The area where the body of Jaylan Collins was discovered on April 8 is a thick patch of forest at the end of Simken Drive on Lansing’s south side. It’s a kind of urban space that seems perfect for untoward activity like underage drinking, drug use or vagrancy. Even in the middle of a city, in the middle of the day, this patch of woods is eerie and dark and has the ability to make a visitor feel vulnerable and isolated.
Simken Drive is quiet and lined with one- or two-story apartment buildings that exhibit so little activity that they seem abandoned. The street ends at a guardrail and beyond that is a well-mowed clearing. Beyond the grass and the apartment buildings is the forest.
It was around 7 p.m. when Collins’ body was found in this forest, and, according to police reports, he was lying face down facing west in thick mud, his pants down to his ankles and a stick over the top of his bare legs. He was wearing a Barack Obama T-shirt and nearby, hanging in a tree, was his Detroit Lions winter jacket. A detective would later observe that his pants were down not as a result of assault, but because they were very baggy.
Scattered around Collins’ body were “beverage containers,” all of which appeared to have been there long before the 13-year-old died. But police would later recover a plastic bottle of 5 O’clock Vodka that they believe was purchased by an adult for Collins and several of his friends. That cheap vodka, the hastiness by which it was drunk, and the abandonment of Collins in the forest by his friends on a cold spring night most likely all contributed to the death of the 4-foot, 9-inch, 90-pound middle-schooler.
Collins’ death is more than just another causality of foolish underage drinking; it is an example of the lives of troubled teens in this city who lack attention by the community. Worst, Collins’ story could and probably will be played out again here and in cities and towns across this country. But underneath Collins’ story is a small glim mer of hope that someone notices tragedies like this, and wants to do something about it.
Jaylan Collins lived since 2005 at the LaRoy Froh Housing Community along REO Road, about one mile from where he died. He lived in a two-story townhouse with his mother, Lori Bond, and his younger sister. He attended REO Elementary School and before that had lived with his mother at a VFW home in Eaton Rapids. At the time of his death, he was in 6th grade — his mother said that he had been held back one year — at Dwight Rich Middle School.
Collins was born in Detroit, where he lived for a time before Bond had to leave Jaylan’s father, Jonnard Collins, because of abuse. Jonnard Collins, Bond reported, is not in the picture, but is aware of his son’s death.
Bond described her son as a “hyper child,” and said that he had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and that he did average in school. His interests seemed pretty normal — he rode his bike around the neighborhood, hung out around the LaRoy Froh area and played basketball.
He liked to write, she said, and his career goals were in the stars.
“He wanted to be a rapper,” she said. He would rap about famous gangs — the Crips, the Bloods — but he never recorded any of his work.
“I wanted him to be in sports,” she said.
Bond said that her son liked school and his favorite subject was English. Once, after coming home from a stay at the St. Vincent Home for Children, he wrote a short biographical story titled “How To Be a True Soldier.”
In it, he wrote, “I got a mind and good mentality like a man.” The story expresses a lot of anger toward Jonnard Collins, who Bond maintains was physically abusive.
When Jaylan turned 11, Bond said, he started hanging out with some neighborhood kids whom she did not approve of. He would hang out with them mostly at their homes, and Bond guesses they were probably unsupervised. It was around this time that he started smoking — she said she would always keep her cigarettes away from him — and sometimes claimed to be high.
Then, their house started getting broken into while Bond was away at work. Collins’ Xbox was stolen, and some of his mother’s money.
Collins also started to act out, landing him in several local detention homes, He had always acted out, but not enough for law enforcement to intervene.
The first time, he threw a pair of scissors at his mother during an argument. He was sent to the Ingham County Youth Center, a facility for delinquents aged 12 to 17. He received some counseling while there, Bond said, but he continued to lash out — once carving into his arm with a knife and making threats of suicide — and acted out so much at the Youth Center that he had to be transferred to the St. Vincent center. (Social service professionals who either worked with Jaylan Collins or are in charge of these programs could not comment or did not return calls seeking comment.)
It was on a visit home from St. Vincent’s on New Year’s Eve last year that Collins was brought home by two of his friends. He was intoxicated.
“He was falling all over the place,” Bond said.
In the months leading up to his death, Collins was at St. Vincent’s, where he continued to act out. The day before he died — a Tuesday — Collins spent the day with his mother. It was spring break and he was out of school for the week. He visited his probation officer that day, but when they arrived home, he told his mother, “I really gotta do something.”
“I didn’t say no or nothing,” Bond said. “That’s the last time I seen him … he said he had to meet a friend.”
