CLOSE

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
Amergin, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
arrow
crime
The Bizarre Death of Bridget Cleary, the Irish "Fairy Wife"
The town of Tipperary, Ireland
The town of Tipperary, Ireland
Amergin, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The policemen had been combing the green yards and fields of Ballyvadlea, Ireland, for a week when they finally found Bridget Cleary. The 26-year-old's body had been wedged beneath several inches of clay and a jumble of thorn bushes, but her corpse showed wounds caused by something much worse than branches: Her spine and lower limbs were so badly burned that parts of her skeleton were exposed. She was naked, except for a stocking and one gold earring, and her head was encased in a sack.

The judge would later describe the events leading up to Bridget's death as demonstrating "a degree of darkness in the mind, not just of one person, but of several—a moral darkness, even religious darkness." It was the end of the 19th century, not exactly the Middle Ages, but those involved in the end of Bridget's life had become convinced that she wasn't really herself—and that a supernatural creature had taken her place.

GONE WITH THE FAIRIES

Bridget was the wife of a cooper named Michael Cleary, and the pair were regarded around town as a relatively happy couple. They shared their cottage, in a remote townland near Tipperary, with Bridget's father, Patrick Boland, and had no children. Michael was nine years Bridget's senior and earned a decent salary; she brought in some extra income by working as a seamstress and egg-seller. By all accounts, they were more prosperous than their neighbors, likely thanks to her resourcefulness. As a literate, independent, and fashionably dressed working woman, she was part of an emerging class in a rural society that had long been based in agriculture and the oral tradition.

It was also a society steeped in legends of the supernatural. Fairy belief, in particular, was pervasive in Irish rural societies at the time, and had long coexisted with Christian doctrine. Children grew up hearing legends of the Little People from their earliest days, and learned how to appease them by leaving untasted food on the table, for example, or saying "bless them" whenever the fairies were mentioned. The fairies were blamed for everything that went wrong—lost items, spoiled milk, bad crops. As one County Sligo man interviewed at the start of the 20th century told an anthropologist, "Nothing is more certain than that there are fairies."

Bridget herself was known to be fascinated by the beings, and to take trips to the most fairy-ridden spots around town. She may have visited such a spot on Monday, March 4, 1895, when she went to deliver eggs to her father's cousin, Jack Dunne, near Kylenagranagh Hill. The area was home to a ringfort, an early medieval circular fortified settlement believed, in Irish folklore, to be a "fairy fort," and thus to be avoided at all costs. Yet Bridget often visited the fort, and she likely spent time there that Monday after delivering the eggs.

It was a cold morning, the mountains still covered in the snow that had fallen the previous day, and after the two- or three-mile walk Bridget couldn't seem to warm up once she got back home. She spent the following day in bed, shivering and complaining of "a raging pain in her head."

That Saturday, her father walked four miles in the heavy rain to ask the doctor to call on her. But the doctor wasn't able to visit until the following Wednesday, and by then her husband had also gone to summon him twice. They should have been reassured by the doctor's diagnoses—"nervous excitement and slight bronchitis"—but it wasn't this ailment that worried Michael. He was convinced that the bed-ridden woman in their cottage was "too fine," in his own words, to be his wife, and that she was "two inches taller" than the woman he had known. At some point, Michael had developed the belief that Bridget had been replaced by a fairy changeling as she passed near the fairy fort on Kylenagranagh Hill.

"ARE YOU BRIDGET BOLAND?"

It is likely that this idea was planted in Michael's head by his confidante, Jack Dunne. According to Irish historian Angela Bourke, who has researched the case extensively, the 55-year-old Dunne was a charismatic man rumored to have the power of divination. He was known in the area as a seanchaí, a sort of storyteller well-versed in fairy mythology.

On Wednesday afternoon, after the doctor's visit, a priest visited. He wasn't overly concerned about the illness, but decided to administer the last rites in case it worsened. The ceremony emphasized the fact that Michael could lose his wife, which distressed him even more. He talked to Dunne, who urged him to act immediately, or the "real" Bridget would be lost forever. "It is not your wife is there [sic]," the older man reminded him. "This is the eighth day, and you had a right to have gone to Ganey"—the local "fairy doctor"—"on the fifth day."

The cooper duly visited Ganey following morning. He came back with a mixture of herbs that needed to be boiled in "new milk," the nutrient-rich first milk produced by a cow after calving.

