Television programming pioneer Jack Webb knew that audiences loved realism. In the early 1950s, at a time when radio and TV tended toward wacky comedies, out-of-this-world adventure tales and overdramatized soap operas, Webb introduced the crime drama "Dragnet." The show always started with the same irresistible hook: "Ladies and gentlemen, the story you're about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent." Combined with its often brutal subject matter and characteristic monotone narration, the format was a hit with audiences.
Ever since the success of "Dragnet," other television shows throughout the decades have attempted to imitate it, dramatizing stories that are "ripped from the headlines." What makes fictionalizations of real stories so popular? Well, for one, many of the true stories are fascinating and hard to believe. They represent the limits of what human beings are capable of -- both for good and for evil -- even more that pure fiction can.
We've collected some of the most sensational real-life crime stories that television writers simply couldn't resist dramatizing. Ladies and gentlemen, the stories you are about to read are true -- and the names are, too.
One case was so incredible that it was dramatized into fictional plots of not one, but three different crime dramas: The "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" episode "Overload," The "Law & Order" episode "Born Again" and the "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" episode "Cage." They all center around a real, controversial therapy technique involving a dangerous "rebirthing" ritual for children with behavior problems.
Such a rebirthing ritual was conducted on 10-year-old Candace Newmaker. After having been in five foster homes, Candace was adopted by a nurse practitioner, Jeane Newmaker, at age 6. Jeane, frustrated with Candace's persistent behavior problems, became interested in "Attachment Therapy." The therapy includes a "rebirthing" procedure, where a child suffers through a reenactment of birth, which will supposedly help it bond with a mother.
In April 2000, Jeane enrolled Candace into an intensive two-week program that included such a procedure. During that videotaped session, four adults, Jean Connell Watkins, Julie Ponder, Brita St. Clair and Jack McDaniel, wrapped Candace in a flannel sheet and restrained her against her will, all while Jeane looked on. Candace's screams and pleadings for air fell on deaf ears. Twenty minutes into the session, Candace vomited and urinated in her blanket. After she went silent (50 minutes into the session), the adults sat on her for another 20 minutes before unwrapping her and commenting that the child, though blue-lipped, was simply "sleeping in her vomit." Jeane rushed to Candace to perform CPR and called 911, but it was too late [source: Cina].
Set in the Prohibition Era, the late 1950s and early '60s television show "The Untouchables" fictionalized the real-life experiences of Prohibition agents who went after the likes of Al Capone. One episode depicts the real-life but little-known assassination attempt of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In the second of the two-part episode "Unhired Assassin," our heroes successfully foil an assassination attempt on the the Mayor of Chicago. But they weren't figuring on a deranged man by the name of Giuseppe Zangara to step onto the scene. Though the writers took liberties with the other plot line, the one about Zangara was very true.
An immigrant from Italy, Zangara was a naturalized citizen living in Miami. He was mentally unstable, possibly driven mad by his persistent abdominal pains, and spoke of wanting to assassinate "all capitalist presidents and kings" [source: Oliver]. He had hatched plans to kill the King of Italy and President Herbert Hoover. But after Roosevelt was elected to succeed Hoover, Zangara took advantage of an opportunity when the president-elect happened to be giving a speech in Miami.
On Feb.15, 1933, after Roosevelt spoke to the crowd, Zangara stood on his wobbly chair, screamed "Too many people are starving to death!" and fired several shots. Though he missed the president, Zangara did hit Chicago's mayor, Anton Cermak, who was there to support Roosevelt and make amends for not supporting him at the Democratic National Convention. Cermak died from his wound a few weeks later, and Zangara was executed.
In "Serendipity," an episode from the fifth season of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," dermatologist Archibald Newlands takes a paternity test that proves negative. However, the sample happens to test positive against DNA evidence of a rape years before. After Newlands is murdered, an autopsy reveals that he planted a tube of another man's blood in his arm to fool the paternity test (but he didn't realize the blood belonged to a rapist).