Bond keeps a tidy house. As she retold the story of the moments leading up to her son’s death, seated in her living room on a big couch, she spoke as though her mind were a great distance away. At times her eyes would well up with tears as she described her son and how he was excited about the school year, because he would get to look out for his younger sister at school. She has kept her son’s bedroom intact, with a nest of stuffed animals stacked next to his pillow, which had a picture of Scooby Doo on it. In his room are various memorials — a large poster board propped on his bed reads “In memory of Jaylan Collins,” and a cut-out photo of him from the newspaper is glued on it with a dotted line leading to the phrase “the man.”
“I cry every day still,” she said. “It’s every little thing. I keep waiting for him to come home from school.”
Usually when Collins would go out at night, he would call to check in, Bond said. He did not on that Tuesday night, and the next morning Bond called the police and reported him as a runaway. After that, the police came to her and told her that they had found a body, but they were no yet sure that it was Jaylan.
“I just had a gut feeling it was him,” she said.
Getting stories straight
It is largely unknown what exactly happened that Tuesday night to Jaylan Collins. Lansing Police would not comment because there has not been a conviction in the case.
Police reports that detail the investigation into Collins’ death provide sketchy accounts, mostly because the parties involved in the death told many different stories in apparent attempts to avoid criminal charges.
So far, only one person has been charged in Collins’ death. Alvin Mitchell, the father of one of the boys that Collins said he was going to meet that night. (UPDATE: Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III said that Mitchell pleaded guilty on Friday to a charge of conspiracy to furnish alcohol to a minor, and could face up to one year in jail. Mitchell was earlier charged with providing alcohol to a minor resulting in death - a more serious charge that carries a maximum 10-year sentence - but because there were intervening factors between Mithchell's purchasing of the alcohol and Collins' death, prosecutors thought that a jury may not find Mitchell's actions the "approximate cause of death.") Mitchell purchased the bottle of 5 O’clock Vodka at the behest of one of Collins’ friends — not Mitchell’s son — at Von’s Market, which is at the corner of Holmes Road and Pleasant Grove Road, just steps from Simken Drive.
The Lansing Fire Department was the first agency to respond to the scene. One firefighter stated in a police report that upon finding the body, he could feel rigor mortis in Collins’ hand and “could see that his eyes were cloudy.”
At the scene were two teenagers who had called police about the body. They both stated that they were cutting through the woods — though, in a police report, a note is made that there are no clear walking paths through the woods — and came across the body of a boy they only knew as “J-Block.” They both reported that they were scared when they found the body and waited a “half hour or hour” before calling police.
Later, in an interview with police, one of the boys at the scene where Collins was discovered would say that two other boys had found the body earlier in the day, and they alerted him of the body.
It was these other two boys — identified as friends of Collins — who may have been the last two to see Collins alive.
One of these boys — James (his real name is not being used because of an ongoing police investigation and that he is under 18) — told police, after changing his story several times, that at around 6:30 p.m. April 7, Mitchell allegedly was paid to buy the vodka for him, Collins and another boy, Sean (also not his real name).
James told police that he took “a couple of swigs” of the vodka but didn’t like it, while Collins and Sean proceeded to consume most of the alcohol. When the boys decided it was time to leave, Collins was too impaired to even stand up and kept falling down, getting mud all over him.
Because James was worried about his curfew, he told police, he and Sean left to go home.
The next day, James said, Sean went back to where the boys had been drinking the night before to retrieve the bottle of vodka because he wanted to continue to drink. It was apparently then, at around 2:30 p.m., that Collins’ body was discovered.
James did not immediately call police, he told them, because he was afraid he might go to jail.
Of the four young men that were interviewed by police and presumed to have been the people surrounding the death, only one could be located. The other three live, or at one time lived, within the same area as Collins’ house and the forest where he died. The house that Sean lived in — it is now vacant and neighbors report that it had recently been bought and is being fixed up — abuts the woods where Collins’ body was found. At James’ house, a man who answered the door said that the boy was away at boot camp. One of the boys that reported Collins’ body to police lives in a rough apartment building along Holmes Road, but a woman who answered the door said that he was not at home.
The one boy who was located, at the behest of his father, did not want to comment.
Mitchell did not respond to a request for comment through a relative or his lawyer. A woman who described herself as a spokeswoman for the Mitchell family declined comment on his behalf. Mitchell will undergo a preliminary examination — a hearing to determine whether a trial must be held — on Oct. 2.
Ingham County Prosecutor Stuar t Dunnings III said a previous preliminary exam was adjourned until Oct. 2 so that the defense could compile more information.
Bond has several questions she would like answered out of this — whether her son was dragged into the woods that night, or whether he was there drinking and was left behind. She also wants back the clothes that her son was wearing the night that he died.
