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The Other Son

A child disappears. His mother demands the truth. Clint Eastwood's 'Changeling' revisits a crime that riveted L.A.

October 19, 2008|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

One OF the most notorious crimes of Jazz Age Los Angeles began quietly enough with a lost boy.

But the Walter Collins case would end up becoming the O.J. Simpson drama of its day, a horrifying crime that inspired a media frenzy and captivated the Southland. What started as the real-life tale of a missing child would eventually take on a much larger significance in the then-burgeoning city. Though the details may have faded into the miasma of time, its commentary on corruption and abuse of authority, on female empowerment and on the ultimate price of justice, continues to echo throughout the canyons of L.A.'s collective memory.

In the middle of it all was Christine Collins, Walter's mother, a victim turned unlikely heroine.

On March 10, 1928, Collins gave 9-year-old Walter a dime to see a movie. Collins, who lived in a middle-class Mount Washington neighborhood, was an anomaly for an era when women were still considered to suffer from the vapors. A handsome woman with prominent features, she was a single mom whose ex-husband sat in jail for helping to run a speak-easy. She was also a professional woman who worked at the telephone company and apparently prided herself on maintaining a nonemotional, businesslike manner when dealing with men in authority.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, October 19, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Clint Eastwood: An article in today's Calendar section about Clint Eastwood's newest film, "Changeling," says the actor-director has three children. Eastwood has seven children.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, October 26, 2008 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Clint Eastwood: An article last Sunday about Clint Eastwood's latest film, "Changeling," stated that the actor-director has three children. Eastwood has seven children.

Walter disappeared that day, a fact that was chronicled in the Los Angeles Times several days later. Within weeks, the police (with the press watching) were conducting a massive manhunt and dragging Lincoln Park lake for Walter's body. Tips poured in, with people claiming to have seen the boy in a Glendale gas station, sitting in a back seat of a car, wrapped in newspaper -- and even as far away as San Francisco. The boy's father, Walter J.S. Collins, floated the theory that some of his former inmates kidnapped his son, perhaps out of revenge.

In August, the LAPD delivered a boy to Christine Collins, her putative son who'd been found in Illinois. It was an apparent coup for the Los Angeles Police Department, which had routinely suffered bad press and whose chief, James Davis, was famous (now infamous) for having created only two years before a 50-man "gun squad" to go after the city's criminal element with the express command to bring in the purported crooks "dead, not alive."

Upon seeing the proffered child, Collins, according to a press account from that time, immediately stated, "I do not think that is my son." But, pressured by the LAPD, she took the boy home. Three weeks later, she returned the child to the LAPD, armed with dental records of her actual son, and statements from people who knew Walter. Collins unwittingly initiated what would become a veritable media storm, which ended with a court fight that lasted a decade, and a new state law, but never definitively resolved -- at least for Collins -- what happened to Walter.

Now her story is being told in the new Clint Eastwood film, "Changeling," which opens Friday. (It follows the true story, so if you're worried about plot spoilers, think twice before reading further.) The title comes from European folklore; a "changeling" was the offspring of a fairy or troll secretly swapped for a human child. The film stars Angelina Jolie as Collins and John Malkovich as the Rev. Gustav Briegleb, a pastor with a radio pulpit who took up Collins' cause.

The Collins story was literally unearthed out of city and court archives by journalist turned screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski, who had been tipped off by a former source to transcripts from a City Council hearing about the Collins case. Straczynski, who wrote for The Times and Herald Examiner, was an unlikely choice to be Collins' unofficial historian, given that his main credits were for the sci-fi TV show "Babylon 5." But he quickly became fascinated by her story and spent a year trawling through newspapers and records, piecing together an elaborate tapestry.

"I was so caught up by the raw, naked courage she showed, that she fought so hard for her son, and nobody remembered this. It was outrageous," says Straczynski. So many of Collins' travails, he says, stem from the fact that she was a woman who didn't conform to what men -- in this case the LAPD -- expected her to be like.

Collins was treated brutally by the police. When she tried to give back the child, the captain in charge of the case, J.J. Jones, ridiculed her. According to court testimony, he told her, "What are you trying to do, make fools out of us all? Or are you trying to shirk your duty as a mother and have the state provide for your son? You are the most cruel-hearted woman I've ever known."

Collins testified that Jones told her, "You're insane and ought to be in a madhouse. You're under arrest and I'm going to send you to the psychopathic ward." Jones threw Collins in the psych ward of the Los Angeles County General Hospital -- i.e., the insane asylum -- where she remained for about a week.

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