What if you lost your child, only for them to be replaced by someone who isn’t your kid? And no one will believe you? That’s what happens in the 2008 crime drama, Changeling, starring Angelina Jolie. Set in 1928, Jolie plays Christine Collins, a single mother who heads to work one day, saying a final goodbye to her by nine-year-old son, Walter Collins. Unfortunately, when she gets home, he’s nowhere to be found.
Christine weaves her way through the neighborhood, asking anyone she comes across if they’ve seen Walter. When she comes up empty, she calls the police. Although the Los Angeles Police Department says they’re looking for him, the local reverend rails against the department, accusing them of corruption. Several months after Walter goes missing, the police show up with a boy who they say is Walter. Christine disagrees.
So much evidence points to this boy being an imposter. He’s several inches shorter, he’s circumcised. Yet when Christine insists he’s not her boy, the cops have her committed to a mental institution. While this is going on, a chance encounter on a chicken farm blows the whole case wide open.
Detective Ybarra visits a chicken farm in Wineville, California to deliver deportation papers to 15-year-old Sanford Clark. When he briefly speaks to the boy’s uncle, Gordon Stewart Northcott, the man flees. In speaking with Sanford, Ybarra learns that Gordon had roped his nephew into helping him kidnap and kill dozens of young boys, Walter Collins among them. This revelation leads to a court case that convicts Northcott of several murders and he’s sentenced to death by hanging.
While Christine feels vindicated that the imposter foisted upon her by the LAPD was not her son–and the boy even admitted that he only lied about his identity so he could travel to Hollywood to meet his favorite actor–she doesn’t get the kind of closure she’s hoping for. While Sanford Clark mentioned Walter, they never find evidence of his death at the chicken farm. A few years after the court case, a young man comes forward saying he had fled from the farm with two other boys, Walter included. Unfortunately, he lost track of Walter and he’d never been found.
Is Changeling based on a true story?
Changeling follows the real true crime disappearance of Walter Collins and the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders. On March 10, 1928, the real-life Christine Collins gave her nine-year-old son Walter some money to go to the cinema. When he didn’t return, she called the police. At first, Christine and the police thought Walter’s disappearance was connected to his father, Walter Collins, Sr. He’d been convicted of eight armed robberies and was currently serving his sentence at Folsom Prison.
But, after five months with no success in finding Walter, the public’s anger at the boy’s continued disappearance created friction between locals and the LAPD. When the police heard of a young boy turning up in DeKalb, Illinois, they hoped it was Walter. At first, the boy denied being the missing Collins boy, but when he heard that Walter was from Los Angeles, he admitted it was him.
The frustrating scenes of Jolie’s Christine insisting the boy wasn’t Walter were unfortunately based in reality. Police Captain J.J. Jones told her to “try him out for a couple of weeks.” She agreed, but after three weeks, she continued to insist that this wasn’t Walter. There were dental records proving it wasn’t him, but rather than admitting they had the wrong boy, the police committed her to the psychiatric ward at Los Angeles County Hospital. She was released a full 10 days after the fake Walter admitted that he wasn’t actually her son.
In August, 1928, 19-year-old Jessie Clark traveled from Canada to Wineville, California to visit her brother Sanford. He’d been living and working on their uncle Gordon Northcott’s chicken farm. But when he arrived, he told his older sister that he was in danger. Just a few years prior, when Northcott chose the land and built the farm, he had his nephew come out to help. From that moment, Northcott sexually and physically abused poor Sanford. He told his sister everything, including that Northcott had murdered four boys.
The details of how the murders were discovered are a little different in real life compared to the film. Rather than Detective Ybarra stumbling upon the murders, it was Jessie Clark’s statement to the American consul in Canada that broke open the case. The consul contacted authorities in California and two Immigration Service Inspectors visited the farm on August 31st, 1928.
Northcott saw the inspectors and fled, telling Sanford Clark to stall them or he’d shoot him with his rifle. After a few hours, Clark told the inspectors everything. Although the bodies of the boys had been moved to an unknown location, Clark showed them where they were originally buried. When they dug, they found body parts proving that the bodies had been there.
Gordon Northcott and his mother Sarah Louise Northcott, fled to Canada. They were arrested on September 19, 1928 in British Columbia. Clark testified at the trials and said that Sarah Louise had helped Gordon abduct, abuse, and murder four boys. Sarah Louise Northcott confessed and pleaded guilty to the abduction and murder of Walter Collins. Gordon Northcott was convicted of the murders of the three other boys on February 8, 1929. He was sentenced to death and hanged on October 2, 1930.
Ultimately, there was no proof that Walter Collins was ever an actual victim of Northcott’s despite the testimony of his mother. When Christine Collins met with Gordon Stewart Northcott, she asked him if he’d killed Walter. She left the interview without answers, finding the young man too incomprehensible. When he was being executed, Northcott called Christine, telling her that he’d tell her what happened to Walter if she attended his execution. She did, but he only insisted that he’d never met him.
Like in the film, a boy came forward five years after Northcott’s execution stating that he’d been abducted by the man but had gotten away. Unfortunately, there was no proof of this and it did nothing to help Christine Collins in her search for truth.
Christine Collins wouldn’t rest when it came to the injustice of being wrongfully committed by the police. She filed lawsuits until a judge finally awarded her $10,800 (about $180,000 in 2022 considering inflation). Unfortunately, she never received the money. Good did come from this, though. The California State Legislature made it illegal for cops to commit people without a warrant.
Finally, the town of Wineville, California itself had had enough of this tragedy. Rather than forever being tied to the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, they changed their name to Mira Loma in 1930. Then, on July 1, 2011, Mira Loma and several other small towns were incorporated into the city now known as Jurupa Valley, California, essentially erasing this tragedy as best they can.