Linda F. Collins (1962–2019)
Linda F. Collins was a state legislator in the early part of the twenty-first century. First elected as a Democrat, she switched parties not long after her first election, eventually sponsoring a controversial “bathroom bill” that was opposed by the LGBTQ+ community and others. In June 2019, she was murdered by a former member of her campaign staff.
Linda Collins was born on April 17, 1962, in Pocahontas (Randolph County) to Benny Collins and Caroline Vernice Hunnicutt Collins. She grew up poor in Williford (Sharp County), once saying that she did not have running water until she was in her teens, and she attended school at Williford. She married Philip Smith in 1995, and they had two children. During their marriage, she went by the name of Linda Collins-Smith. The couple separated in June 2016, and the divorce was finalized in October 2018. However, Smith, who had resigned his position as a circuit court judge in late 2017 amidst allegations of improper use of office equipment, was still engaged in litigation with Collins related to property disputes stemming from the divorce at the time of her death.
Prior to running for office, Collins was a real estate agent and entrepreneur. Beginning around 2001, she and her husband owned and operated the Days Inn in Pocahontas, an establishment they sold in 2016. In addition, in 2012 Collins and Smith purchased an independent, non-franchise motel that they renovated and opened in 2013. She still owned it at the time of her death.
Collins first sought election to the Arkansas House of Representatives in 2010, winning a seat as a Democrat and serving from 2011 to 2013. However, shortly after taking her seat, Collins switched her party affiliation from Democrat to Republican, decrying what she saw as the Democratic Party’s increasingly liberal stance on social issues. As a member of the House of Representatives, Collins served on the City, County and Local Affairs Committee as well as the Joint Energy and the Revenue and Taxation Committees.
Her House career was a short one, for in 2012, a redistricting process put her up against Republican lawmaker Lori Benedict. Instead of taking on her fellow Republican, Collins instead sought the Arkansas Senate seat held by Democrat David Wyatt. However, she lost to Wyatt by a 51.2 to 48.8 percent tally in the general election.
Collins returned to the political arena in 2014. A lifetime member of the National Rifle Association (NRA), she ran as both pro-gun and pro-life candidate, making it clear that she had left her Democratic past behind her. Collins also promised to work to reduce government restrictions and regulations that, she believed, hampered job creation. She also pledged to urge the state’s representatives in Washington DC to work to repeal the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare. All of this proved to be a popular platform, and she defeated Democrat James McLean by over sixteen percent of the vote.
Once in the Senate, she introduced a controversial bill, similar to one that had previously been enacted in North Carolina, that would have required people to use the public bathroom that corresponded to the biological sex listed on their original birth certificate. The bill got a lot of early attention, but it was never acted upon. Meanwhile, during her time in the Senate, Collins was a member of the Children and Youth Committee; the City, County and Local Affairs Committee; and the Judiciary Committee (of which she was vice chair). She also served on the Joint Performance Review and the Joint Energy Committees. She also became Arkansas House Chair for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization of conservative activists and legislators who disseminate model legislation to be implemented at the state level.
Collins was dogged by the controversial bathroom bill when she ran for reelection. In fact, her 2018 reelection bid ended when she was defeated by James Sturch in the Republican primary by just under six percent of the vote. Sturch went on to win the safe Republican seat in the general election with over seventy percent of the vote.
After Collins returned to private life, she and her ex-husband became enmeshed in an acrimonious legal battle over property issues stemming from their divorce. The issues were still unresolved when Collins was found dead in her home in Pocahontas on June 4, 2019, an apparent murder victim. She is buried in Opposition Cemetery in Ravenden (Lawrence County).
Authorities soon charged Rebecca Lynn O’Donnell, a friend and former member of Collins’s campaign staff, with the murder. Months later, O’Donnell was also charged with solicitation to commit capital murder of Collins’s former husband as well as a former prosecutor and a local judge. She was convicted of first-degree murder and abusing a corpse in August 2020 and sentenced to fifty-seven years.
For additional information:
Jared, George. “Suspect Pleads Guilty to Murder of Former Arkansas State Senator Linda Collins.” KUAR Public Radio. https://www.ualrpublicradio.org/local-regional-news/2020-08-06/suspect-pleads-guilty-to-murder-of-former-arkansas-state-senator-linda-collins (accessed January 13, 2022).
“Linda Collins-Smith.” Ballotpedia. https://ballotpedia.org/Linda_Collins-Smith (accessed January 13, 2022).
“Linda F. Collins.” Find-a-Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/199889617/linda-f_-collins (accessed January 13, 2022).
Rddad, Youssef. “Authorities ID Body as Ex-Senator.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 7, 2019, pp. 1B, 8B.
Snyder, Josh, Michael R. Wickline, and Youssef Rddad. “Filing Confirms Ex-Senator’s Death.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 6, 2019, pp. 1B, 7B.
Turnage, Clara. “Police Detain Woman in Ex-Legislator’s Death.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 15, 2019, pp. 1A, 3A.
———. “Suspect Waits in Jail; Ex-Senator Laid to Rest.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 16, 2019, pp. 1B, 7B.
Wickline, Michael R. “Ex-Senator’s Family Reacts to Loss.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 12, 2019, p. 2B.
William H. Pruden III
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