The history of Los Angeles is marked by sensational tales of corruption, cover-ups and murder during the city’s formative years. From the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle rape and murder trial of young starlet Virginia Rappe in 1921 and the kidnapping of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson in 1926 to The Black Dahlia murder in 1947, scandal has long permeated the city and shone unfavorable light upon her political operatives.
But it was the little-remembered story of one working-class woman’s struggle—amidst insurmountable odds—to find her missing son that would, almost 80 years later, forge a partnership between several of Hollywood’s most highly regarded filmmakers. The incredible tale of Christine Collins was one that almost vanished to obscurity before a former journalist stumbled upon her sensational, poignant story.
Within the subterranean halls of Los Angeles City Hall, the dusty archives of city business dating back almost 100 years are housed. Among these tens of thousands of pages of documents lies the public record of Christine Collins and the City Council welfare hearings from the late 1920s. They tell a patchwork tale of the disappearance of her nine-year-old young son, Walter, and the corrupt machinations of the Los Angeles Police Department during and after the flawed investigation of the case.
Several years ago, screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski, a former journalist who has written for Los Angeles Times, The Herald Examiner and Time, among other publications, stumbled across this astonishing story of a working-class woman who brought down a political machine. As the adage is written, a reporter is only as good as his sources, and Straczynski knew he had a lead when a longtime contact phoned him up.
Recalls the screenwriter: “A source I had at City Hall called one day and said they were burning old records and that there was something I should take a look at before they put it into the incinerator. So I zoomed down to City Hall, and they had a transcript of a City Council welfare hearing in the case of Christine Collins. I began reading the testimony and thought, ‘This can’t actually have happened. This has got to be a mistake.’ But it was enough for me to get hooked before the book went into the fire.”
Los Angels in 1928 was in the grips of a despotic political infrastructure, led by Mayor George E. Cryer and enforced by Police Chief James E. “Two Guns” Davis (often photographed in a gunslinger pose with his weapons) and his sanctioned gun squad that terrorized the city at will. That despotic rule began to unravel when Collins, a single mother raising a son in a working-class neighborhood in Los Angeles, reported her nine-year-old missing. Months of fruitless searching followed, and the police had nothing to show, save an onslaught of negative publicity and mounting public pressure to find a solid lead in the kidnapping.
When a boy claiming to be Walter was discovered in DeKalb, Illinois, Christine Collins—and all involved in the search—waited with bated breath. Letters and photos were exchanged, and the authorities believed the missing persons case had been solved. Collins scraped together the money to bring the boy home, and LAPD organized a very public photo-op reunion with the found child and anxious mother.
Hoping to put a stop to the scrutiny surrounding their inability to solve this case and others—and desperate for uplift from human-interest success to counter the string of corruption scandals—members of the department felt the reunion could spell public redemption for LAPD’s top brass.
The only problem was that the child who arrived home was not Walter.
Despite her immediate and repeated declarations that the boy returned was not hers, Collins was rebuffed by the officer in charge of her case, Captain J.J. Jones. She was told—as recounted from the City Council hearing transcripts of the day—to “try him out for a couple of weeks.” Confused and disoriented, she agreed.
Until three weeks later, when Collins brought “Walter” back, insisting that, no matter what anyone said, this child wasn’t hers. Unaccustomed to having their actions questioned by anyone, let alone a woman, Captain Jones—with the tacit approval of Chief Davis—subjected Collins to slander and committed her to the County psychopathic ward as a patient, instead of admitting the mistake of returning the wrong boy. Collins would be forced to spend five harrowing days in the psychiatric ward, housed against her will due to a “Code 12”—a term that referred to a difficult or inconvenient person, usually a woman, jailed or committed to the local psychopathic ward without a warrant or any legal due process.
The child who reappeared as Walter later admitted to being 12-year-old Arthur Hutchens (who also used the alias Billy Fields), a Midwest runaway who wanted to come to Hollywood in hopes of meeting his favorite film actor, Tom Mix. At a roadside café in Illinois, a diner remarked that he had an astonishing resemblance to the kidnapped Collins boy of Los Angeles. Hutchens hatched a plot to turn himself in to local authorities as the missing Walter, have Christine Collins pay for his bus fare to Los Angeles and provide room and board. His actions unknowingly set off a chain of events that would forever alter the policing of Los Angeles’ residents.
For Straczynski what was, at first glance, astonishing became increasingly compelling the more he dug into the details of the case. He researched the story for approximately a year, digging through the intricate details of Collins’ seven-year journey to find answers surrounding her son’s disappearance. What he found was even more disturbing than Hutchens’ hoax. Underneath the dusty files emerged a parallel case—one that told the depraved details of child predator Gordon Northcott (alternately admitting and then denying the killing of the still missing Walter Collins) and the unyielding power and violence of the Los Angeles authorities of the period.
The screenwriter also discovered a man named Gustav A. Briegleb, a Presbyterian minister who assisted Collins in her search for answers. A longtime thorn in the side of the establishment, the community activist was a voice of authority whose radio show and powerful sermons challenged listeners not to turn a blind-eye to police corruption. Briegleb worked with Collins and her attorney to ensure that Walter’s story was not buried and Collins’ inhuman treatment in the mental ward was revealed to all who would listen. Their work led to the dismissal of senior civic leaders and exposed corruption that was commonplace in the day.
Although Collins died in 1935 not knowing what happened to her son, Straczynski sums up just how powerful her legacy was: “The core of it all is Christine Collins’ desire to find out what happened, and never giving up, no matter what anyone threw at her. She never abandoned the quest to find out what happened to her son. That tenacity carried her through things that would break anybody else, but she never once stopped fighting. That reverberated throughout the state’s legal system, and I wanted to pay tribute.”
Straczynski admits of drafting his script: “My intention was very simple: to honor what Christine Collins did. My job was to tell the story as honestly as I could and honor the fight she waged and how she never once lost faith and kept looking for her son. Her simple question: ‘Where is my son?’ brought down the entire L.A. city structure.” To add to the veracity of his story, the writer would pull quotes verbatim from the files…along with other direct testimony he incorporated into the film’s script.
Screenplay finished, Straczynski would begin the search for filmmakers and a Christine Collins who could honor the story of not only this pioneer in victim’s rights, but a champion of the people. He would find that in Clint Eastwood, Imagine Entertainment and Angelina Jolie. It was a proud moment for Straczynski, whose previous script work had been predominantly in the genre of television science fiction. L’Échange would be his first produced feature film.