Author behind ‘Water for Elephants’ left broke and near death over obsession with true crime case, friends say

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Akshita Jain
·3 min read
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<p>Author Sara Gruen attends the ‘Water For Elephants’ premiere at the Ziegfeld Theatre on 17 April, 2011</p> (Getty Images)

Author Sara Gruen attends the ‘Water For Elephants’ premiere at the Ziegfeld Theatre on 17 April, 2011

(Getty Images)

Sara Gruen, author of the bestselling novel Water for Elephants, was left broke and “seriously ill” because of her obsession with freeing a man accused in a murder case, her friend has said.

Even though Ms Gruen had received about 60 letters from people behind bars after her novel became a best seller, a letter from a man called Charles Murdoch stood out for her, her friend wrote for The Marshall Project.

Mr Murdoch had written about his grandfather who narrated tales of performing in a circus with his bride Lottie. Ms Gruen had researched a real-life performer named Lottie for her book and the letter piqued her curiosity.

She started researching about Mr Murdoch’s case and came to believe in his innocence. “In her view, the only relevant point about Murdoch’s rap sheet was that he’d pleaded guilty to every crime he’d been accused of — except for the murder charge, which she considered further proof of his innocence,” her friend wrote.

Water for Elephants is set during the Great Depression and follows the life of a veterinary student who joins a second-rate circus and falls in love with the star performer of the show. The book was made into a film starring Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon.

Ms Gruen hired a criminal defence attorney to find new information about the murder case in which Mr Murdoch was charged. She also investigated on her own. Her friend wrote: “For her, the battle to save Murdoch was a challenge — she would take on the system, find new exculpatory evidence, and win.”

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The whole exercise begun to wear on her, but she dismissed any thought of retreat. She began to worry about her health, safety and money. Her friend wrote: “She believed her phone had been wiretapped and that she was being followed during visits with Murdoch.”

She bought more than 150 “Hatchimals” toys on eBay in 2016 and hoped to flip them for profits for Mr Murdoch’s legal fees. She told Philly Voice that the aim was to raise money for the legal defence of “an innocent man who’d run out of options while serving life without parole.” She also said that she racked up $150,000 in debt working on his behalf.

She faced criticism, soon followed by death and rape threats, and threats to boycott her books.

Ms Gruen finally decided to state her case and theories to the DA’s office. She prepared a 50-page dossier and turned it in. She began to focus on her next novel in the meantime, but her health started deteriorating. “She began suffering from a ‘brain fog’ so severe she couldn’t connect one thought to the next,” her friend wrote.

In The Marshall Project feature, her friend said: “She couldn’t eat or often forgot to. Her weight plummeted to 95 pounds. She fainted every day, and her adrenal glands malfunctioned. Her body no longer made enough cortisol, rendering her incapable of feeling anything but stress or fear.”

An endocrinologist prescribed hydrocortisone and fludrocortisone to treat her low cortisol and adrenal collapse. Her brain is reviving itself and emerging from the fog, her friend said.

Her legal team finally had a meeting with Los Angeles county’s conviction review unit about the case last fall. Six months later, progress in the case has been stalled. The Covid-19 pandemic has limited the Conviction Review Unit’s ability to investigate. Her friend wrote that there are days when Ms Gruen wishes she’d never heard of Charles Murdoch, but on others she allows herself a spark of hope that maybe justice will finally prevail.