Bond does not know for sure why her son died, but she has thoughts on the matter.
“Jaylan never had a male role model,” she said. “I think the problem is that some of these kids don’t have male role models. (Jaylan) needed to get busy with sports. He needed to keep himself busy with other things.”
One at a time
As Marcus Brown stepped out onto Barnes Street in the Baker-Donora neighborhood on a recent Friday afternoon, a young man — probably not more than 13 years old — was walking toward him, swearing loudly.
“You OK, Santana?” Brown said to the boy.
Santana crossed the street away from Brown, head down, thumbs tucked underneath the straps of his backpack. He nodded that he was OK, but Brown didn’t give up.
He kept talking to Santana, quizzing him politely about school and which teachers he had this school year. Santana eventually turned toward Brown and started talking.
All kids need, Brown says, is someone to pay attention to them and show them a little respect.
Brown, a teacher at Dwight Rich Middle School, knew Jaylan Collins. Not well, but he knew the boy. He knows the boys that Jaylan hangs out with, and he knows what those boys and others just like them are capable of.
He was taking a reporter on a tour of his corner of Baker-Donora — bound by Washington Avenue on the west, Pennsylvania Avenue on the east, Mt. Hope Avenue to the south and Baker Street to the north; Brown’s section of the neighborhood is also known as Fabulous Acres and is separated from Baker-Donora proper by train tracks — to point out some of the good and some of the bad.
Walking east along Barnes, Brown is stopped for a few minutes by a woman and her daughter to talk about school. At the eastern end of Barnes, he stops to talk to the owner of the local daycare center, who informs him of a condemned house in the neighborhood that is being lived in by a small family. He walks south along Martin Street to the corner of Isbell Street and points across the train tracks to a white house on the opposite corner. Until recently, lots of young kids were hanging around, and it was suspected that there was drug activity going on. The house has been shut down.
Walking around the block and up to Washington Avenue, Brown points out a convenience store on the corner. He derides it as a place where kids idle with nothing much to do.
In response to Collins’ death, and a shooting right after at Foster Park along Kalamazoo Street, Brown used his and his wife’s retirement fund to buy a house — right next to his own — at 119 E. Barnes. The house used to be a black eye on the neighborhood, red tagged and filled with garbage. He has since remodeled the house and filled it with books, computers donated by the Owosso School District, and games — most notably, chess. It’s a community center, dubbed Village Summit, to give kids something to do and supply them with a place where they will be respected.
“These boys are just dying out there,” said Brown, who has been a teacher in the Lansing School District for 15 years. “There’s a population out there that don’t go to school or are in school but don’t have the grades to do sports. We’re trying to give them books, show them that you care and take an interest in them. A lot of these kids don’t have a goal.”
Village Summit opened earlier this summer; however, it was later shut down because of building code violations having to do with handicap accessibility. Brown needs to build a wheelchair ramp and modify a bathroom to accommodate wheelchairs if he wishes to reopen Village Summit.
Bob Johnson, director of the city Planning and Neighborhood Development Department, says that it is firm that Brown must comply with building codes, but he doesn’t think it’s insurmountable.
“We all celebrate what Marcus is trying to do,” Johnson said. “We’d love to have more folks to do good work that’s well intentioned. One of the things we want to point out is that when someone has something open to the public, you have to have an accessible facility.”
At this point, Brown does not have the money for the ramp or the bathroom modification. There will be a fundraiser this Saturday beginning at noon at the Barb Dean playground at the corner of Martin and Garden streets. Brown hopes to raise $2,500, which will be matched by the local office of Modern Woodmen of America. He’s slightly frustrated that he has a house designed for the community, but has to wade through bureaucracy so that people can use it.
Still, he is moving on with his plans. He can’t distribute books from the house, so he recently went out with a shopping cart full of them to the local playground and handed them out. His focus is small, too. He knows that if you can just help one child, then you’ve done a lot.
Certainly, a place like Village Summit may not have saved Collins. Around the area where Collins lived and eventually died are a Boys and Girls Club, and the Southside Community Coalition, which is at the corner of Holmes Road and Simken Drive. There is a community center inside the LaRoy Froh complex, too.
But, like what Brown did with Santana, maybe it just takes an adult to stop a child on the street and talk to them.
“If we save one child by giving away books, it’s worth the investment,” he said. “It takes these small kinds of initiatives if there’s no one else around to help. It takes small things on a daily basis to change things. We need to develop activities where adults and kids can do something.
“I have children in (Jaylan’s) age range. That’s too young. We can’t let that go along. What does that say about the community where we can just let kids die like that?”