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Why did this Minnesota man kill his family in 1984 before setting his house on fire, killing himself?

A seemingly happy family ended in tragedy after the father bludgeoned his wife to death, suffocated his 9-year- and 22-month-old children, lit his house on fire and then hanged himself 38 years ago.

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Ann, Scott and David Collins
David Collins would go on to murder his wife Ann, his 9-year-old son Scott and 22-month-old son Jeffrey.
Image courtesy of Newspapers.com from the Winona Daily News Oct. 9, 1984

ROCHESTER — Almost 38 years ago, a Rochester man went to a Saturday night play with his wife. The pair came home and said good night to their babysitter. Some while later, the man beat, stabbed and bludgeoned his wife to death, smothered his two children, lit his house on fire and then hanged himself.

No one knows why.

By most accounts at the time, David Collins was a normal, well-adjusted though quiet, man. He was an IBM engineer who had been with the company for 14 years. A spokesman for the company told reporters that he was a good employee “no work-related problem whatsoever.”

Neighbors described the family as “friendly church-going people.” In fact, they went every Sunday.

His wife, Ann, a 36-year-old part-time nurse at Methodist Hospital in Rochester, was active in the community, according to an October 1984 Star Tribune article.

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His son, 9-year-old Scott, was described as a well-liked fourth-grader at Elton Hills Elementary School who had a coin collection students liked to talk about.

The school tried to help his classmates work through the tragic event.

“It was a new experience for all of us,” Larry Burfeind, Scott’s teacher told the Associated Press at the time. “We weren’t really any better prepared to handle it than the parents.”

The Collins' son Jeffrey had been born only 22 months before.

“We don’t have a motive,” Olmsted County Coroner Dr. Paul Belau told the Star Tribune shortly after the murders. “We don’t understand what’s going on.”

Oct. 7-8, 1984

David and Ann went to a play at the Rochester Civic Center that Saturday night with friends Robin and Barb Jahnke. The couples would later have dessert together.

“They were fine and in good spirits all night, and when they left to go home before midnight,” Robin Jahnke told the Associated Press.

The pair arrived home and let their babysitter, Jeffrey Groen, a 14-year-old ninth-grader at John Adams, go home. Groen would say they all seemed “absolutely normal.”

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Alice Kerr, of Rochester, a family friend and member of the Collin's church, Christ United Methodist, would receive a call from David around 8:30 a.m. Sunday to say his wife would be unable to attend because the family seemed to be coming down with the flu.

A neighbor, Judy Gerdts, would tell the Star Tribune she saw David running down their street around noon on Sunday, though he wasn’t a jogger and was wearing street clothes.

“I waved, but he didn’t,” she told the Star Tribune. “It was like he was in a hurry.”

Neighbors would say that while they knew and liked Ann, they knew little about David, according to the Star Tribune.

Firefighters after David Collins house fire
Firefighters would arrive at a barricaded home Oct. 8, 1984 that contained the bodies of David, Ann, Scott and Jeffrey Collins. Authorities believed that David murdered his family before setting his house on fire and hanging himself.
Image courtesy of Newspapers.com from The Winona Daily News Oct. 9, 1984

Neighbors would notice smoke coming from the Collins’ home around 6 p.m. that day.

Firefighters would arrive to a fortified home.

“The front and back doors were barricaded with four-by-fours and chairs,” Rochester Assistant Police Chief Jim Ryan told the Associated Press. “Firefighters had to break in through the rear door.”

They would find the deceased bodies of David, Ann, Scott and Jeffrey inside the home. A later autopsy showed they had been killed before David set the fire.

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Belau, the coroner, would tell the Associated Press that the family had been murdered even before David put in the call to Kerr to tell her the family wouldn’t make it into church.

Belau determined that Ann had been stabbed in the chest twice by David, one penetrating her heart, before he fractured her skull with a blunt object. He then suffocated Scott and Jeffrey. All three were found in their pajamas and had most likely been murdered in their upstairs beds.

David then apparently carried the bodies of his family to the basement of their rambler-style home and made a nest of them before lighting his home on fire and hanging himself.

His body would be found on the floor after the fire burned through the rope he used.

Belau told the Associated Press that David must have started the fire to cover up his crimes.

“I don’t know that I can see any reason that there’d be anything for him to do this,” neighbor Glenda Groen told the Star Tribune. “He had a good job. They had everything going for them, or at least that’s what we’ve said around here.”

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Mark Wasson has been a public safety reporter with Post Bulletin since May 2022. Previously, he worked as a general assignment reporter in the southwest metro and as a public safety reporter in Willmar, Minn. Readers can reach Mark at mwasson@postbulletin.com.
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