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."
NBC won't confirm that the program was based on the Hunter-Sherman deaths. Representatives of the network and the show's producer, Dick Wolf Productions, say the same thing, repeatedly, in response to questions: All stories on "L&O" are fiction. The show carries this standard disclaimer: "The preceding story was fictional. No actual person or event was depicted."
That's more than just boilerplate. It's a legal argument, with important implications for NBC and Wolf.
Since 2004, the network and the show's creator have been fending off a lawsuit that claims there was just too much reality in one of the show's dramatizations.
New York lawyer Ravi Batra says he was libeled by a November 2003 episode called "Floater" that revolved around a murder and judicial-bribery scandal. Batra claims that one of the villains of the story -- a prominent, bald, Indian American lawyer named Ravi Patel -- was a barely camouflaged version of himself. Batra is an Indian American lawyer prominent in New York City legal circles. He's also bald.
Batra's name was in the New York press several months before the "Floater" episode aired; he was linked to a bribery scandal in Brooklyn involving another lawyer and a judge. Batra was never charged in the case, which, unlike the TV program, did not include an act of violence.
With a little spicing up, Batra's lawsuit against "L&O" might itself make a compelling episode in the series. The suit, seeking $15 million in damages, turns on the legal principle of "libel in fiction," the idea that a fictionalized depiction can damage a real person's reputation. Batra said he was harmed because the name, ethnicity and appearance of the character are so similar to his. His suit noted that there are only six lawyers named Ravi in the New York area.
Although libel-in-fiction claims rarely succeed, a New York State Supreme Court judge shot down a defense motion last year to dismiss Batra's suit, clearing it for trial. There was "a reasonable likelihood that the ordinary viewer, unacquainted with Batra personally, could understand Patel's corruption to be the truth about Batra," Justice Marilyn Shafer wrote. The matter is still awaiting trial.
"They hired a look-alike for me, and that's their killer," says Batra in an interview. "If they hired Bob Dole to play the character, no problem. But to get someone who looks like you, acts like you and has a name like you, well, excuse me. . . . Their defense is worthless, because their claim to fame is that they are a reality-based show. How could they not know it was me?"
Charlie Todd had a more mixed reaction to seeing himself -- as portrayed by Robin Williams, no less -- on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" last spring.
Todd, the founder of a group called Improv Everywhere, creates mass, unannounced public stunts. One of his most famous was a group "freeze" in the middle of Grand Central Terminal. At Todd's signal, several dozen volunteers remained motionless for five minutes while Todd's assistants secretly recorded the puzzled reactions of passersby. The whole thing became an Internet sensation, and has since been replicated in dozens of cities around the world.
Among the copycats was the TV program. In April, three months after Todd's stunt went viral, Williams played the organizer of a similar prank in Grand Central. The episode, titled "Authority," even copied some of the positions assumed by Todd's volunteers, such as a woman who froze while eating frozen yogurt.
Todd might be flattered, except for one thing: Williams's character on the show was a murderer and sexual deviant.
"That definitely weirded me out," he says.
One other problem: Todd worries that the episode will be seen by so many people in reruns that some will think Todd got his idea from the show, instead of the other way around.
"If I'm taking a meeting, and I'm describing the Grand Central video, what if the person isn't familiar with my Web site and only saw the episode? It's something I've thought about. I know the show is ripped from the headlines. But this is my creative thing. It's my idea and my video. And they've just taken it beat for beat in a national TV show and profited from it?"
Todd, a comedian and writer, has friends who have appeared as actors on "L&O." He isn't exactly angry, nor would he consider suing. But still. "They didn't need to ask my permission," he says. "But it would have been nice."
Rob Hunter, meanwhile, struggles to find some silver lining in the episode that was so chillingly close to his family's tragedy. Maybe, he says, the reflected attention of the TV show could renew interest in the real crime. Maybe it might shake loose a reluctant witness or put more pressure on investigators.
As is, the trail seems to have gone cold, despite the offer of a $75,000 reward and continuing publicity on an Omaha Web site.
"My frustration comes back to the fact that the case is unresolved," Hunter says. The producers could have put something at the end of the show, he says, "something helpful, to tell people about the real [crime] and where to contribute information."
Instead, he says, "it just looks like they want to make money off of this."