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Forgotten Crimes: Grand Island teen murders father, flees to N.Y. City

On the afternoon of Jan. 20, 1963, 38-year-old bar owner Howard Collins was at his home on Wallace Drive on Grand Island preparing for work when he got into a very heated argument with his 13-year-old son, James.

The topic of their fight was something the pair had butted heads over many times before: James’ romance with their 16-year-old neighbor, Grace Muetel. Albany’s Knickerbocker News reported on Jan. 22 that Howard Collins had objected to the young couple’s relationship on many occasions, urging his son to find a girlfriend his own age – an idea that James vehemently opposed.

At some point during their brawl, James retrieved his father’s 16-gauge shotgun – which the high school freshman had hidden in the family’s living room following a similar altercation the previous day – and fatally shot his father five times.

The Buffalo Courier-Express reported on Jan. 22 how Howard’s “left jaw had been ripped off by one blast and others hit him in the left collarbone, the left flank, the groin, the back of the left shoulder, and the left wrist.”

Howard Collins' son had been planning the crime for at least a day. The Buffalo Evening News reported on Jan. 21 that James had told his girlfriend on the night before the murder that he planned to kill his father with the shotgun should he try to voice his disapproval over their relationship again. Grace later told authorities that she did not take James' threat seriously at the time.

James Collins being escorted back to Buffalo by authorities after his arrest in New York City for the murder of his father, Howard. (Buffalo News file photo)

When the murder occurred, Howard’s wife, Joan, was at work at Fritz's Restaurant, the Cayuga Drive bar the couple owned in Niagara Falls. Joan returned home shortly after midnight to discover her husband’s lifeless body lying face-down on the bathroom floor. “Incoherent from shock,” the newly widowed mother of one called the police at 12:20 a.m., The Buffalo Evening News reported later that day. James was nowhere to be found, and neither were the murder weapon nor the family’s borrowed car.

James and Grace had fled from Grand Island together just hours after the murder, toting with them the loaded shotgun James used to murder his father. The high-schoolers drove through the night in Howard Collins’ 1960 Pontiac Sedan. They made it all the way to New York City before authorities stopped them in the Bronx after noticing that James looked suspiciously young to be driving. Neither of them had a driver's license. 

Police arrested the two runaways and contacted their parents, quickly connecting them to the crime the teens had left behind on Grand Island. The teenagers were flown back to Buffalo the following day, after an “indifferent and quiet” James confessed to police that he had “hated his father” and had intentionally murdered him, the Courier-Express reported on Jan. 22.

For her minimal involvement in the crime, Grace Muetel was deemed a truant in need of supervision and was released to her family, following her return to Buffalo.

Despite the state’s desire to press murder charges against James – whom neighbors described to the Courier-Express as a "good boy" – he was deemed a juvenile delinquent by the court. The Niagara Falls Gazette reported on March 6 that after undergoing various psychological tests, James was deemed sane and was sentenced to live at the State Agricultural and Industrial School until at least his 18th birthday.

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