That night, Michael forced the bitter concoction down Bridget’s throat while Dunne and three male cousins pinned her down in bed. Relatives outside the house heard someone—likely Michael—shouting, "Take it, you witch, or I'll kill you!" The men threw urine at her and shook her, yelling, "Away with you; come home Bridget Boland, in the name of God!" Other relatives and neighbors came and went, witnessing her ordeal and hearing her screams, but were too scared to intervene. Michael asked his wife to answer her name three times: "Are you Bridget Boland, wife of Michael Cleary, in the name of God?" The men then brought her to the fireplace and held her over the grate—ordeals by fire were known to drive out the fairies—while they repeated the questioning.

By midnight Thursday night, the ritual seemed to be completed. Bridget was "wild and deranged," according to her cousin Johanna, but her husband seemed satisfied, and her relatives thought there had been some sort of catharsis. The following morning, at Michael's request, the priest said mass in Bridget's bedroom in order to banish the "evil spirits" that were left in the house.

"IT IS NOT BRIDGET I AM BURNING."

An image of fairies from fairies from "The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley"
Fairies from "The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley"
British Library, Europeana // Public Domain

On Friday, March 15, for the first time in 11 days, Bridget got out of bed and dressed in her usual, fashionable clothes "to give her courage when she would go among the people," as Johanna later told the magistrates. Several family members had joined them in their cottage for tea later in the day when an argument erupted. Bridget had asked for some milk, which had rekindled Michael’s suspicions; fairies are known in folklore to yearn for fresh milk.

Bridget was probably exhausted, and she didn't want to be questioned any more. "Your mother used to go with the fairies and that is why you think I am going with them," she told her husband. Michael was furious. He demanded that she eat three pieces of bread and jam—perhaps to reinforce his control over her—asking her to say her name again. She answered twice and ate two of the three pieces, but when she hesitated for a moment with the third, her husband flung her on the ground and threatened her: "If you won't take it, down you will go."

Michael jabbed his knee into her chest, forcing the bread and jam down Bridget's throat. He began tearing off her clothes, leaving only her chemise, then grabbed a hot stick from the fire and held it close to her mouth. He struck her head against the floor, then set her chemise alight. Within a few minutes, he had also poured paraffin lamp oil over her, encouraging the flames.

As her body was burning, Michael said in front of shocked relatives: "She's not my wife. She's an old deceiver sent in place of my wife." Relatives yelled at Michael to put out the flames, but Bridget "blazed up all in a minute," according to their later testimony. They huddled in fear in a nearby bedroom, the flames soon barricading their way.

Once the flames had died down, Michael wrapped her body in a sheet and shoved it in an old bag. Then he left the house, locking Bridget's relatives inside with the corpse. They waited for about an hour, praying. When Michael returned, he was wielding a knife and threatened to kill Bridget's cousin Patrick Kennedy if he didn't help him bury Bridget's body. "Come on out here now," he shouted. "I have the hole nearly made." The two men carried the body to a boggy area about a quarter-mile uphill from the cottage, and buried it in a shallow hole. Back in the cottage, Michael made the rest of the family swear they wouldn't tell the authorities.

ON A WHITE HORSE

The following morning, an agitated Michael arrived at Drangan church with Dunne. Dunne wanted Michael to speak to a priest, but when the priest saw him kneeling in front of the altar—weeping, tearing his hair, and asking to go to confession—he thought he wasn't fit to receive the sacrament. He spoke to Dunne instead, who hadn't been at the cottage at the time of Bridget's death, but told the priest that Michael had claimed to have burned his wife the previous night. "I've been asking them all morning to take her up and give her a Christian burial," Dunne added. Bewildered, thinking them both insane, the church minister reported their conversation to a police sergeant.

For the next few days, the police searched for Bridget and questioned her friends and relatives. Even though Michael spoke about emigrating or committing suicide to escape the law, he still hoped his "real wife" would come back: For three consecutive nights starting the day after visiting the priest, he waited at the ringfort on Kylenagranagh Hill, where he believed she would appear, galloping on a white horse. He said he would only have to cut the ropes that bound her to the animal so she would be his forever.

On Wednesday, March 20, the Royal Irish Constables issued arrest warrants for eight people from Bridget's circle, as well as Denis Ganey, the "fairy doctor." Two days later, police found Bridget's body. The prisoners were brought before the magistrates on March 25, ushered in by the angry screams of a crowd who had learned of the case through extensive press coverage. On July 5, 1895, after a two-day trial, Michael was found guilty of manslaughter and imprisoned, along with Jack Dunne, Patrick Boland, and four of Bridget’s cousins, including Patrick Kennedy. The judge ruled out a verdict of murder, explaining they all had acted out of genuine belief.

