Is True Detective based on true stories?

True Detective season 3,, HBO,photo credit: Warrick Page
True Detective season 3,, HBO,photo credit: Warrick Page /
True Detective
True Detective — Photo Credit: HBO /

True Detective on HBO is one of the most thrilling and compelling shows on television. Part of those thrills come from the stories featured each season. Audiences can’t help but ask, are the cases on True Detective based on true events?

A dark anthology series that captured the minds of every true crime and psychological-thriller fan in the world, True Detective is a crime series that stands out from the mountain of other investigative series on television, setting up a new case and different set of detectives each season. It’s no Monk or Criminal Minds where the killer is found in 60 minutes and the characters aren’t too damaged that they can’t be helped after a nice talking to.

The series isn’t just good TV, it’s also unforgettable thanks to the wildly unbelievable crimes the detectives investigate. Season 1 had a pedophile sex cult, Season 2 had a Mafia-type town takeover, and the currently running Season 3 is a conspirator’s dream with so many questions it hurts your head. Pile all that with personal drama and interesting characters, Rust Cohle’s got them all beat, and you have one hell of a show.

The crimes are so shocking, it’s hard to imagine them ever occurring in real life, but are they based on fact? Did a sex cult really thrive in Louisiana or are the series writers just naturally twisted individuals? Let’s break each season down.

What are the true stories behind True Detective?

Season 1: The Louisiana Sex Abuse Ritual

The first season of the HBO hit series was one of a kind, and it remains as one of the greatest seasons of an anthology series of all time. As a standalone season, it is one of the greatest TV series ever made. Season 1 stars Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, the story follows two detectives as they solve a murder case that appears to be sitting in a web of conspiracies.

At the very end of the case, Rust (McConaughey) and Marty (Harrelson) uncover a secret pedophile sex ring under their very noses, “The Kingdom of Carcosa”. Located in the backwoods of Louisiana, the group is organized by a bunch of wealthy Louisiana politicians and church leaders carrying out ritualistic sex with children. The members worship someone referred to as the “Yellow King.”

Though the series was largely influenced by Lovecraftian horror, it’s a real crime that took place in Louisiana that likely served as inspiration for the setting, despite Pizzolatto’s claims that the inspiration came primarily from literature. It’s hard not to hear about the sexual abuse scandal of the Hosanna Church in Louisiana, and not think of True Detective. Pizzolatto never cites the scandal as an influence, but in an interview with EW, he says that on Googling the terms “Satanism,” “preschool,” and “Louisiana,” a lot of shocking things pop up. Googling those three terms together almost always brings you to the Hosanna case.

There seem to be several characters in the HBO series that came straight from the Hosana case. On True Detective, there is a character called Billy Lee Tuttle who is a powerful pastor and cousin to the show’s fictional Louisiana Governor Ed Tuttle who shares similarities with Hosana linked Eddie Robinson. Another similarity is the involvement of a dirty policeman. In True Detective, Rust suspects that someone in law enforcement is involved in the case and in real life, a sheriff deputy was implicated in the Hosana case.

Is True Detective season 2 also based on true stories?

I’m not going to lie, I couldn’t bare True Detective‘s second season and watched maybe 10% of the finale before giving up. Despite two times the amount of starring power, the sophomore season collapsed under an overly complicated plot and a weak story. Starring Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Vince Vaughn, and Taylor Kitsch, season 2 leaves grisly cults in favor of organized crime in a corrupt city.

Set in the fictional town of Vinci, the season interweaves the narratives of three very depressing police officers, all dealing with their own past traumas, when a murder with apparent gangster-ties occurs. The criminals, or “businessmen”, running the city want to capitalize on the new high-speed rail link running through Vinci and will do anything to get it.

When promoting the series’ second season, Nic Pizzolatto, advised Vanity Fair to look into the history of Vernon, CA for hints about the upcoming season.

The city of Vinci is based off Vernon, a tiny incorporated city located southeast of downtown Los Angeles with a history of crooked officials. Founded in 1905 by John Leonis to profit from the railroads cutting through the area, the city currently describes itself as “the industrial heart of Southern California,” and is home to about 1,800 businesses but only 112 residents (huh?). Formerly known as “a sporting town”, it’s rumored that the city’s founding fathers used recreational attractions like boxing arenas and the “world’s longest bar” to entice corporations to open factories there. Apparently, it worked.

The city has had a history of corruption tainting its name. For decades, Vernon residents lived in city-owned housing and city council members usually ran unopposed for reelections. Even though he was investigated for corruption, city founder John B. Leonis maintained his powerful status for 45 years. His broker grandson, Leonis Malburg, was city mayor and a councilman for 50 years until he was forced to resign in 2009 for voter fraud.

True Detective season 3,, HBO,photo credit: Warrick Page
True Detective season 3,, HBO,photo credit: Warrick Page /

Is True Detective season 3 also based on true stories?

A plot as intricate as the one shown in True Detective Season 3 can’t come from one lone event. We got a kidnapping, a murdered child, possible dirty cops, a framed man too dead to defend himself, a literal creepy uncle, a possibly delusional turned up missing girl, a covered-up homicide by the two lead detectives, at least 10 different suspects and way too much family drama. Got all that? And that’s only in the first five episodes.

Though not confirmed, there are three real-life cases that possibly influenced the setting of the third season, and one is a triple homicide dubbed the “West Memphis Three” from Arkansas.

