On March 10, 1928, a 9-year-old boy named Walter Collins disappeared from his Los Angeles neighborhood. The LAPD searched for Walter unsuccessfully for five months, examining a nearby lake and investigating leads from people who thought they had seen the boy. In August, Walter turned himself in to police in DeKalb, Illinois, and his mother, Christine Collins, paid for him to be brought back to L.A.
But there was a big problem: When Christine and Walter reunited, she claimed that the boy wasn’t her son. LAPD Captain J.J. Jones assured her that the boy was Walter and that her son simply looked different because he had matured and experienced stress over the past five months. Jones then told Christine to take the boy home to try him out for a few weeks. Because the mystery of Walter’s disappearance had contributed to the public’s recent view of the LAPD as incompetent and corrupt, the department wanted to close the case as soon as possible.
Three weeks later, Christine gathered Walter’s dental records, plus a group of friends who knew her son, to prove that the boy was an imposter. Jones accused Christine of trying to abandon her son so she wouldn’t have to take care of him. After he also reportedly called her a cruel-hearted fool, Jones had her committed to the psychiatric ward at L.A. County General Hospital.
While Christine was held against her will in the psych ward, a handwriting expert determined that the boy’s handwriting samples didn’t match Walter’s. The imposter finally admitted that he was really Arthur Hutchins Jr., a 12-year-old from Iowa who had run away from home after his mother died. When police in DeKalb, Illinois questioned Arthur, they asked him if he knew who Walter Collins was. Arthur initially said no, but after he realized that his resemblance to Walter meant he could get away from his father and cruel stepmother, plus get a free trip to California, he told police that he was the missing boy.
A full 10 days after Arthur’s confession, Christine was released from the psych ward. She won $10,800 in court for false imprisonment, but Jones never paid her; the LAPD suspended Jones for just a few months before permanently reinstating him.
Arthur went back to live with his father and stepmother, and he attended the Iowa State Training School for Boys, a rehabilitation program for juvenile delinquents. In 1933, he wrote that he impersonated Walter to escape his stepmother. "A person doesn't realize what a hell this world can be at the hands of a step-mother that doesn't love or want you," he wrote, though he failed to mention he was also running from his hometown police. That summer, he was arrested for stealing, and when the police required that he check in with them once a week, he ran away to Illinois. Describing himself as a boy adventurer, Arthur conceded that he owed Christine Collins and California an apology for his deceptive actions. As an adult, Arthur sold concessions at carnivals, worked as a horse trainer, and started a family before dying of a blood clot in 1954.
The real Walter Collins was never found, but police believe he was one of the victims of serial killer Gordon Stewart Northcott and his mother Sarah Louise Northcott. The Northcotts kidnapped, sexually abused, and killed several boys in their chicken coop in Wineville, California. Because police didn’t find any physical evidence that conclusively linked Walter to the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders (as the Northcotts's deeds were known), Christine held out hope for decades that Walter was somehow alive. She continued searching for him until she died in Los Angeles in 1964, 36 years after her only son went missing.
Bonus: The 2008 film Changeling, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Angelina Jolie as Christine Collins, tells the story of Christine’s search for Walter.