A bestselling author who became ‘obsessed’ with freeing a convicted murderer from prison has revealed how the nearly six years she has spent on the case has left her ‘absolutely broke,’ ‘seriously ill,’ and ‘years past deadline’ on her next book.
Sara Gruen, whose 2006 novel Water for Elephants sold 10 million copies worldwide, has devoted countless hours and more than $500,000 of her own money trying to prove the innocence of Charles Murdoch, who was sentenced to life without parole for first-degree murder in the early 1990s.
In a piece published in partnership with The Marshall Project and New York Magazine, fellow author Abbott Kahler detailed how the 52-year-old from Asheville, North Carolina, has nearly ruined her life by taking on the case.
‘Since 2016, she has been in a perpetual state of emergency. She has borrowed against her house. Death threats forced her to flee her home for months. Her health declined mysteriously and with terrifying speed,’ Kahler wrote.
‘As Sara’s friend of nearly 20 years, I worried that she might die — or that if she lived, it would be as an incomplete, foreign version of herself, one incapable of coherent conversation, let alone writing books.’
Dedicated: Sara Gruen, 52, Asheville, North Carolina, from has devoted countless hours and more than $500,000 trying to prove the innocence of Charles Murdoch
When Murdoch first wrote a letter to Gruen in June 2015, he wasn’t looking for money, help, or even a response. He just wanted to talk about her book Water for Elephants, which was adapted into a movie of the same name starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson four years prior.
Murdoch, an inmate at California’s Pleasant Valley State Prison, explained that like the star-crossed lovers in the novel, his grandparents were performers in a circus in the early 20th century. He wanted to know if the character Lottie the Aerialist was based on his grandmother.
Gruen did, in fact, research a real-life performer named Lottie, but that wasn’t the only reason she was drawn to the prisoner, who drew flowers on the letter to make it look like stationary.
Murdoch told her that former chief justice Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit called his ‘wrongful’ conviction a ‘truly spectacular miscarriage of justice,’ which stuck with her.
Gruen was working on a novel about the Orient Express when she read his letter and started Googling his case. She later wrote back to him, something she rarely does, and sent him copies of all of her books with a note that said: ‘May justice finally prevail.’
She regretted her choice of words after it quickly dawned on her that no one was going to help Murdoch clear his name.
The author acknowledged to Kahler that Murdoch was not the ‘fuzzy bunny of wrongfully convicted inmates.’ His penchant for holding up ice-cream stores in Long Beach, California, earned him the nickname the ‘Baskin-Robbins Bandit,’ but he insisted that his .38-caliber revolver was never loaded.
Murdoch’s murder conviction stemmed from the robbery of Chris’s Horseshoe Bar in Long Beach on May 17, 1983. Three men were involved in the holdup, which led to one customer being fatally shot and another critically wounded after being stabbed.
After more than a decade, advancements in forensics allowed law enforcement to identify Dino Dinardo as one of the robbers from a fingerprint left on the cash register. He was arrested in 1994 and ended up naming Murdoch as an accomplice. They were both charged with murder and tried separately.
However, at Dinardo’s trial, he testified that homicide detective Ronald Pavek had coerced him into naming Murdoch as one of his accomplices. He was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison, but Judge Charles Sheldon told him he might be willing to reduce his sentence if testified against Murdoch.
Dinardo agreed to the terms, but ahead of the trial, he wrote a letter to his then-lawyer stating that Pavek had coerced the statement from him and assured him he wouldn’t be charged with murder if he implicated Murdoch.
The letter was sealed under attorney-client privilege, but a judge who had seen it told Kahler that Dinardo had stated he didn’t know Murdoch and had never committed a crime with him. He only knew Murdoch’s older brother.
Murdoch was accused of firing the shot that had killed the patron in the robbery, and while Dinardo testified against him at the trial, the jury didn’t know about the letter he had written.
After being convicted of first-degree murder, Murdoch was sentenced to life without parole, while Dinardo’s sentence was lessened to 12 years for voluntary manslaughter. He only served five years.
The California Court of Appeal had upheld Murdoch’s conviction, and the state’s Supreme Court had denied his petition for review. His federal petition to the district court was also dismissed.
After looking into the case, Gruen and her husband, Bob, both concluded that Murdoch was innocent.
‘We naively thought that with Sara having a public image, we could just push it and tell people about it and someone would clear it up,’ Bob told Kahler. ‘But it became obvious that that wasn’t true.’
Gruen, who had to take care of herself as a teen, continued to write to Murdoch, learning that the father of two had a difficult childhood that she could relate to.
‘Of course he fell in love with her,’ Bob said of Murdoch. ‘I wasn’t bothered by it. I knew she wasn’t attracted to him. I know people want to make her into one of those women who, for whatever reason, fall in love with men in jail.’
Murdoch explained in his letters that he had been charged with possession of three shanks after a prisoner was stabbed during a fight that broke out in the common room he was hanging out in the year before.
He insisted he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Gruen found it hard to believe that the then-57-year-old who walked with a cane was responsible.
Four months after she received Murdoch’s first letter, she hired criminal defense attorney Jeffrey Hammerschmidt to defend him against his ‘possession of deadly weapon’ charge and also try to find information to prove his innocence in the 1983 robbery.
In October 2015, Gruen gave the lawyer a $7,500 retainer check and agreed to pay him $20,000 per month to work on Murdoch’s cases after he gave her an estimate of $78,000.