Seem far-fetched? It is. But not very. In 1992, Dr. John Schneeberger, a physician living in Saskatchewan, drugged and raped Candace Foley. Foley, conscious throughout the ordeal, accused him and saved the clothes she had been wearing for evidence. But a blood test proved negative. Foley was persistent, but nothing came of it until years later, when John's wife figured out that he had been raping her teenage daughter from a previous marriage.
Candace's accusations were finally vindicated when John admitted that he had taken and saved blood samples from a patient to fool the DNA test. He had cut his arm open and planted a surgical tube filled with the blood inside [source: Dwyer].
"The Fugitive," the 1960s TV series about a husband falsely accused of killing his wife, is widely believed to be based on a infamous, real-life case of Sam Sheppard. Though the creator denied it was based on the Sheppard case, audiences couldn't help but draw connections. In 2005, however, the TV show "Cold Case" featured an episode called "Schadenfreude" that is more clearly based on Sheppard.
In 1954, Dr. Sam Sheppard was accused of killing his wife, Marilyn. According to his story, though, on the night of her death, he had fallen asleep on the couch and awoke to his wife's screams from the floor above. He claims he fought a "bushy-haired man" who knocked him unconscious twice.
In the ensuing trial, a national media frenzy took hold. Newspaper stories and public opinion generally assumed Sheppard's guilt, and it didn't help his case when it was revealed he had had a longtime affair. Sheppard was found guilty and spent 10 years in prison before his conviction was overturned. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the jury in the first trial wasn't properly shielded from the media frenzy surrounding the case. In 1966, Sheppard was found not guilty in the second trial, only to die four years later of liver failure [source: Chermak].
The case remains unsolved. But one suspect is Richard Eberling, a known thief and later a convicted killer, who had worked as a window washer for the Sheppards and whose blood was found at the scene.
The HBO series "The Sopranos" centers around Tony Soprano, who is a fictional mob boss, but many believe the show is generally based on some real-life inspirations.
One such inspiration was probably the DeCavalcante mafia family. Separate from the known "Five Families" of New York, in the 1960s, the DeCavalcantes were discovered by the FBI to be independent and centered in New Jersey. Though looked down upon by the New York families who insultingly called them "farmers," the DeCavalcantes became increasingly powerful.
Though the Sopranos is said to be inspired by an amalgam of different real-life mafia members, the DeCavalcantes themselves believed they the show was based on them. In fact, family members actually were caught once bragging about it when they were being wiretapped.
The character of Tony Soprano himself is probably based partly on Michael Taccetta, who was a part of the Lucchese family and ran the faction in New Jersey. Many have drawn parallels between the two because of their similar struggles and traditional mob-boss values.
In 2005, the show "CSI" did an episode called "Shooting Stars" about a suicidal cult. It may seem unbelievable that a group could convince all its members to voluntarily commit suicide together, but history unfortunately has a few examples.
The "CSI" episode was based on the cult known as Heaven's Gate. Formed in the 1970s by leaders Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, they were able to attract hundreds of members at certain points. The leaders had bizarre ideas about their own extraterrestrial origins, believing that they had taken on human form. They also promised that people would be delivered to "God's Kingdom" if they gave up their lives, families and even their names to join the cult. They also preached that all members needed to abstain from alcohol, drugs and sex.
Although the cult only consisted of 39 members by 1997, they all proved they were committed to the leaders and their message. The coming of the Hale-Bopp comet was a sign to them that their mother ship would arrive to take them to their celestial home. Over three days in March, they all took part in a carefully orchestrated mass suicide. Members wore identical clothing and took lethal doses of barbiturate phenobarbital mixed into pudding or applesauce. They individually videotaped themselves before the ritual, explaining that they were going to a better place.
In a few episodes of the first season of "Homicide: Life on the Street," our heroes investigate a character named Calpurnia Church, who is suspected of killing her five husbands in order to collect on insurance money. David Simon writes of the real-life case in his book that inspired the series "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets."
Geraldine Parrish's family believed she possessed special voodoo powers to control others. This, they claimed, was why they did her bidding and even remained silent after her murders. Parrish had taken out life insurance policies on several members of her family (as well as others) and had them name herself as the beneficiary.
Parrish, 52, was arrested in 1989 in Baltimore, Md., but not before having at least four people killed -- and likely several more, including multiple husbands. Parish hired a man in 1985 to kill his sister's boyfriend. Two years later, she had a female tenant killed and then attempted to have her own niece killed. In 1988, she married one man only to have him killed just 15 days later. Police eventually found 45 life insurance policies in her house.
A 1996 episode of "Law & Order" called "Remand" explores the reopening of a case of a rapist who had been convicted 30 years earlier. This opens old wounds for the rape victim, who knows that several witnesses didn't come to her aid while she was being attacked.
If this last part rings any bells for you, it's because it's based on the infamous rape and murder of Kitty Genovese on the streets of New York City. In 1964, 29-year-old Genovese was coming home late at night from work. After parking in a lot not far from her apartment, she saw Winston Mosely lurking toward her with a knife. After catching up with her, Mosely stabbed her twice before hearing a voice yelling to leave her alone. Mosely then went back to move his car and got out again to find the wounded, limping Kitty in the doorway of a building, where he raped and killed her.
The nation was shocked to read the New York Times article about the story, titled "Thirty-seven Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police." The horrified public worried that people in cities were becoming uncaring [source: Dwyer]. Sociologists coined the "Genovese Syndrome", also known as the "Bystander Effect," and theorized that in groups, individuals expect someone else to take charge if the situation calls for it. Today, the number of people who could have seen or heard much is debated, but it's generally believed to be much fewer than 37. Still, the story is chilling.
David Simon, whose book of real-life reporting inspired the series "Homicide: Life on the Street," later created the HBO series "The Wire." The show is set in Baltimore, Md., and admittedly based on Simon's knowledge of real-life people and events.
One of the most fascinating and popular characters on the show, Omar Little, is a stickup man who makes it a point to only steal from other criminals. Creator David Simon has said that his character was based on several people. One person is Donnie Andrews, a real-life stickup man who went after drug dealers. He was eventually sentenced to life in prison for killing a drug dealer, but after serving 17 years he was released and has apparently gone straight.
Simon has also said that many plot lines in the first season of the show were based on the real-life case of a 1980s drug ring in Baltimore run by Melvin Williams. A producer on the shower, Ed Burns, is the homicide detective who was responsible for putting Williams in jail.
In the "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" episode "Uncivilized," the investigation of a young boy's murder first leads to a convicted pedophile. However, the true killers turn out to be teenagers with no clear motive.
The episode is based on the infamous case of Leopold and Loeb case in Chicago that shocked the country in 1924. Nathan Leopold, 19, and Richard Loeb, 18, were both brilliant young men from wealthy families. They were also lovers obsessed with the idea that they were above moral law because they each represented the Nietzschean "superman." So, in what was essentially an intellectual experiment, they wanted to conduct the perfect crime. They concocted an elaborate scheme to kidnap and kill a boy, demand ransom and get away scot-free.
After kidnapping and killing 14-year-old Bobby Franks, Leopold and Loeb dumped his body in a culvert several miles outside of the city and dropped a ransom note in the mail. But their "perfect" plan didn't work out. The next day, someone happened to find the body and tell police. A pair of glasses found near the body also linked the crime to Leopold. The boys soon confessed and explained how and why they killed Franks. Leopold explained to one reporter, "A thirst for knowledge is highly commendable, no matter what extreme pain or injury it may inflict upon others" [source: Baatz].
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- Oliver, Willard M. Nancy E. Marion. "Killing the President." ABC-CLIO, 2010. (March 23, 2011)http://books.google.com/books?id=FNbn8PLx5qAC
- Ramsland, Katherine. "The Heaven's Gate Cult." TruTV. (March 23, 2011)http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/notorious_murders/mass/heavens_gate/1.html
- Remnick, David. "Is This the End of Rico?" The New Yorker. April 2, 2001. (March 23, 2011)http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2001/04/02/010402fa_fact_remnick
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