A serial killer. A corrupt police department. And a missing child. Yes, it's the latest Hollywood thriller. But the new Clint Eastwood movie Changeling is also based on a true story — one of the most bizarre and tragic crime stories of the 1920s.
It's a story with so many strange turns and outlandish characters that screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski didn't believe it at first.
A former L.A. journalist, Straczynski first heard about Christine Collins from one of his old sources at City Hall, who told him where to find her story in the archives.
"When I read over the transcript and I saw what had happened, I thought, 'This can't be real,' " he says. "This has to be a mistake."
Christine Collins — played in the film by Angelina Jolie — was a single mom whose 9-year-old son Walter disappeared in March of 1928.
About five months later, a runaway from Illinois showed up, pretending to be Walter. But when Christine Collins insisted the boy was not her son, Los Angeles police captain J.J. Jones dismissed her.
Uncertain, under pressure, Collins took the boy home anyway. Three weeks later, she returned to the LAPD to say she was absolutely certain the runaway was not her son. Jones accused her of shirking her duty as a mother.
Straczynski says he spent about a year investigating the case. He dug through records all over L.A. — at the county courthouse, at the library, in the archives of the Los Angeles Times, the city morgue.
And he went through box after box of medical records — because Capt. Jones, afraid that Collins would publicly embarrass the Los Angeles Police Department with her claim that they'd reunited her with the wrong child, had her committed to an insane asylum.
"Because the police ... refused to admit they'd made a mistake," Straczynski says. "They had to somehow say this woman is nuts — and their best way to reinforce that was to literally incarcerate her."
From Solo Crusader To Public Cause
Collins' misfortunes were big news in California in the late 1920s. The Times ran headlines like "New Kidnapping Clew In Hunt for Missing Collins Boy" ... "Enigma Boy Identified" ... "Mother Sues City and Police for $500,000."
A popular Presbyterian minister named Gustav Briegleb — played by John Malkovich in the movie — took up her cause. His disgust with the Los Angeles Police Department was legendary.
"When she was locked up, he was one of the foremost voices increasing her visibility to let people know what had happened," Straczynski says.
The Rev. Briegleb's grandson Ross Briegleb says he grew up hearing about the crusading minister who wanted to clean up L.A. But this new movie took him by surprise.
"I never in my wildest dreams thought my grandfather would be portrayed in a movie," Briegleb says. "On the other hand, he was a very famous guy."
Answers At Last — But Not The Kind That Comfort
Just when you imagine things can't get any worse in the story of Christine Collins, they do. Her son's body was never found, but it's almost certain that he was one of the victims in the so-called Wineville Chicken Murders.
Gordon Stewart Northcott was convicted of killing three boys on a chicken ranch. His mother, Sarah Louise Northcott, confessed to killing Walter Collins. The brutality of the crimes created such a nightmarish image that Wineville changed its name to Mira Loma.
But Joe Straczynski says he did not want Changeling to focus on the atrocities.
"I decided the best and most honorable way to tell the story was from [Collins'] perspective," the screenwriter says. "It is about her war, her battle to find her son, what happened to her son.
"Everyone around her had an agenda — a political agenda, a personal agenda," Straczynski says. "The only clear voice in the entire story was hers."