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The Elizabeth Holmes trial is the hottest ticket in Silicon Valley

Spectators and media members are waiting in line for hours every day for a chance to see the former Theranos CEO testify

The line outside the San Jose courthouse for Elizabeth Holmes's trial on Nov. 30. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg News)
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SAN JOSE — Cissy Fitzsimmons usually enjoys listening to true-crime podcasts while walking on the beach near her Santa Cruz home. But for the past two weeks, she has been leaving her house at 4 a.m. and driving 40 miles to watch a case play out in real life.

The trial of Elizabeth Holmes, the former CEO of failed blood-testing start-up Theranos, has become a circus of spectators at the Silicon Valley courthouse. Since Holmes began testifying in mid-November, the line to get one of the limited seats in the courtroom often stretches to more than 50 people before 7 a.m., winding past the courthouse gates. Testimony isn’t televised or otherwise available for streaming.

Fitzsimmons, who is 64 years old and recently retired, has long been interested in cults and how reasonable people fall under their spells. She said she listened to podcasts about Theranos and saw some common themes.

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“I don’t think she started off with malice, I think she believed in what she was doing at first,” Fitzsimmons said, but she added that Holmes seemed to lose her moral compass.

Holmes skyrocketed to fame as a young female start-up founder promising a more humane way to draw just a few drops of blood and subsequently run hundreds of tests from it. The Stanford dropout touted her “nanotainer,” a tiny capsule to hold the blood, and the Edison, a portable machine on which to run the tests.

Sporting a black turtleneck, blond bun, and signature low voice, she made it onto the covers of magazines, gave a popular TedMed Talk and even attended a state dinner at the White House. She eventually raised $900 million from investors including media mogul Rupert Murdoch and the family of former education secretary Betsy DeVos.

But a 2015 investigation by the Wall Street Journal alleging the technology was far from reliable was the beginning of her downfall. Accused of misleading investors and patients while running the start-up, she now faces 11 charges of criminal wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Rather than the hundreds of tests Theranos asserted it could run from a few drops of blood, prosecutors allege, only a dozen were possible, and the results were often inconsistent.

The media coverage — Holmes has been the subject of a book, a podcast and a documentary — has created a specific kind of fan base: people fascinated by the dramatic failure, the massive amounts of money, the health-care implications and most of all the central character, Holmes. She portrays herself differently now: She generally opts for a suit-dress in blue or green, sometimes with a matching mask. Her hair is down in waves. Holmes typically arrives around 8 a.m., holding her mother’s hand.

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Few people showed up for weeks of questioning by the prosecution narrowing down the details of “assays,” or blood tests. Seats in the courtroom were often available even to those who showed up right before the trial began at 9 a.m. The one major surprise witness was an afternoon of testimony on a Wednesday in September from former defense secretary and Theranos board member Jim Mattis.

“It went from very interesting to extremely boring,” Marlie Spillane, a retired health-care worker, said of the first day she attended in the middle of the trial. She has traveled nine times from San Rafael, Calif., with her boyfriend, doorbell manufacturer Robert Dobrin, to watch: She remembers talk of Theranos from her health-care days, and when they realized the trial was only an hour or so away, she and Dobrin figured they would go.

That changed when Holmes, who has pleaded not guilty to all charges, took the stand to defend herself on Nov. 19. In the five days of testimony since then, she has alternately cried, smiled and calmly defended herself. She admitted to adding the logos of pharmaceutical firms to the tops of reports Theranos sent to investors and told the prosecution last week that she was responsible for the company.

On Tuesday, the prosecution pushed her to confirm that she knew the company had issues in its lab and that the military was not using its devices. Holmes’s own lawyers countered by asking her to again recount that she was relying on the information passed to her from her workers that things were going well.

Holmes also accused her former partner Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani of sexually assaulting and controlling her, down to her daily schedule, what she ate and how much she slept. Balwani, who was also an executive at Theranos, has denied the allegations.

Holmes’s testimony will likely finish this week, and the trial is expected to go to the jury by the end of next week.

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When dozens of people started lining up to see Holmes, Emily Saul took matters into her own hands.

Saul, a reporter for the podcast “Bad Blood: The Final Chapter,” keeps a list of people as they arrive to maintain a semblance of order in the early morning. Sometimes she becomes an enforcer if people try to cut the line or forget their number.

