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4 Crimes That Inspired Law & Order Episodes

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Truth is stranger than fiction, and one place that becomes very clear is in Law & Order episodes that were ripped from the headlines. Sure, the episodes themselves are entertaining, but the original inspiration for the episode is often so bizarre that it makes the show seem mild in comparison. These are a few of the many true stories used in Law & Order episodes. You’ll see why the show occasionally needs to tone down certain details to actually make the case seem believable.

(For those of you worried about spoilers, I’ve tried to limit the giveaways in the plot summaries. You should be OK reading the article without ruining these four episodes.)

1. Episode: Hubris

Law & Order Plot: Four people are murdered during a jewelry store heist. Though the suspect is quickly apprehended and charged with the crime, the prosecutors are in for a rough time when the charming and persuasive young man insists on representing himself. Things get even more complex when he starts flirting with the jury foreman.

The True Story: Peter Gill was part of a Vancouver drug gang charged with murdering two men in 1994. The trial made history when Gill became sexually involved with one of the jurors, a woman named Gillian Guess.

Court officers learned about the behavior, but the judge only approached Gill about the affair, and the two continued to see each other. Eventually, Gill told Guess to convict his two co-defendants.

After the trial, Guess was investigated and police uncovered enough evidence to prove that she was involved with Gill during the trial. The resulting scandal set a number of precedents in Canadian Law. It was the first time a juror was sanctioned for his or her decisions, and the only time in Canadian history where a jury room discussion was made part of the public record.

Eventually, Gillian Guess was convicted of obstruction of justice after other jurors came forward to testify that she badgered them into an acquittal. She served 18 months in prison and one year of probation. Gill was never retried for murder, but he was convicted of obstruction of justice as well, and served six years in prison.

2. Episode: Myth of Fingerprints

Law & Order Plot: A jailhouse confession raises questions about the guilt of two convicted men, one of whom has already died in custody. The resulting investigation reveals that a former fingerprint examiner may have intentionally provided false testimonies in order to secure convictions. To make matters worse, the current police lieutenant earned her promotion thanks to two of these false convictions.

The True Story: If you thought the show’s conviction of two innocent men, one of whom died in custody, was bad, then the story of Joyce Gilchrist will really get your blood boiling. Gilchrist was a former forensic chemist who was involved with over 3,000 cases during her 21 years of working with the Oklahoma City police. During her career, she earned the nickname “Black Magic” for her ability to match DNA evidence. She was very skilled at testifying during criminal trials and persuading jurors. I think you can guess where this is going. That’s right, she didn’t actually match all those samples, and her testimonies sent numerous innocent men to prison.

Some colleagues questioned Gilchrist's work, but it took years to catch her. Things finally came to a head when a man convicted of rape was exonerated based on additional DNA evidence. The man had a clean record and a good alibi, so his conviction largely came down to Gilchrist’s evidence and testimony. Unfortunately, the man had already spent 15 years in prison by that point and missed seeing his children grow up.

The case brought attention to Gilchrist’s work and she was eventually fired due to “flawed casework analysis” and “laboratory mismanagement.” Twenty-three cases she worked on resulted in a death sentence and, of those, 11 have already been executed. It is impossible to say how many of these people would have been found innocent if it weren’t for her lab work. Over 1,700 cases Gilchrist worked on were reviewed by the state of Oklahoma. Lawsuits and appeals related to her wrongful convictions are still pending.

Of course, if you ask Gilchrist or her attorney, she didn’t do anything wrong. Despite all the independent forensic examiners who brought doubt to her work, Gilchrist claims that she was actually fired for reporting the sexual misconduct of her supervisor. She even filed a wrongful termination lawsuit for $20 million, which she did not win.

3. Episode: Born Again

Law & Order Plot: When an 11-year-old girl is found dead, investigators discover clues that point to her desperate mother and her child therapist being involved in a dangerous and unorthodox “rebirthing” procedure.

The True Story: Candace Tiara Elmore and her siblings were removed from their home after suffering from neglect. At the age of seven, Candace was adopted by Jeane Elizabeth Newmaker (pictured at left), who changed Candace’s name to Candace Elizabeth Newmaker. Candace didn’t adapt well to her new environment and she soon started acting out. She was diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, but the medications she was given didn’t seem to help her condition.

Eventually, Jeane brought her to an intensive attachment therapy session headed by Connell Watkins. During the second week of treatment, Candace was put through a 70-minute “rebirthing” session, where she was wrapped in a flannel sheet and told to force her way out of it, simulating her exiting from the womb. The idea was that once she escaped the “womb,” she would then connect better with her adoptive mother.

Jeane, Watkins, another therapist, Julie Ponder, and two other adults used their bodies to prevent Candace from escaping from the blanket, no matter how loud she complained. Even when Candace started shouting that she needed air and that she was dying, the adults ignored her pleas. Ponder even exclaimed, “You want to die? OK, then die. Go ahead, die right now.” Within twenty minutes, the girl vomited and excreted inside the sheet. She still was not released. Forty minutes in, Jeane asked, “Baby, do you want to be born?” Candace meekly replied, “No.” Ponder replied, "Quitter, quitter, quitter, quitter! Quit, quit, quit, quit. She's a quitter!"