In 1993, three teenage boys, Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin, and Damien Echols were arrested for the murders of three eight-year-old boys in an alleged Satanic ritual. The three victims, Steve Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers went missing on May 5, 1993, and were found dead in a creek.

The crime occurred at the height of the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s and Investigators believed the murders had “cult” overtones, especially after Echols expressed interest in the occult. People tend to overreact when the term “occult” comes up. The occult is anything involving the supernatural, one could be accused of practicing the occult simply for believing in ghosts.

Police treated the three as if already guilty, acting like Echols was a sadistic cult leader and the other two were his loyal followers. The three teens suspected of the crimes were considered outcasts in the community, with their black clothes, long hair, and heavy metal music. They were easy targets, and no one batted an eye when they were accused.

The three were convicted and sent to prison, regardless of some very strong evidence against their assumed guilt. On the night of the murders, there were reports of a man covered in blood taking refuge in a bathroom at a local restaurant, followed by some highly suspicious behavior, but the police remained focused on the rebellious teens. Shows how much personal bigotry effects criminal arrests. A man was covered in blood but, no, arrest the three boys playing rock music in the park. Sounds like a logical decision.

One was given a death sentence and two given life sentences. After serving 18 years, they were finally released in 2007 as free men when DNA evidence proved their innocence.

The first few episodes of the season contain some parallels to the Memphis Three. The first set of suspects were three teenage boys who saw the victims before they were disappeared. The ringleader, Freddy Burns (Rhys Wakefield), shares a striking resemblance to the real-life Damien Echols. Another one of the boys, Ryan Peters (Brandon Flynn), was shown wearing a Black Sabbath t-shirt, a band once accused of dabbling in Satanism.

In True Detective season 3 based on Jacob Wetterling?

Another real-life crime that shares parallels with the series is the murder of Jacob Wetterling. In St. Joseph, Minnesota on October 1989, 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was abducted with his brother and a friend when the three were out riding their bikes. The other two boys were released but not Wetterling, whose remains weren’t located until 2016 when the admitted killer, Danny Heinrich, led police to the grave.

There aren’t many similarities here, but in both cases, the kids were riding bikes and the kidnapper wanted someone specific. In the series, the killer is suspected of only wanting Julie Purcell and killed her brother just to get rid of him.

The case sparked the spread of “stranger danger” and inspired a sex offender registration act. Wetterling’s parents formed the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, that later became the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, that aims at informing the public on child abductors. In 1994, the federal Jacob Wetterling Act, the first law to institute a state sex-offender registry, was passed.

In True Detective season 3 based on Boys on the Tracks?

Another possible inspiration of the mystery surrounding the Purcell kids could be the equally mysterious deaths of 17-year-old Kevin Ives and 16-year-old Don Henry, who were found dead on the train tracks in Alexander, Arkansas in 1987 after being hit by a train.

There was no reason for their deaths nor any clear evidence of foul play. However, it was the state of their bodies that aroused suspicion. They appeared to have been peacefully laid out on the tracks side-by-side as if they’d fallen asleep and were killed by a passing train. They were lying exactly parallel on the track with their arms straight down by their sides and were partially covered by a green tarp.

The coroner declared their deaths an accident, concluding that they smoked the equivalent of 20 marijuana cigarettes and fell asleep on the tracks, too doped up to hear the train. However, their parents refused to accept this claim and started their own investigation.

Eventually, they made enough noise to get the case reopened and the bodies were examined a second time by a different medical examiner. Either the first guy was bad at his job or he was paid off because the second autopsy found reason to suspect anything other than an accident.

There was evidence that one boy was already dead when the train hit them, and the other was knocked unconscious. Their drug intake was also different the second time as it was discovered that the boys smoked somewhere between one or three joints, not 20. Then the presence of the green tarp became suspicious once it was discovered that neither family ever owned a green tarp, suggesting it came from a third party.

It was later discovered that a man wearing military clothing was spotted near the train tracks a week before the boy’s died. His behavior was noted as strange and hostile. When an officer reported on scene, the man suddenly opened fire. Yeah, that’s not suspicious. Witnesses eventually came forward announcing that another man, or maybe the same man, dressed in military garb was seen by the tracks on the same night the boys died about 200 yards from where the bodies were found.

Then, as if that wasn’t enough, they later analyzed Don Henry’s t-shirt and found cuts in the fabric that indicated he’d been stabbed before the train hit.

Things got even weirder when former pro-wrestler Billy Jack Haynes came forward in 2018 claiming to have witnessed their deaths. Haynes admitted to having trafficked cocaine in the ’80s, and that he saw the double homicide while ensuring the security of a drug drop in 1987, which was apparently somewhere near the tracks. He admits it all in a YouTube video.

"“While conducting security for the drug money drop, I witnessed the murders of two young boys: Kevin Ives and Don Henry. They were murdered by other individuals who were working for the same criminal politician. Their bodies were placed on the railroad tracks to be mutilated by a passing train.”"

The bodies of Henry and Ives were laid out peacefully to give the impression that they’d fallen asleep and the body of Will Purcell in True Detective is laid out equally so, as if he was asleep. The two cases are also similar in the way they seem simple but are actually part of a larger story, something hidden in plain sight.

I also can’t help but compare the military man to Brett Woodard in True Detective. Like the unknown man, Woodard was seen by the scene and is a man with former military background.

True Detective season 4 is in the works. As soon as we have a release date for it, we’ll update you!

This post has been edited by FanSided staff.

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