How a successful author went broke buying toys to overturn a wrongful conviction and got stalked by Nazis

This is one of those Tiger King-esque true crime clusterfucks that is almost too batshit to be real — but it's also too batshit for someone to make up. It's one of those links where I disinterestedly clicked on it out of morbid curiosity, and then ended up sitting in bed for an hour just reading about it.

It's about Sara Gruen, the author of the bestselling novel Water For Elephants. As Vulture reported in partnership with The Marshall Project, Gruen received a fan letter in 2015 from a man named Charles Murdoch, who was serving a life sentence without parole for a murder he claims he did not commit. Chief Justice Alex Kozinski of the Ninth Circuit appeals circuit called Murdoch's conviction a "truly spectacular miscarriage of justice" thanks in part to the fact that a key witness admitted that he had been coerced and lied on the stand about Murdoch's involvement in the murder. Regardless, Murdoch was still locked up for life.

Murdoch's letter piqued Sara's curiosity. She spent the next hour Googling Murdoch's case — and the next hour, and the next. She had been in the midst of researching her next novel, featuring a cast of characters whose fates collide on the Orient Express, but her outline, arranged along her walls in a sprawling web of Post-its, suddenly seemed trivial in comparison to Murdoch's case. 

Each new page about Murdoch's twisted legal saga contained a revelation more outrageous than the last. As Sara saw it, the investigation hinged on a coerced confession, and the trial, she concluded, was marred by mercurial witnesses, the suppression of crucial evidence, and a judge who seemed motivated to secure Murdoch's conviction. Kozinski's idiosyncratic dissent in Murdoch's appeal stayed with her: 

"If it wasn't for bad luck, Murdoch wouldn't have no luck at all. He's wakin' up this mornin' in jail when there's strong proof he ain't done nothing wrong. I would certainly defer to a jury's contrary verdict if it had seen this evidence and convicted Murdoch after a fair trial, presided over by a fair judge, followed by an appeal where the justices considered all of his constitutional claims. But Murdoch had none of these."

So Gruen did what writers do best when they're on deadline for another project: she got distracted. She stopped working on her next book, and became obsessed with overturning Murdoch's wrongful conviction. That possibility hinged on proving that the prosecution knew at the time of the trial that the witness's testimony had been coerced, or that the witness was otherwise unreliable — no easy task for a 1983 murder case. But Gruen was determined. She hired a private investigator on a retainer for $20,000 a month to dig into the case.

Within a year, Gruen's home office had turned into one of those TV murder conspiracy string boards. $250,000 in investigative fees later, it got worse. She ultimately had to refinance her house to keep working on Murdoch's freedom, and began to fear that she was being stalked and wiretapped — which, as it turns out, may have actually been true. Going broke, she made a last ditch effort to hoard the popular Hatchimal kids toys and re-sell them on eBay for a profit, which got her some ugly headlines. But still, she dug in deeper, determined to set Murdoch free.

That was 2016. By Christmas 2017, Gruen was suffering from bouts of transient global amnesia, losing her memory while her body began to fail from the stress. Meanwhile, Murdoch made enemies with some members of the Aryan Nation while in prison, who in turn sent some of their un-incarcerated lackeys after Gruen, believing Murdoch to be in love with her.

Then, Sara says, [her investigative lawyer] consulted with the FBI, called back, and said, "I need you to leave the house right now. Do you understand?"

She did, taking her son and her Schutzhund. Bob stayed behind to care for their animals. "We are having a safe room installed in the house," she emailed me on March 6, 2018, "with an interior bullet-proof safer room." She checked into a hotel under an assumed name, turned off location services on all of her devices, and bought a blonde wig. She moved six times in five months to make sure no one caught up with her, staying 500 miles from her family and using a burner phone to contact them. Later that month, she sent an email explaining the situation to producer Peter Schneider, who was working on a Broadway adaptation of Water for Elephants, asking if he knew of anyone with a second home who'd let her stay for a while; if Schneider didn't respond, she planned to ask Jeff Bezos, whom she corresponded with occasionally.

What a paragraph, right?

The story keeps going, detailing both the wild turns in the Murdoch murder case (and the attempts to overturn it), and the steady decline of Gruen's mental and physical health. As it stands, she's currently in hiding, trying to desperately to finish that novel she was working on.

A Bestselling Author Became Obsessed With Freeing a Man From Prison. It Nearly Ruined Her Life. [Abbott Kahler / The Marshall Project]

Image: Daniel X. O'Neil / Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0)