Twenty-seven years ago UVA graduate student Patrick Collins vanished, leaving behind a mystery that would haunt his family, obsess local reporters, and raise questions about UVA’s handling of the case. On August 10, New York State Police identified Collins’ partial remains, which had languished in a storage locker for 25 years. While the circumstances of the discovery strongly suggest that Collins took his own life, how he got from Charlottesville to a small town on the shores of Lake Champlain—and why he left his keys, wallet, driver’s license, and glasses in his backpack in UVA’s Jordan Hall—is as puzzling today as it was in 1986.
Here is what we know now. Hikers discovered Collins’ remains on June 4, 1988, atop a rocky bluff on the outskirts of Port Henry, New York. Police also found a space blanket, ditty bag, and two hypodermic syringes—but nothing that could identify their owner. Subsequent forensic examinations established that the remains belonged to a white male between 20 and 30 years old, but never confirmed the cause of death. In 2007, DNA from the remains was entered into the National Database for Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), but it would take five more years and prodding from a volunteer with a missing-persons network to finally connect Collins to the body the hikers found.
I began investigating Collins’ disappearance in 1996, and, for the next 17 years, I believed that he had been murdered. In part, this was because so many of his most valuable belongings were still on his carrel desk in Jordan Hall, which made it look like he had just stepped out of the room. Could a killer have deliberately staged the items to throw investigators off the trail?
Two years ago, Carol Haber, a volunteer with the Doe Network, read my account of Collins’ disappearance online and made it her mission to get his familial DNA into the NamUs database. She had contacted the UVA Police Department (UVA PD) several times but never got a response, so when Haber e-mailed me in November 2012, I forwarded her message to Collins’ brother Michael. He contacted UVA PD and, at that point, DNA was collected from Michael and his mother, entered into NamUs, and, on August 10—Collins’ birthday—matched to the remains in Port Henry.
UVA PD’s Lieutenant Melissa Fielding, when contacted by the Daily Progress earlier this month, said she “began talking with [Pat’s] brother and mother this year about submitting their DNA….Without DNA advancements, I don’t think we would have ever identified him.”
Fielding’s comments ended UVA PD’s at times controversial involvement with the case. Relations between the UVA PD and Collins’ family soured shortly after his disappearance in the spring of 1986, when his mother and stepfather, Barbara and Clarence Shannon, came to Charlottesville from California to search for him. Clarence, a retired San Jose police officer, was vocal about what he considered negligence on the part of the UVA PD; no neighbors and only a few students had been interviewed, and no forensic work had been done in Jordan Hall or at his apartment. The Shannons believed that Collins had been murdered, and blamed the UVA PD for not finding his killer.
Theories about what had happened to Collins abounded, and I had my own. I knew, for instance, that on about a half dozen occasions the next-door neighbor had seen a man standing on her side of the fence, staring at Collins’ basement apartment. He had only been enrolled at UVA for 11 weeks when he vanished. Could he have had a stalker who turned lethal?
In 2011, to accompany a story I wrote in The Hook to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Collins’ disappearance, I created a website (patcollinscase.com) and posted Clarence’s investigative notes, correspondence between UVA and the family, and pictures. I also excerpted letters he’d written to a woman, Maria, he’d briefly been involved with in July 1985. Although their romantic relationship had lasted only one weekend, Collins expressed deep feelings of affection for the woman in a flurry of letters. In addition to writing what amounted to a novella describing their relationship and its effect on him, he also penned and sent her a poem, “The Flight of the Snow Geese.” Collins had written it in response to her confession, in late July, that she was already involved with another man—and that he had moved with her to Florida, where she was attending graduate school.
In the poem Collins describes the long journey snow geese make every spring: “Northward they fly at winter’s end/Pleading and crying to find their friend.” I knew, from his letters to Maria, that Collins was emotionally needy—and wanted, almost desperately, to connect with someone. Could the man at the fence have been one such attempt?
Then, on September 9, Michael e-mailed me with news of the DNA hit, and the story began to coalesce around a previously puzzling detail. Hawes Spencer, a local writer and former Hook editor, began delving deeper into Collins’ disappearance, and, along with C-VILLE senior reporter Courteney Stuart, came to a startling—but, I believe, convincing—theory about Collins’ disappearance and death. Spencer’s detailed account was published last month in Metroland, an Albany, New York weekly.
Spencer seized on a detail that had been dismissed as a red herring at the time, but suddenly took on new meaning: On the evening of March 20, Collins called the Amtrak reservations line, but didn’t make a reservation. When Spencer researched the remains’ precise location, he learned that the remote bluff was within easy walking distance of the Port Henry Amtrak station. He also learned that in 1986, no ID was required to buy a train ticket.
Collins had ready access to syringes in the lab where he’d been hanging out, along with the drugs used to sedate and euthanize lab animals. But why would he travel 570 miles to kill himself? Spencer and Stuart, poring over Collins’ letters, came back to the poem: As snow geese migrate north, one of their main stops is Lake Champlain.
In the weeks following the news that Collins’ remains had been found, the family continued to insist that he had been killed. More recently, Michael told Spencer that the family is “going to quit theorizing and go back to healing again. We’re going to get Pat’s remains back. We feel like we’ve won the lottery.”
It appears that a number of factors may have combined, at the end, to make Patrick Collins believe that a final journey was the only solution—one that will continue to haunt everyone who ever cared about him.
For more about Pat Collins’ disappearance, visit patcollinscase.com.