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Let's Explore The Corrupt Town That Inspired True Detective

Illustration for article titled Let's Explore The Corrupt Town That Inspired True Detective

How are you enjoying #TrueDetectiveSeason2 so far? It’s okay, right? I don’t know, maybe it kind of sucks. Anyway, if you’re like me, you’ve spent a good chunk of the first three episodes being a little confused by the city-corruption storyline. We’ve been told that there are a lot of “deals being done” and a lot of “money changing hands,” but what exactly is going on? Why does the mayor of the Vinci live in a baller-ass mansion? Why is the city manager such a big deal? Is Vinci even a real place? Allow me to explain.


Yeah, so, is Vinci real, or what?

There is no such place as Vinci, Calif., but as showrunner Nic Pizzolatto revealed in that bonkers Vanity Fair profile, it is based on a real city in California known as Vernon, located about five miles south of Los Angeles and covering just over five square miles of land. The thing to know about Vernon, and thus Vinci, is that it is not so much a city as it is a corporation masquerading as a city.

The hell does that even mean, man?

What it means is that Vernon is not a city by any normal definition of the term. Since 1990, the city’s population has never exceeded 150 people; 112 residents were counted in the 2010 census. Most of the people who actually live in Vernon are city employees or administrators, and they live in housing that is owned by the city. This doesn’t mean that Vernon is a small, quiet town, though. Every day, an out-of-town work force of about 50,000 people commutes into the city.

That seems weird! Where are all of those workers going?

It is weird, and all of those people are coming to work at the plants and factories that make Vernon the fiefdom that it is. I’ll let the city’s official website explain:

Vernon is the industrial heart of Southern California. Major manufacturers, processors and distributors have made Vernon their home for more than a century. Vernon businesses employ more than 50,000 men and women from nearby communities throughout the Greater Los Angeles area.

Vernon’s 1,800 businesses include food processors, fashion apparel manufacturers, furniture manufacturers, electronics manufacturers, paper products producers and business logistics companies. Familiar firms with significant operations in Vernon include Farmer John, Seven for All Mankind and Tapatío Hot Sauce.


Remember that scene last week in which Season Two Chief Broodster Rachel McAdams takes a brooding look out her car window and sees all of those workers filing into a factory, causing her to ask, broodingly, “What is this place?” That’s the out-of-town workforce she’s looking at.

So what does all of this have to do with corruption?

Well, an entirely industrial city like Vernon happens to come with a massive tax base. In 2010, the city assessed a $4.1 billion property-tax base despite having a population of just over 100. In 2011, the L.A. Times reported that the city was projected to produce $295 million in revenue. A good chunk of that revenue comes from the city-owned power plant, which provides electricity for the 1,800 businesses in Vernon.


Wait a minute: What does a city that has no population to speak of do with all that money?

They ball the hell out, man! Instead of having to build parks and roads and schools like a normal city, the administrators in Vernon get to draw huge salaries and spend all of that revenue on things like mansions, first-class flights, personal drivers, expensive golf outings, and hookers. Probably lots of hookers.


Take Eric Fresch, a former city administrator and lawyer who according to an
L.A. Times investigation made $7.5 million in salaries and fees from 2005 to 2010. In that Times investigation, Fresch is described as Vernon’s “Wizard of Oz,” the guy behind the scenes who is pulling all the strings. For example, he hooked his brother up with a $160-per-hour job as a “renewable energy consultant,” and in 2006 he helped close a $439 million tax-exempt bond deal for the city that was eventually investigated by the IRS. He also made sure his colleagues stayed fat and rich:

Department heads under Fresch also benefited from the extra-hours billing system, which the city phased out in the last year. In 2009, City Atty. Jeffrey Harrison made $800,000, while Light and Power Director Donal O’Callaghan and Finance Director Roirdan Burnett were paid $785,000 and $570,000, respectively.


This is the kind of stuff that True Detective is hinting at when Vince Vaughn is grumbling about land deals, when the mayor is losing his shit over a piece of investigative journalism on Vinci’s corruption, and when Colin Farrell’s bosses are wringing their hands over the state attorney asking to see time sheets. Everyone in both the fictional and real version of this town, from the city council members to the police officers, is making a lot more money than they should be.

And the craziest thing is, nobody can really do anything about it. Since Vernon’s population is so small and a good chunk of its residents are city administrators, there’s really no such thing as an election in Vernon. City council members and other government employees just vote themselves into office over and over again before eventually hand-picking a friend or family member to succeed them. And the city is very aggressive when it comes to making sure outsiders don’t try to gain residency (via L.A. Times):

When three interlopers tried to register to vote using a warehouse address in 2006, the city cut off their utilities and hired armed security to shadow them around the clock. When the trio filed to run for office, Vernon canceled the election. It took a court order to force a vote and another to ensure the votes were fairly counted.


Okay, so are any of the characters in True Detective based on real people from Vernon?

There are some clear parallels, yes. I get the sense that Ben Caspere, the Vinci city manager who gets his eyes burned out and seems to reside at the center of the city’s political machine, is a pretty good analog for Fresch, especially because Fresch died under unusual circumstances on the same day a state audit of Vernon’s finances was released. From the L.A. Times:

Tiburon Battalion Chief Ed Lynch said Fresch had been cycling around the island with his wife before they got separated. When she couldn’t find him, she reported Fresch missing.

“He was at the bottom of a real steep embankment. It appeared he fell about 150 feet and landed in the shore line, partially in the water,” Lynch said. “It was reported that he had severe head trauma.”

Sgt. Keith Boyd of the Marin County Sheriff’s Office Coroner Division said there appeared to be no witnesses. He said the results of Fresch’s autopsy could be available in two to six weeks.

“It could have been a natural death, an accident where he fell and crashed, or a suicide, where it was intentional on his behalf,” Boyd said.


And then there’s the creepy mayor of Vinci, Austin Chessani, who in last night’s episode we discovered actually lives in a grossly decadent mansion in Bel Air. He seems like a stand-in for Leonis Malburg, who served on Vernon’s city council for 18 years and was the mayor from 1974-2009. Malburg’s fall from power started in 2006, when it was discovered that he actually lived in a mansion 20 miles east of Vernon. He was subsequently charged with voter fraud and stepped down from his office. Also, some of this season’s depraved sexual themes seem to echo a part of Malburg’s story (via the L.A. Times):

During a search, investigators uncovered evidence that Malburg’s son had sexually abused children. John Malburg pleaded guilty to molesting one boy and filming another one, and was sentenced to eight years in prison.


Okay, I think I get the whole Vernon/Vinci thing now. But should I really care this much about a show that features one dude describing another dude as “half anaconda and half great white” in total seriousness?

[Looks around nervously] Uh, that Colin Farrell sure is great, right?