4 Crimes That Inspired Law & Order Episodes

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Karl Walter, Getty Images
When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor
Karl Walter, Getty Images
Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.

 
 

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.

 
 

The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Peter Elliott
Authorities Have Cracked a Bizarre Cold Case That Could Have Ties to the Zodiac Killer
Peter Elliott
Peter Elliott

One of the strangest cold cases in Ohio, if not the United States, has now been solved—but pieces of the puzzle remain.

In 2002, a man known as Joseph Newton Chandler III fatally shot himself in the bathroom of his tiny apartment in Eastlake, Ohio. His body wasn't found for a week, by which point it was badly decomposed, and police were unable to obtain fingerprints. He hadn't left a note, and police found more than $80,000 in his bank account. A private investigator, hired by a probate judge to find surviving family members, soon discovered that the man known as Chandler wasn't Chandler at all—he'd stolen the identity of an 8-year-old boy from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who died in a car crash in Texas in 1945.

Since then, rumors have been building. Police felt the man was most likely a fugitive on the run—who else leaves $80,000 in a bank account and hides behind a stolen identity? Some said he might have been a Nazi war criminal. Others thought that he could be the Zodiac Killer, based on his likeness to a police sketch of the infamous murderer who left a trail of terror through Northern California in the 1960s and 1970s. (And, in fact, Chandler was in California at the time of the crimes.) But after the initial round of research following the suicide, the case went cold.

Today, U.S. Marshal Peter Elliott announced that his office and a team of forensic genealogists had cracked the case. Yet they've only solved the first part of the mystery‚ and are appealing to the public for help connecting the rest of the dots.

Their research shows that the man known as Chandler was actually Robert Ivan Nichols of New Albany, Indiana. A Purple Heart Navy veteran who served in World War II, Nichols had disappeared from his family in 1965. He had left his wife and sons the year prior, telling her, "In due time, you'll know why," according to Elliott. In March 1965, he wrote to his parents, saying he was "well and happy" and asking them not to worry about him. The same month, he mailed an envelope to his son Phillip, which contained only a penny. There was no note. It was the last his family would ever hear of him.

According to family lore, the war had taken a heavy toll on Nichols, and he burned his uniforms in the backyard after returning from service. He had no criminal history. Associates who worked with him as "Chandler" described him as a loner, someone who refused to let others get close. Co-workers said he would frequently disappear for days, and even weeks, at a time. He kept a bag packed and ready in his apartment at all times.

After disappearing from his family, he traveled to Dearborn, Michigan, and then to the San Francisco and Richmond, California areas. He assumed the Chandler identity in Rapid City, South Dakota, in 1978, when he applied for a Social Security card using personal information (including the birthdate) of the boy who died in 1945. At the time, such frauds were easier to pull off, since Social Security cards were rarely given to children, and so the real Joseph Newton Chandler III had never been given a Social Security number.

Robert Ivan Nichols circa 1992
Robert Ivan Nichols circa 1992
Peter Elliott

The break in the case came only after painstaking detective work that involved both sophisticated DNA techniques and pounding the pavement. When Elliott took on the case in 2014 at the request of the Eastlake police, he discovered Chandler had had colon cancer surgery in 2000. He sent tissue samples taken at that time to the local medical examiner, who obtained a DNA profile. Unfortunately, there were no matches between the profile and various national criminal databases.

Stumped, in 2016 Elliott turned to forensic genealogists Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick and Dr. Margaret Press of California-based IdentiFinders and the DNA Doe Project, a non-profit humanitarian initiative created to help identify Jane and John Does and return them to their families. (Fitzpatrick also helped crack the case of identity thief Lori Erica Ruff in 2016.) Despite a badly degraded sample, they used Y chromosome genealogy to trace a family line that indicated the dead man's last name was likely Nichols or some variation. In March 2018, authorities tracked down a Phillip Nichols in Ohio, who provided a DNA sample. The sample matched with that of the dead man, indicating the pair were father and son. Phillip said at a news conference today that he instantly recognized photos of "Chandler" as his father.

Although the cold case has been solved, mystery remains. Why did Nichols abandon his family? Why did he end his life? What accounts for the rest of his odd behavior? Although it's clear he wasn't a Nazi war criminal, there's still a chance—however slight—that he could be connected to crimes in California, given his residence at the time of the Zodiac Killer's activities. "There has to be a reason he assumed the name of a deceased 8-year-old boy and went into hiding for so many years," Elliott says. When asked about the potential Zodiac Killer connection, Elliott responded, "I can't say for sure that he is, and I cannot say for sure that he's not [the killer]. We have been working with San Francisco, [and the] Department of Justice, but that's a question for them, that's their investigation."

Elliott says he is appealing for the public's help in tracing the rest of Nichols's life and mystery. Tips can be sent to the U.S. Marshals at 216-522-4482.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios