Behind 'Changeling,' A Tale Too Strange For Fiction In 1928, a 9-year-old boy disappeared — and when the police "discovered" him, his mother said they had the wrong boy. Screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski fills in NPR's Elizabeth Blair on the sad and sordid story that inspired his new film.
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Behind 'Changeling,' A Tale Too Strange For Fiction

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Behind 'Changeling,' A Tale Too Strange For Fiction

Behind 'Changeling,' A Tale Too Strange For Fiction

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A serial killer, a corrupt police department, and a missing child. Clint Eastwood's new movie opening today is a true crime story based on one of the most bizarre and tragic crime stories of the 1920s. NPR's Elizabeth Blair takes a look at the real events that inspired "Changeling."

ELIZABETH BLAIR: It's a story with so many strange turns and outlandish characters, screenwriter Joe Straczynski didn't believe at it first. A former journalist in Los Angeles, Straczynski first heard about Christine Collins from one of his old sources at City Hall, who told him where to find more about her in the archives.

MONTAGNE: When I read over the transcript and I saw what had happened. I thought, this can't be real. This has to be a mistake.

BLAIR: Christine Collins, played by Angelina Jolie, was a single mom whose nine-year-old son Walter went missing in March of 1928. About five months later, a runaway from Illinois showed up pretending to be Walter.


U: I live at 210 Avenue 23, Los Angeles, California. And that's my mommy.

BLAIR: When Christine Collins insisted the boy was not her son, Los Angeles police captain J.J. Jones dismissed her.

MONTAGNE: Why are you not listening to me?

MONTAGNE: I am listening - damn it. I am listening. And I understand your feelings. He's changed, no mistake, and that's - you've both been through a terrible experience and that's why he needs your love and support to bounce back.

MONTAGNE: He's not my son.

BLAIR: But Christine Collins took the boy home anyway. Three weeks later, she returned to the LAPD to say she was absolutely certain he was not her son. The police captain accused her of shirking her duty as a mother. Joe Straczynski says he spent about a year investigating the case.

MONTAGNE: County courthouse, county library, L.A. Times morgue, criminal courthouse record, medical records.

BLAIR: Medical records because Captain Jones was afraid Christine Collins would publicly embarrass the Los Angeles Police Department. So he had her committed to an insane asylum.

MONTAGNE: Because the police have brought back the wrong child and refused to admit that they've made a mistake, they had to, somehow, say that this woman is nuts. And their best way to reinforce that was to, literally, incarcerate her.

BLAIR: The misfortunes of Christine Collins were big news in California in the late 1920s. The Los Angeles Times ran headlines like, "New Kidnapping Clue in Hunt for Missing Collins Boy." "Enigma Boy Identified" and '"Mother Sues City and Police for $500,000." A popular Presbyterian minister named Gustav Briegleb took up her cause. Played by John Malkovich in the movie, Briegleb's disgust with the Los Angeles Police Department was legendary.


MONTAGNE: (As Gustav Briegleb) But given its status as the most violent, corrupt and incompetent police department this side of the Rocky Mountains, I am not sure it's saying a great deal.


MONTAGNE: When she was locked up, he was one of the foremost voices increasing her visibility to let people know what had happened.

BLAIR: The Reverend Briegleb's grandson Ross says he grew up hearing about the crusading minister who wanted to clean up L.A. But this new movie took him by surprise.

MONTAGNE: I never in my wildest dreams thought my grandfather would be portrayed in a movie. But on the other hand, he was a fairly famous guy.

BLAIR: Christine Collins' story is one that just when you imagine things can't get any worse, 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 was convicted of killing Walter Collins. The brutality of the crimes created such a nightmarish image Wineville changed its name to Mira Loma. But Joe Straczynski says he did not want the film to focus on the atrocities.

MONTAGNE: The best way and the most honorable way to tell the story was from her perspective. It really is about her - her war and her battle to find her son and what happened to her son.


MONTAGNE: (As Christine Collins) I used to always tell him, you never start a fight, but you always finish it. And I didn't start this fight, but I'm going to finish it.

MONTAGNE: Everyone around her had an agenda - a political agenda, a personal agenda. The only clear voice in this entire story is hers.

BLAIR: Just as Straczynski made a name for himself in science fiction and writing comic books including Spiderman. He says Christine Collins is almost like a real-life superhero. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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