“It helps to have some sort of list created that allows people to be human — to go to the restroom or go get coffee or step out of line,” she said.

Saul — who has covered other high-profile trials including those of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, Bill Cosby and Martin Shkreli — said she has never seen a case that has drawn so much public interest from people who want to sit in the courtroom.

“At every trial, there seems to be a good set of ‘gavel groupies,’ as it’s kind of known,” said one of the sketch artists, Vicki Behringer, who has been working on trials for 31 years. “This is different because this is both a business story and a health-care/Silicon Valley story, so it’s attracted people from different segments of all of those.”

Brad Agle was the second person to arrive on the third day of Holmes’s testimony. He had flown in from Utah, where he is a business ethics professor at Brigham Young University, and stopped by the courthouse at midnight.

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“If I were you, I would stay right now,” the night guard told him, noting that people start lining up early. Agle slept for an hour at a nearby hotel, then grabbed his pillow, blanket and bag and came back.

The hours-long line isn’t so bad, said Spillane and Dobrin, the couple traveling from San Rafael. People chat and swap stories or predictions for the day. Some read true-crime books or do work on their computers. Others find a quiet place to sit and curl up in their big coats and scarves during the chilly mornings. Some make Starbucks runs for the section of line around them while others hold their place.

Just before the courthouse doors open at 7:30 a.m., retired biotech executive Anne Kopf-Sill walks down the length of the line with a trash bag she brings from home, collecting all the empty coffee cups and yogurt wrappers to take them to the closest garbage can across the street.

After standing in line and passing through a metal detector, a security guard hands each attendee a paper ticket marked with the name of the courtroom.

Some attendees are saving their tickets.

“Maybe someday they’ll be worth something,” Dobrin said.

The small, drab courtroom on the fifth floor has only 34 seats, for which media members and public attendees have to queue. Since Holmes took the stand, people arriving after 4:30 could get kicked to the windowless overflow room, where the benches can accommodate about 45 people — with cushions — and where the audio is louder. But watching the testimony on a screen, rather than live, doesn’t bring the same context.

Fitzsimmons, the Santa Cruz podcast listener, has been in the overflow room twice to watch Holmes testify, once in the front row and once in the back. It’s significantly easier to pay attention and get immersed in the front, she said.

On the fifth floor, near the main courtroom, Holmes’s family and friends wait outside the door with everyone else, ready to take their reserved seats when the trial starts. Other seats for those with tickets are first come, first served.

Holmes’s supporters mostly stick to themselves, but her partner, Billy Evans, with whom she had a baby this summer, is known to joke with those in line and inside the courthouse.

“Questions I won’t answer for 100,” he joked in response to a journalist in the hallway when asked about his time at Burning Man, an art festival known for self-expression and recreational drugs held in the Nevada desert.

“I’ve never been in a situation before where space is so shared with the defense team, jurors, etc. on the same floor and using the same restrooms,” Saul, the podcast reporter, said.

That also makes for chances to bump into the defendant.

Karin McClung, a retired computer technician at Los Gatos High School, exchanged greetings with Holmes and her mother as they all used the three-stall restroom on the fifth floor, on a day a water main problem shut down trial proceedings.

McClung now takes the elevator down a floor or two to use the bathroom since Holmes started bringing more friends and family members.

“I’m giving them their privacy,” she said. “It’s not comfortable, certainly not for me, and I’m sure it’s uncomfortable for them.”

Also attending the trial are Holmes’s sorority sisters from her Stanford days, CNBC has reported.

Holmes has “a very straight, almost a regal, posture,” said Spillane, the former health-care worker. Holmes sits stick-straight in her chair all day, whether on or off the stand, her back never touching the back of her chair. There are rare moments of connection — Spillane made eye contact with Holmes on the first day she attended, while Holmes was scanning the courtroom.

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For many spectators, the trial is a chance to witness a piece of history, a story they have seen play out on screen, in book pages, in newspapers. There’s something about really being there in person that can’t be replicated, said McClung, who has taken the train to the courthouse nearly every day of the trial with her neighbor.

“This is an incredible experience,” McClung said. “It’s almost like you couldn’t write this kind of thing. It’s just unbelievable.”