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Suicide didn't clear allegations

1-7-2008 Mississippi:

Capt. Pete Collins received thousands upon thousands of letters of admiration.

"A lot of people here really look up to you. Including me!" wrote one high school student from Kentucky.

A Mississippi student wrote, "I won't forget you. I had thought about suicide, but it is not worth it. Now, I wouldn't commit suicide for anything in the world."

Collins spent 28 years serving Mississippi as a highway patrolman. It was for his motivational speeches - inspiring, cautionary tales delivered over a 25-year speaking career - that Collins became, in the words of Louisa Dixon, former commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, "a great ambassador for Mississippi. Pete's talent for public speaking was of the highest caliber."

"Pete had a gift," Jackie Moore, his fiancee, said recently. "He could have you buckled over, laughing out loud one second, and crying your eyes out the next."

This 62-year-old man who was presented with enough awards to fill a home's walls slipped his socks off on a Sunday last August and hung himself with them inside the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Rankin County.

Convicted of molesting a 13-year-old girl, Collins was two days into a 10-year prison sentence when he ended his life.

"I don't worry about Pete. I know where he's at," Gail Jones, his older sister, said. "It's just the way he had to go - it's not right."

It took two trials to convict Collins. The first one, in August 2006, ended in a hung jury.

Lee County Assistant District Attorney Clay Joyner prosecuted Collins during the second trial, in August 2007. Joyner's investigation brought to the surface a portrait of Collins few wanted to see.

"In talking with current Highway Patrol investigators, I discovered a lot of them had problems with Pete," said Joyner. "Pete would take other people's stories and during his speeches put himself in their shoes. That rubbed a lot of people in the department the wrong way."

Jim Ingram, former commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, testified during the second trial. Ingram told jurors that he viewed Collins, after years of working with him, as a "dishonest" person. "I was subpoenaed, came forward and testified, under oath, to the truth," was all Ingram would say about his testimony.

More incriminating, Joyner uncovered five women who claimed to have been molested by Collins when they were teenagers, stretching back to 1967.

"None of them, whatsoever, have a motive to make something like this up," said Joyner. "When you've got a group of victims who match a sex and specific age range, from 13 to 15 years old, that, in and of itself, speaks to his situation."

A judge did not allow the women to testify at Collins' trial.

One of the victims was Kay Swindell. The Winona resident attended both of Collins' trials.

"I kept it a secret for 40 years. I never told a soul," said Swindell, who claims Collins molested her when she was 15. "That's because I didn't think anyone would believe me. Pete went out and made a big name for himself, and through all of those years, I wanted someone to know the truth about him."

Swindell said she came forward because she knew what the 13-year-old victim was going through.

"I knew that Pete would do everything in his power to try and discredit that little girl, and I knew how scared she was," said Swindell.

Joyner said he found a pattern in Collins' behavior.

"In these types of cases, you find repetition," he said. "And that's what you have here."

Collins would gain young girls' trust over a period of time before molesting them, Joyner said. "But he made a mistake with the last one. ... He never groomed her."

The incident that led to Collins' conviction began the night before Thanksgiving 2004. Visiting his son's home in Tupelo for the holidays, Collins went to bed in his grandchildren's bed.

"I'm going to sleep with them as often as I can because they are all I got," Collins testified during his first trial.

His granddaughter had a friend over, visiting.

The 13-year-old victim testified during both trials that she woke up in the middle of the night with Collins' hands down the front of her pajama bottoms.

All five of the previous victims Joyner found said they were teenagers when Collins first molested them. At least one of the girls says Collins had intercourse with her over a two-year period, beginning when she was 12.

"No man I know walks around with girls accusing him of that," Joyner said. "Again, that speaks to Collins."

Collins' family contends that his suicide was a combination of a false conviction, a 10-year sentence, public humiliation and lack of proper medication. ..more.. by William Browning

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