Starring Angelina Jolie, “The Exchange”, which tells the story of a mother’s search for her missing son, is based on real events
Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Angelina Jolie, the 2008 film “The Switch” became a real success in portraying the dramatic story of Christine Collins, a single mother living in Los Angeles. One day in 1928, upon arriving home, Christine discovers that her son Walter has disappeared. Five months after many frustrated searches, Collins receives the news that the young man has been found, and the reunion of the two was awaited by the whole world. However, when the boy arrives at the train station, Christine realizes that this is not her son. From then on, the mother has to face several trials from the authorities to prove that she is right in her claims.
What few imagine is that the film, which became a real box office success, was based on a true story – and even more macabre than on the big screen. The Walter Collins case is related to the horrific case that has become known as “the crimes of the Wineville chicken coop”, and is about the story of the kidnapping and murder of 20 boys in the early 1920s.
Northcott Family and the Wineville Chicken Coop Crimes
Born in 1906 in Bladworth, Canada, Gordon Stewart Northcott never had an easy childhood. His mother, Sarah Louise, ended up being overprotective of the boy, dedicating all the time of her life to taking care of her son and doing his will – ignoring the existence of her eldest daughter, Winnifred Northcott, and arousing the hatred of her husband, Cyrus. George, by Gordon. At age 10, Northcott reported that he began to be sexually abused by his increasingly violent father. In 1924, the entire family moved to Los Angeles, where Gordon became involved in various crimes, such as petty theft and street fights. Despite his name being mentioned in many controversies, he escaped trouble with his lies.
In 1926, at the age of 17, Gordon began to develop murderous and pedophilic thoughts. That same year, with the help of his father, he bought land in rural Wineville, Riverside County, where he built a ranch to raise chickens. His nephew, 13-year-old Sanford Clark, was brought in from Canada to work on the site. However, it was at this point that Gordon committed his first macabre crime, kidnapping Sanford and imprisoning him in the chicken coop.
In addition to not being able to go to school, the boy was constantly beaten and raped by Gordon and his father. After that, Cyrus, who supported the atrocities committed by his son, began to kidnap boys so that Gordon would commit atrocities daily. Coerced, the boys were taken to the chicken coop, abused and left on the side of the road or killed by the family.
The case of Walter Collins
In February 1928, the Northcotts’ practices took a new turn, as some boys’ names stood out in the media for being missing. And this was the case of Walter Collins, a 9-year-old boy who, one afternoon, went out to the movies alone, but was kidnapped and tortured by Gordon.
That same afternoon, realizing her son’s delay in returning home, Christine Collins began the search for Walter with the help of some neighbors. Just five days later, she reported the case to the police, who soon began searching for the boy and plastered his face on the media. Despite so much search, five months after his disappearance, his whereabouts were still unknown. At the same time, several clues connected Walter’s name to Gordon.
Some time later, a boy showed up in Illinois claiming to be Walter Collins. After a moment of reunion organized by the police and with enormous repercussion of the world press, Christine returned home with her son and, days later, went to the LAPD again to say that that boy was not Walter. At first, the police did not accept the woman’s claims, who went through a series of trials. In fact, she had been sent to a psychiatric hospital because of her statements.
However, dental tests were done on the boy and it turned out that, in fact, he was not Walter Collins. The imposter later confessed that he decided to pretend another identity, as his dream was to become a Hollywood actor and, for that, he would need to travel to Los Angeles.
At the same time that the search for Walter Collins was taking place, Sanford Clark was writing letters to his sister and mother telling them that the work on the ranch was going well. However, Winnifred, her mother, decided to go there after two years to visit her son, as she was suspicious of something. Unfortunately, the woman ended up discovering terrible stories of her family members, who kidnapped and tortured several boys. Among them was Walter, who, after all the repercussions of his disappearance, was killed by Gordon and Sarah. The number of victims was never officially discovered, but it is estimated that at least 20 boys were abused at the hands of the Northcotts.
When police linked the victims’ names to Gordon and proceeded to investigate the ranch, he and his mother fled to Canada, but were soon arrested and extradited to the United States for trial on September 19, 1928. In testimony, Gordon only confessed to the murder of farm worker Alvin Gothea, while his mother Sarah confessed to killing Walter Collins – a fact that was never proven, as his body was never found.
On February 7, 1929, after 27 days of trial, Gordon Northcott was found guilty and sentenced to death for kidnapping, abusing, torturing, and murdering children, and his execution took place on October 2, 1930; Sarah was sentenced to life in prison but released after serving 12 years; Cyrus was referred to a psychiatric institution, where he committed suicide; and Sanford Clark, who served as the prosecution’s main witness, was also sentenced to five years for participating in the crimes. However, because he was also a victim, his sentence was shortened to 23 months, which he served in a rehabilitation center.
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