sources were more reliable than others. The main way that I conducted my research was to use a few different web pages to get an idea of how everything had happened, but I would use the newspapers from the actual time period to confirm or deny what had happened. This theory worked until it got down to the person derails on the person’s life. For example, I tried to find more details on what happened to Sanford after the murders and the newspapers told of him not being convicted of any crimes, but that was pretty much it. Upon further looking, he moved on and went to school, married and had children in his future and passed away peacefully in 1991. I feel as though there is still much more information that can be uncovered but it would still be a hassle to see if everything is actually accurate. Sifting through endless newspapers did help a lot with finalizing major details. It was also tricky to stay in order with all of the events since a lot of key elements lacked in dates. The information that I was able to uncover also came with stories piled on top of them. The subject at hand is filled with surprises but isn’t for the faint of heart. There were actual newspapers that also included the details of how Gordon claimed each child was said to have been murdered but I could not bring myself to read it. The family tree stopped after getting to the only daughter of Louise and Cyrus, Winnifred who is said to have had children. She was also the child who had the ranch that Cyrus had started in Maryland passed down to her since Gordon was dead and she was the only surviving child. The Northcott’s are a twisted family and I wish I would have been able to find out if there are more descendants of the family and what their lives were life while knowing they were related to serial killers.

Works Cited