Jeane was asked to leave the room around that point and shortly after, the therapists asked the other two volunteers to leave the room. After talking amongst themselves for a few minutes, they gave up on Candace and unwrapped the sheet to reveal Candace’s body. She was blue in the face and wasn’t breathing. Jeane, who was watching the room on a television monitor, returned to the room and started performing CPR while Watkins called 911. Paramedics were able to get the girl’s heart started again, but in the hospital the next day, she was declared brain dead due to oxygen deprivation.

The entire two-week therapy session was videotaped, which provided ample evidence at the trial of Watkins and Ponder. The two were found guilty of reckless child abuse resulting in death, and each received 16-year prison sentences. Watkins was paroled after seven years, but she was put under strict restrictions regarding contact with children and counseling work. Jeanne pled guilty to neglect and abuse and was given a four-year suspended sentence. The two other participants in the session pled guilty to criminally negligent child abuse and were given ten years probation and 1000 hours community service.

A number of states have added statutes outlawing dangerous birth experience reenactments since the case.

4. Episode: Patient Zero

Law & Order Plot: When a car jacking is linked to an outbreak of the deadly SARS virus, detectives have to find the first patient who contracted the illness. The eventually turn up a wealthy researcher with a motive for revenge.

The True Story: When physician Richard J. Schmidt was dumped by his lover and former colleague, Janice Trahan, he decided to get revenge. In 1994, Schmidt took a blood sample from one of his AIDS-infected patients and injected the virus into Trahan, telling her it was a “Vitamin B” injection.

When Trahan was diagnosed with HIV, she was immediately suspicious of Schmidt. She had her ex-husband and all former boyfriends tested for the disease and they all came up clean. With this evidence, the police started to investigate her claims about Dr. Schmidt.

Because HIV can last only a few hours outside of the human body and Trahan said the injection was performed late at night, the police knew the blood had to be taken late at night, too. Eventually, they uncovered hospital records that showed Schmidt took blood from a patient at night and never sent the sample to the lab. They tracked down that patient and took a sample of his blood.

While virus DNA matching had never been performed for a criminal trial before, the forensics team went forward with the testing and the DNA of the patient’s virus matched the virus DNA from Trahan. As a result, prosecutors were able to secure a conviction against Schmidt, who was charged with second degree attempted murder and sentenced to 50 years in jail.

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Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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Mata Hari: Famous Spy or Creative Storyteller?
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Nearly everyone has heard of Mata Hari, one of the most cunning and seductive spies of all time. Except that statement isn't entirely true. Cunning and seductive, yes. Spy? Probably not. 

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest daughter of a hat store owner who was quite wealthy thanks to some savvy oil investments.  When her mother died, her father remarried and shuffled his children off to various relatives. To escape, an 18-year-old Margaretha answered an ad in the paper that might have read something like this: "Dutch Colonial Army Captain Seeks Wife. Compatibility not important. Must not mind blatant infidelity or occasional beatings."

She had two children with Captain Rudolf MacLeod, but they did nothing to improve the marriage. He brazenly kept a mistress and a concubine; she moved in with another officer. Again, probably looking to escape her miserable existence, Margaretha spent her time in Java (where the family had relocated for Captain MacLeod's job) becoming part of the culture, learning all about the dance and even earning a dance name bestowed upon her by the locals—"Mata Hari," which meant "eye of the day" or "sun."

Her son died after being poisoned by an angry servant (so the MacLeods believed).

Margaretha divorced her husband, lost custody of her daughter and moved to Paris to start a new life for herself in 1903. Calling upon the dance skills she had learned in Java, the newly restyled Mata Hari became a performer, starting with the circus and eventually working her way up to exotic dancer. 

To make herself seem more mysterious and interesting, Mata Hari told people her mother was a Javanese princess who taught her everything she knew about the sacred religious dances she performed. The dances were almost entirely in the nude.

Thanks to her mostly-nude dancing and tantalizing background story, she was a hot commodity all over Europe. During WWI, this caught the attention of British Intelligence, who brought her in and demanded to know why she was constantly traipsing across the continent. Under interrogation, she apparently told them she was a spy for France—that she used her job as an exotic dancer to coerce German officers to give her information, which she then supplied back to French spymaster Georges Ladoux. No one could verify these claims and Mata Hari was released.

Not too long afterward, French intelligence intercepted messages that mentioned H-21, a spy who was performing remarkably well. Something in the messages reminded the French officers of Mata Hari's tale and they arrested her at her hotel in Paris on February 13, 1917, under suspicion of being a double agent.

Mata Hari repeatedly denied all involvement in any spying for either side. Her captors didn't believe her story, and perhaps wanting to make an example of her, sentenced her to death by firing squad. She was shot to death 100 years ago today, on October 15, 1917.

In 1985, one of her biographers convinced the French government to open their files on Mata Hari. He says the files contained not one shred of evidence that she was spying for anyone, let alone the enemy. Whether the story she originally told British intelligence was made up by them or by her to further her sophisticated and exotic background is anyone's guess. 

Or maybe she really was the ultimate spy and simply left no evidence in her wake.

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