Over Labor Day weekend, the Los Angeles Times published “Framed, A Mystery In Six Parts,” a tale of a PTA mom in Southern California whose life unraveled after the police found drugs in her car. She insisted they weren’t hers. The cops wanted to know how they got in the car.
“I have an enemy,” she said.
And so begins the soap-opera story of that enemy, a power couple, both lawyers, who were seeking sweet revenge. The Huffington Post talked to Christopher Goffard, a reporter who shared the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2011 and spent seven months working on “Framed.”
Why this story? What about it made you want to take a deep dive? How did you pitch it to your editor?
The series emerged from a conversation I had early this year with Marc Duvoisin, the Times’ managing editor. I told him I had been haunting the Santa Ana courthouse looking for stories and came across the Easter civil trial, and I described the scene that is depicted at the beginning of Part Six, where Kent Easter is sitting alone and moving his lips silently and rehearsing his plea to the jury, representing himself because he can no longer afford an attorney. And there was a kind of pathos in that image because here is a guy who had won all his life and was reduced to this.
Duvoisin and I started talking about the precariousness of one’s position in the world, how no matter what you achieve you’re always worried that you’re standing on a trapdoor that is going to open beneath you at some point. It’s a universal anxiety. And here was a guy, Kent Easter, who had for inexplicable reasons built his own trapdoor and plunged through and just kept falling. So I guess it started with a desire to know why ... he and his wife [did] this. But there’s no real satisfying answer to that question, and it became a bigger story about a cast of characters playing their roles in the justice system.
You combed through thousands of pages of court documents and interviewed many close to the case. How long were you working on the story before you started writing it? Did you know it would be serialized?
It was about seven months of work and I was writing all through the fact-gathering ― they’re not really discrete phases. I turned it in as two very long parts. [Editor-in-Chief] Davan Maharaj suggested we break it up into more palatable pieces, and so I had to find cliffhangers, and it just naturally broke up into six parts.
Your side job appears to be as a fiction writer. And the tone and style for this piece has a wonderful literary quality. Did your fiction-writing muscles come into play here? How so? Did you find yourself trying to channel some of the noir greats like James M. Cain?
Writing fiction requires you to build scenes and characters and pay attention to the texture of things and the feel of things, which unfortunately newspaper writing doesn’t try to do very often. I mean, the inverted pyramid, which I’ve used a thousand times ― where you give away the ending in the first few words ― will kill your best instincts if you do not resist it. So I try to subvert it whenever possible and write what I think of as short stories that happen to be true. And I have great editors who believe in taking risks.
Some of the crime novelists I like a lot are George Higgins (The Friends of Eddie Coyle), Jim Thompson (The Killer Inside Me) and Gerald Kersh (Night and the City). And movies like “Sunset Boulevard” and “Double Indemnity” and “Sweet Smell of Success” have influenced me a lot. Which is interesting because in Kent Easter’s criminal trials, the defense presented his wife as this malevolent, scheming, double-crossing creature who could have stepped fully formed from a genre picture. It was as if they’d rummaged through the great trove of noir tropes and cobbled together this character that Kent Easter himself is now saying was a “cartoon villainess.”
What was most challenging to report? Most surprising?
Well, finding the storyline in the mass of material is always a challenge. And the Easters were a mystery to me and remain a mystery. One thing that surprised me is just how close this case came to falling apart, two or three times. It took over a year to charge the Easters, and their lawyers put up a serious fight.
This story really couldn’t exist anywhere but where it took place. It reeks of a soap opera. If the crime had taken place in a low-income area, the police and courts wouldn’t have cared. But in this story, it was shocking how much police detective work was put into something so low-level in terms of crime. Most crimes don’t get the same attention and resources. Is a story sometimes just so seductive that it can’t be resisted?
If this had happened a few miles away in Anaheim or Santa Ana, where the cops are busy with violent crime, it would almost certainly have gone differently. Who has 20 detectives to spare on something like this? There are murders every day in Southern California that don’t get 20 detectives. The Irvine PD had the time and resources to investigate the hell out of it, and I think they took it personally because they had been used as a tool to hurt one of their citizens.
There was a debate in the newsroom about whether this could have happened anywhere but Irvine ― whether something about the place’s master-planned, hyper-regulated, hyper-competitive yuppie weirdness fed the Easters’ worst instincts. Maybe the crime could have been hatched in any rich city. But I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have been solved in just any rich city.
Anything you’d like to add?
I would be happy if this emboldened other papers to try serials as a way of telling longer stories. They have a proud pedigree. Serials like Tom French’s “Angels and Demons” and Anne Hull’s “Metal to Bone” are stories I read and re-read.
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