Video key in Collins murder; home security revealed knife, purse, blood — and suspect

Rebecca O'Donnell is led out of the Randolph County Courthouse after pleading guilty to the murder of former state senator Linda Collins on Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020, in Pocahontas. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)
Rebecca O'Donnell is led out of the Randolph County Courthouse after pleading guilty to the murder of former state senator Linda Collins on Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020, in Pocahontas. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

Soon after launching their investigation into the murder of former state Sen. Linda Collins last year, police reviewing security footage from inside her home made a startling discovery: footage showing Collins' close friend, Rebecca O'Donnell, stashing a kitchen knife in her purse with what appeared to be blood on her hands.

The incriminating footage -- along with a trove of other files collected to form a digital footprint of the days surrounding Collins' death -- was used to obtain a warrant for O'Donnell's arrest on June 14, 2019, less than two weeks after Collins was discovered stabbed to death at her Pocahontas home.

The grisly details of the video, however, remained under court-ordered seal until O'Donnell this month pleaded guilty to killing Collins.

"The video showed the specific location inside the residence where agents believe Collins-Smith was stabbed," Arkansas State Police investigators wrote in the affidavit for O'Donnell's arrest warrant, which used the surname Collins went by prior to a divorce from local judge Phil Smith.

The affidavit went on to describe "O'Donnell looking inside of a red colored purse with what appears to be blood on her hands while holding a large kitchen knife and placing the large knife inside of the purse."

Investigators also said the video showed O'Donnell carrying a white purse with what appeared to be "a significant amount of blood on the exterior of the purse." A white purse similar to the one seen in the video was later found in the truck that O'Donnell was riding in as a passenger when she was arrested on her way to a memorial service for Collins.

A redacted version of the arrest affidavit that was made public last year disclosed that O'Donnell was later filmed attempting to remove security cameras from Collins' home on May 28, the last day Collins was seen alive.

The unredacted copy of the affidavit was first released to the Arkansas Times this weekend. The state police provided the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette with a copy of the unredacted version Monday.

Other documents released by state police and the Randolph County circuit clerk's office over the past two weeks disclosed that investigators also traced several gold coins belonging to Smith -- Collins' ex-husband -- to shops in Little Rock and Memphis, where O'Donnell had sold them for thousands of dollars.

In a court filing, prosecutors said they believed the murders were committed over money and to avoid O'Donnell's arrest. During the hearing at which she pleaded guilty, O'Donnell did not explain her reason for killing Collins.

Butch Smith, Collins' oldest son, said in a statement this month that he believes O'Donnell was stealing from his mother, "and when my mother confronted her about it, she snapped and stabbed my mother to death."

Officials are still in the process of redacting numerous files prepared during the course of the yearlong investigation so the records may be released to the public. A state police spokeswoman last week said the agency's investigation file contained nearly 4 terabytes of digital information.

O'Donnell, 49, was sentenced to a total of 50 years in prison in her plea deal. That includes seven years for a related crime in which O'Donnell sought to recruit several of her fellow inmates at the Jackson County jail into a plot to kill Collins' ex-husband and frame him for the ex-senator's murder.

Her attorney, Lee Short, said Monday that his team spent more than a year conducting its own investigation with the knowledge that prosecutors had evidence tying O'Donnell to the crime scene.


Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Rebecca O’Donnell is led out of the Randolph County Courthouse in Pocahontas by Sheriff Kevin Bell (left) after O’Donnell pleaded guilty Aug. 6 to the murder of Linda Collins.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

Short said both prosecutors and O'Donnell's attorneys sought more information about O'Donnell's "state of mind" before the murder, though he said that question remained largely unanswered at the time of O'Donnell's plea. He said the plea was largely motivated by a desire to have closure for both Collins' and O'Donnell's families.

"It wasn't until fairly recently that we made progress with regards to negotiations," Short said.

Other documents released over the weekend show that police began investigating O'Donnell within days of the discovery of Collins' body.

According to multiple affidavits filed in support of search warrants during the course of the investigation, police said they first interviewed O'Donnell on June 4, the night the body was discovered.

Robert Dittrich, the special prosecutor later assigned to the case, said Monday he did not believe that O'Donnell was a suspect at that time, noting that police spoke to a number of Collins' family members and friends the day her body was discovered to get a sense of her activities.

During that initial interview, O'Donnell told police that she and Collins had gotten into an argument May 28 at Collins' house, after which O'Donnell said she had not returned to the house.

Investigators noted in several affidavits filed later that O'Donnell's statements clashed with what others had told police. Butch Smith told police that he had seen O'Donnell pulling into Collins' property on June 3, the day before he discovered his mother's body. O'Donnell's fiance, Tim Loggains, told police that O'Donnell had been over to Collins' house several times after May 28, according to the affidavits.

Investigators obtained a search warrant for O'Donnell's phone records June 7 and that day requested permission to search her Facebook account to view messages between her and Collins, according to documents related to each request.

Then, on June 14, police received the footage showing O'Donnell holding the knife in Collins' home from ARLO Technologies, the company that made Collins' security system. O'Donnell was arrested later that day.

"Until that picture surfaced on the security camera, no one knew for sure who we were looking for," Dittrich said.

Police continued to seek more information from digital records, gaining access to Collins' Apple, Google and Facebook accounts as well as her phone records and multiple computers and tablets found in her home. Phone records from AT&T allowed police to track a cellphone belonging to Collins from her home in Pocahontas around the time of the murder back to the home O'Donnell shared with Loggains in Biggers, according to an unsealed document.

That document, an affidavit in support of a search warrant for Loggains' phone records, stated that additional security footage from Collins' home in the early morning hours the day after the murder showed one, or possibly two, people concealed under a white sheet moving from the driveway to Collins' garage. Police wrote that they wanted access to Loggains' phone records to track whether he was at Collins' home around the time that the figure in the sheet was recorded.

Asked about the warrant, Dittrich said Loggains' phone records did not show him to be in the vicinity of Collins' home that night and that he is "not currently a suspect."

Loggains' attorney, Erin Cassinelli, said Monday, "Tim had absolutely nothing to do with his friend's murder," and included a statement from Loggains saying that he felt deceived after initially defending O'Donnell.

"No one wants to believe anyone close to them is capable of doing something so heinous," the statement said. "My heart at that time would not let me believe what I later learned to be true – that Becky murdered Linda."

A spokesman for Collins' family said Monday the family had no additional comment.

Meanwhile, O'Donnell was taken to the Arkansas Department of Corrections' McPherson Unit in Newport on Aug. 7 to begin serving her sentence. She will be eligible for parole after about 30 years, according to her inmate profile.

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