Title: Faith (Season 1, Episode 21)
Uncomfortable Synopsis: An interest in a physically challenged young girl leads to a surprising revelation
Pre-credit: An old man and a middle-aged woman arrive at the home of a girl named Erica. Her caretakers attempt to convince the old man to sign a non-disclosure agreement. He storms out of the house and hookers discover him ON FIRE the next morning.
Plot: Detectives Goren and Eames of the Major Crimes Squad arrive at the scene. Goren quickly susses out the fire was set to hide the fact the old man was killed elsewhere. A press badge reveals the old man was Douglas Lafferty, a former newspaper man and widower. Goren removes some gravel from the rear passenger tire and heads for Lafferty’s home.
Once there, the detectives discover he was probably killed in the garage and had been withdrawing more and more money from his accounts. Goren also finds a medical equipment catalog.
At One Police Plaza, Goren creates a profile for the killer: great improvisational skills, but the event was over-thought. “Lafferty might have been the target of her anger, but he wasn’t the object of her passion,”he says. While Captain Deakins suggests a girlfriend … Goren considers other possibilities based on the profile.
Lafferty’s grown-up children tell the detectives it was obvious that their father had turned into a sex addict. Lafferty’s son recalls seeing his father at Bvlgari buying some jewelry. When the detectives head over there to learn about the jewerly, they discover it was inscribed to “Erica.” On the receipt, Lafferty asked for an expansion band. The next stop is the medical equipment company. There, they find out Erica is a young girl. Lafferty was having a motorized wheelchair prepared for her. According to the guy at the company, Lafferty had the wheelchair outfitted for a left-handed joystick because the girl had lost the use of her right hand.
Following the phone records, it turns out Lafferty was part of a group following Erica Windemere … the author of “Through the Darkness.” Goren and Eames meet with Erica’s editor, Christine Wilks. She offers them Erica’s email address as her situation prevents her from having a phone. “The book explains it all,” she says.
The book is an autobiography revealing Erica is on the run because her parents were members of a “violent drug gang,” who abused her before she came down with ALS — Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Dodging death threats, she now lives with a foster mother named Barb and a physical therapist named Tobey. Since they cannot direct her by any other means, Eames writes her an email asking her about Lafferty.
Child Welfare has no record of the girl or her story. While updating Captain Deakins, Eames gets a call from Erica. They briefly discuss Lafferty before Goren asks her about the asymmetrical disability, unusual for ALS suffers, and her menstruation. When Erica has trouble answering that question, Goren concludes that she does not exist.
Following a trail of people involved in Erica’s circle, Barb and Tobey are arrested. Barb maintains Lafferty never visited their house, but Goren unleashes an evidence bag full of gravel he obtained at the house. It matches the material he picked out of Laffety’s car back at the crime scene.
Once questioned, Goren determines Barb has a form of Munchhausen-by-Proxy syndrome. She’s a con-artist who happens to use a fantasy about the sort of person she would like to be. “She invented a sick child for the attention, for the love,” says Goren. While they’re certainly guilty of fraud, he’s convinced they did not kill Lafferty.
Obtaining Barb and Tobey’s belongings, they find the rough draft of “Through the Darkness.” Goren sees the edited version is transformed and heartbreaking. The path leads back to Erica’s editor Christine. Questioning her, she claims to have complete faith in Erica’s existence. When Goren shows her the rough draft with revisions, Christine explodes and shouts, “This is her! This is her life! These are her thoughts!”
The detectives, along with Executive Assistant District Attorney Ron Carver set up a sting using Barb and Tobey. They tempt the con-artists with a $2 Million life insurance policy Lafferty took out with Erica as the beneficiary and Barb as the executor. She agrees to play Erica one more time. As Erica, she tells Christine about the insurance policy and that it will be loss if Barb and Tobey are convicted with Lafferty’s murder. Twisting the knife as much as possible, Goren gets her to admit to the crime and offer the exact details of the murder.
Following the confession, Carver admits the policy was a fake and Barb sees Christine being taken away. “You ruined everything!” she seethes. As the whole group are escorted away, Detective Eames offers, “Erica will be so disappointed in them.”
I Could Help But Notice: I’ve long thought about entering an episode of “Criminal Intent” into the Special Review Unit. Unlike the Mothership or SVU, the third “Law & Order” series has a few major flaws. When the show was initially launched, it offered a look at the crime from “the criminal’s point of view.” This took form in the pre-credit sequence, which shows the events leading up to the crime. There are also interludes with the perpetrators within the episode. This is really the show’s biggest structural hurdle.
The main appeal of “Law & Order” is the uncertainty of events. The best SVU episodes play up that aspect and gives us so many blind alleys, we’re dizzy by the time the real culprit is identified. On “Criminal Intent,” we know from the word go who the killer/theif/kidnapper is.
The show offset that lack of tension by placing emphasis on its lead character, Detective Robert Goren. Three parts Columbo, two parts Sherlock Holmes, and eight parts Vincent D’Onfrio, the character is an investigative dynamo. He can find the smallest clue and perceive the slightest change in a suspects demeanor. He’s also certifiable, but the fun is in watch the actor chew the scenery around and make incredible leaps in processing a crime scene.
Really, D’Onfrio is why I watch the show. He’s the glue that holds it together. When his health began to suffer, the producers brought on Chris Noth to reprise his role as Detective Mike Logan for half of Season’s Five episodes. My interest waned immediately and it never recovered. Storylines began to focus on the characters themselves instead of the investigations they were assigned and they became fantastically uninteresting. The magic of the formula, such as it is, was gone.
I chose this episode because it has a juicy plot, overwrought emotions, and some truly hilarious acting. Mia Dillion (Barb) and Polly Draper (Christine) shine — in their way — during the criminal interludes. While I wouldn’t call their performances good, they fit the world of the series. Draper’s best moment comes when she throws a drink in someone’s face and shouts, “You’re not just betraying Erica, you’re betraying all children!” I’ll be generous and say it’s a more theatrical form of acting than television really allows at this point.
I’d also like to give special notice to the voice of Erica, but IMDB does not offer a credit for her. She’s clearly dubbed in the one time we see Mia Dillion play Erica on the phone. The voice, who ever she is, gives the exact sort of fragile, terrified performance one would expect from a child in that situation. Well, at least in the heightened reality of Criminal Intent.
The journey Goren and Eames take to uncover the truth reveals many people willing to believe in Erica and plenty of people willing to use Erica’s story for their own ends. It is, in its way, a larger exploration of faith than the simple fraud story it appears to be. There’s the ambulance driver who read the book and uses it to relate to his nephews who lost their mother. Lafferty’s connection to Erica rose out of the death of his wife. Christine, herself a lonely professional woman, saw Erica as a proxy daughter. Even Barb has faith in her ability to get out of anything.
Ultimately, it’s Christine unwavering faith that leads to the complete demolition of the fraud. If not for Lafferty confronting her with the truth, Barb and Tobey may have continued on for many years and “Though the Darkness” might have become a film.
Oh, wait, I guess it did as “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire.”
Lessons Learned: When perpetrating literary fraud, make sure your editor is emotionally stable. Research every aspect of your phony charity case rigorously.