Michael was released in 1910, after which he boarded ship for Montreal. Dunne served a three-year prison sentence before returning to the area, where he kept working as a laborer. "God knows I would never do it but for Jack Dunne," Michael had reportedly said not long after burning Bridget. "It was he who told me my wife was a fairy."

ILLNESS—OR INFIDELITY?

During her illness, Bridget was visited by her aunt, Mary Kennedy, and told her, "He [Michael]'s making a fairy of me now. He thought to burn me about three months ago." Her words suggest this wasn't the first crisis of its kind.

Although we can only speculate about the couple's disagreements, there were rumors in Ballyvadlea that Bridget had a lover. Contemporary newspapers reported Michael saying his wife "used to be meeting an egg-man on the low road" [sic], but the rumors pointed to young caretaker William Simpson, who had visited the Clearys' cottage with his wife the night before Bridget’s death. In his court testimony, Simpson explained he had arrived as the four men were restraining Bridget, and he had asked them to leave her alone.

Although Michael and the other people involved in the killing were never formally psychiatrically assessed, a 2006 article from the Irish Journal of Medical Science suggested that Michael may have been suffering from a psychotic state known as Capgras syndrome, which involves the belief that a person has been replaced by an impostor. The authors suggest Michael "may have developed a brief psychotic episode" as he struggled to deal with his wife's illness, sleep deprivation, and the recent death of his father—news of which had reached him in the middle of his attempted "cure" on Thursday night. In Capgras syndrome, the socio-cultural context of the sufferer determines the nature of the impostor, which can be another person or even a supernatural being, such as an alien or a fairy changeling.

In her discussion of the supernatural beliefs related to the case, Bourke notes that the message of fairy legends is that "the unexpected may be guarded against by careful observance of society's rules." Bridget Cleary was ambitious, independent, and childless; a modern woman. She didn't conform to the patriarchal norm, which may have made her appear, to some in her life, as closer to the fairy realm than to their own.

Even today in Tipperary, her story hasn't been entirely forgotten. The local children have a nursery rhyme that runs: "Are you a witch or are you a fairy, / Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?"

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Guillaume Souvant, AFP/Getty Images
arrow
crime
Queen Anne of Brittany's Heart Stolen From French Museum
Guillaume Souvant, AFP/Getty Images
Guillaume Souvant, AFP/Getty Images

Bringing new meaning to the idea of stealing someone's heart, thieves in France made off with a 16th-century gold relic containing the once-beating organ of Anne of Brittany, the only woman to ever have been twice crowned the queen of France.

Over the weekend, burglars smashed a window of the Thomas-Dobrée museum in Nantes and lifted the six-inch case from its display, The Telegraph reports.

Anne was crowned queen when she was just 12 years old after marrying Charles VIII of France in 1491. After his death in 1498, she married Louis XII and once again ascended the throne, where she stayed until her death at age 36. Although her body was buried at the Basilica of Saint Denis, she requested that her heart be kept alongside her parents’ tomb in Brittany.

“The thieves attacked our common heritage and stole an item of inestimable value," Philippe Grosvalet, president of the Loire-Atlantique department, which owns the museum, told The Telegraph. "Much more than a symbol, the case containing the heart of Anne of Brittany belongs to our history.”

The gold relic was saved from being melted down after the French Revolution, and it has been kept safe at the Thomas-Dobrée museum for more than 130 years. The case contains an inscription in old French, which translates to: “In this small vessel of pure, fine gold rests the greatest heart of any woman in the world.”

This practice of burying the heart apart from the rest of the body was not entirely uncommon among European aristocrats in the Middle Ages. The hearts of both Richard I and Anne Boleyn were kept in lead boxes, and the hearts of 22 former popes are stored in marble urns at Rome's Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio a Trevi church.

It's also far from the only instance of relic theft. In a slightly more bizarre case, fragments of the brain of John Bosco, a 19th century Roman Catholic priest, were contained in a reliquary at his basilica in Castelnuovo, central Italy, until they were snatched by a thief in 2017. The reliquary was ultimately recovered by police from the suspect’s kitchen cupboard.

[h/t The Telegraph]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios