Style & Arts: TV Special

'Law & Order': Ripped From the Headlines -- and From the Heart

"It's just very disturbing," Willam Hunter says of a recent "Law & Order" that mirrored the killings of his son and housekeeper. (Kent Sievers - Omaha World-Herald)
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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 8, 2009

On a late-winter day about a year ago, someone -- his identity and motive are still unknown -- entered the home of William and Claire Hunter in Omaha. In his wake, two people were stabbed to death: the couple's 11-year-old son, Thomas, and the family's housekeeper, Shirlee Sherman, 57. Witnesses said they saw a young, well-dressed man carrying a briefcase or satchel enter and leave the residence around the time of the murders. The bodies were discovered by Thomas's father, a physician and college professor, as is his wife.

Today, the police investigation drags on. Theories have been floated and abandoned. Nothing.

There was, however, this: On Jan. 21, 10 months after the killings, NBC's "Law & Order," the venerable cops-and-courts drama, aired an episode about a double homicide. The victims were a young boy and his family's housekeeper, both stabbed to death in the boy's home. Their bodies are discovered by the boy's parents, both of whom are college professors. The chief suspect: a well-dressed man with a briefcase.

After watching the program later, William Hunter said he found it "eerily reminiscent."

How would you feel if a traumatic personal event suddenly appeared as the plot of a prime-time entertainment program? During 19 seasons of "Law & Order" (and four spinoff series), a few hundred people have found out. One of TV's longest-running and most honored programs, "L&O" uses real, "ripped-from-the-headlines" events -- celebrity trials, political scandals, notorious crimes -- as the basis for its crime-and-punishment plots. Although the stories tend to wander into make-believe, they rely on the lightly disguised depiction of real people and events for their immediacy and sense of authenticity.

The real people? They feel blindsided and used. No one in Hunter's family saw the double-homicide episode, called "Pledge," when it aired. Rob Hunter, the Hunters' 23-year-old son, began getting the first calls about it from friends. "Did you see that?" they asked. "Did you know about this? Wasn't it creepy?"

He didn't. And it was.

"If the story was pure fiction," Rob Hunter says, "it would be less sick."

Joanne Banks, Shirlee Sherman's mother and a fan of "L&O," was so disturbed by a description of the program that she hasn't watched it. She says flatly, "It's not something I would want to see."

William Hunter downloaded the episode from iTunes after friends and colleagues mentioned it. He couldn't finish watching. "It's uncannily similar to what happened here," says the elder Hunter, a pathologist who teaches at Creighton University's medical school. "It's just very disturbing. We're trying to heal, and to have it constantly dredged up is painful."

The most disconcerting part, the family members say, is that no one from the network or the program contacted them. Omaha police say they, too, were never alerted by the program's producers.

"My instant reaction was, how come we didn't know about it?" says Rob Hunter, a Web designer in New York City. "How could they write something like that without talking to any of us? They never let the families know before they pushed something like that out to hundreds of millions of people. You see the warning that it's all fiction," he says. "The fact is, it's not all fiction."

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