There are about 40,000 missing people in this country, and for 27 years UVA graduate student Pat Collins was one of them.
Some felt sure he was kidnapped or murdered, but campus police disagreed. Two Charlottesville writers appear to have solved the mystery.
27-year-old Pat Collins moved from Northern California in 1986 to begin work on a PhD in physiology at the University of Virginia. He’d been here just a few months when his parents and professors reported him missing. His keys and wallet were found in his cubicle on campus, and a piece of meat had been left on his kitchen counter – perhaps to defrost. Barbara Nordin wrote about Collins’ disappearance for Charlottesville’s weekly newspaper The Hook.
“University police seemed convinced that he had walked away from his life. The family in California insisted he never would have, and that he would not have killed himself.”
Members of Collins’ family came to Charlottesville – keeping the pressure on investigators. “His stepfather, Clarence Shannon, was a retired big city cop with lots of experience in that kind of case.’
University police refused to let other law enforcement agencies take the case, and by 2013 it had gone very cold, but a volunteer at the International Center for Unidentified or Missing Persons read one of Nordin’s stories. She contacted UVA to try and get a DNA sample but got no response. Then she e-mailed Nordin, who put her in touch with Collins’ family, and this year a computer matched Collins’ DNA with remains found by hikers in upstate New York. Syringes were found near the bones of a white male in his mid-20’s, on the banks of Lake Champlain two years after Collins’ disappearance.
Nordin’s former editor, Hawes Spencer, says the family was relieved. “Finding out where the remains are is a key moment in being allowed to grieve, and what Michael Shannon – Pat’s brother – said was, ‘We feel like we’ve won the lottery.’”
But how and why was Collins in New York? Spencer and Nordin began to assemble pieces of the puzzle.
“And what you see is a young man who is writing constantly to the woman he thinks is his soul mate. She actually has a steady boyfriend who she’s about to move to Florida with, and when she finally reveals this to him, he’s beyond devastated.”
What’s more, Spencer says, he was struggling in school.
“Pat had gotten a C+ on a major exam shortly before he disappeared, and in his last letter to the young lady he pined for, he told her he felt like a ‘fern in a forest of sequoias.’”
Spencer surmised Collins’ chose the location for his suicide because Lake Champlain is a stopping point for migrating Snow Geese – something he shared with the woman he considered his soul mate. “He writes a poem called The Flight of the Snow Geese. The Snow Goose is a bird that mates for life. In fact, it’s mentioned in the poem about this pair of birds is traveling north during spring time, and one has succumbed to the arrow of a hunter, and the other one is crying out while flying north.”
And, finally, police said Collins had called Amtrak before he went missing, although there’s no evidence he booked a ticket. "In Charlottesville there’s an Amtrak station less than two miles from Pat’s house, and up in Port Henry, New York there’s an Amtrak station right on Lake Champlain, and in that era you could buy an Amtrak ticket with cash and no identification.”
So university police appear to have gotten the story right from the get go, but Spencer and Nordin think the case could have been solved sooner if UVA had immediately given it to local or state police.