Gruen, who hoped to have Murdoch released by spring 2016, continued to her do her own investigating. As she poured over the 10,000 pages of his case files in her office, she became even more convinced of his innocence.
She visited him for the first time in November 2015 and emailed Kahler about the experience after.
‘I saw hope bloom across his face, and it was honestly one of the most poignant moments of my life,’ the mother of three wrote. ‘Right up there with seeing my babies for the first time.’
By the time spring 2016 was on the horizon, Gruen hadn’t worked on her novel in nine months and Murdoch wasn’t any closer to release.
‘In touch with her on a daily basis, I began to worry about Sara’s growing fixation on the case, her willingness to put her life on hold in the hope of saving Murdoch’s,’ Kahler wrote. ‘Other longtime friends and I pleaded with her to focus on her novel, even if she continued to finance the legal battle.’
Gruen was frustrated by Hammerschmidt’s lack of progress and ended up firing him. after paying him far more than his original estimated fee of $78,000.
In his place, she hired Robin Sax, a former prosecutor in the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office; Steven Graff Levine, a criminal defense attorney who had worked on high-profile cases involving the likes of Michael Jackson; and Luis Bolaños, a private investigator.
The writer once again agreed to pay $20,000 per month for their services. The team worked quickly to get rid of the weapons charge against Murdoch by arranging a plea deal, but it was nearly impossible for them to find new evidence to file another appeal on his behalf.
Gruen had already sunk more than $250,000 on Murdoch’s case at this point and had refinanced her house. She had two children in college and one in high school. She was the family’s only source of income as her husband Bob is 25 years her senior and retired.
The financial stress left her suffering from crippling vertigo, and she hadn’t made any progress on her book as the deadline approached, but she wouldn’t give up.
Bob insisted that Gruen is not romantically involved with Murdoch in any way, although he knows that the prisoner is in love with his wife.
‘I wasn’t bothered by it. I knew she wasn’t attracted to him,’ he told Kahler. ‘I know people want to make her into one of those women who, for whatever reason, fall in love with men in jail.’
Bob explained that they were just too deep into Murdoch’s case to let it go.
‘The more you get into it,’ he said, ‘the more money you spend, you just hate to give up. You always think you’re close. And then you think, wow, we spent a half-million here, and that’s crazy.’
The author became increasingly worried about her safety, which led to paranoia. She received death threats and rape threats, but perhaps what was most terrifying was the direct Twitter message she received from a man named Richard Isaac Powell.
Powell told her that Todd Alcorn — the inmate who had been stabbed with the shank that led to the weapons charges against Murdoch — had new information.
Gruen’s did some sleuthing and learned that Powell had been Alcorn’s bunkmate in county jail. Alcon serving time for conspiring to murder a woman whom he and four others held captive, beat, and stabbed.
Instead of responding, she sent the message to her legal team, but she feared that one of Alcorn’s contacts outside of prison would attack her or worse. She got an attack dog, beefed up her home’s security cameras, and bought a BB gun designed that looked like a real pistol.
‘I really, really don’t want to alarm you but I need to just put this out there in case something happens. This thing I’m involved in is much bigger than I ever imagined. The corruption runs through the police, the DA’s office, the Attorney General and the FBI,’ she wrote in an email to Kahler and another friend.
Levine, one of her attorneys, chalked up her fears to an overactive imagination, but she was adamant that Kahler needed to advocate for her if she suddenly went missing.
Over the years, Gruen turned to The Dr. Phil Show for help, sold Hatchimals toys on eBay to fund some of Murdoch’s legal fees, and considered starring in a reality series to bring attention to the case, but it all led nowhere.
She thought they had finally gotten a break when her legal team got Kozinski — the judge who issued a dissent at Murdoch’s trial — to agree to speak on the record and sign an official letter of support to Los Angeles County’s Conviction Review Unit.
Gruen had Bob take over correspondence with Murdoch and their team while she resumed work on her book, but the relief was short-lived.
Even though she had repeatedly told Murdoch that she was happily married and had no interest in him romantically, she learned he had ‘gotten Sara Roo’ — his nickname for her — tattooed on her wrist.
‘I’m mortified, horrified, embarrassed, cringing … if the media sees it, they’ll consider it confirmation of their theory that I’m cuckolding Bob and using all our combined resources to free my prison lover,’ she wrote to him, according to Kahler.
‘If they see that tattoo, I can’t … I can’t … I don’t even know. My mental illness number just shot off the top of the barometer.’
Gruen also had to beg her literary agent for an extension after failing to meet her deadline, writing: ‘I let Chuck’s case get in the way, and I wish I’d never heard of him and I’m sick to death of him and he’s taken a toll on every single aspect of my life, but I think I made the right decision.’
She got the extension she needed, but her hope was once again shattered when Judge Kozinski suddenly retired after being accused of sexual misconduct. He would no longer be able to help Murdoch get another appeal.
As Gruen’s health continued to deteriorate, she suffered from an episode of transient global amnesia on Christmas Day in 2017. She doesn’t remember eating with her family, exchanging presents, or playing games. Hours from that day are missing from her memory.
In spring 2018, Murdoch received a letter that had her name, ‘Sara Gruen,’ listed as the sender, which he forwarded to her.
‘Dear Bad Luck Chuck, We set your golden goose free. Want to know why? Because water is for elephants. Not lame b*****s like you. Get comfy. You’re going to be there for a while,’ the letter read. ‘Hugs and Kisses, Dino Dinardo and the Man with the Keys to the B Yard XOXOXO.’
Bolaños, the private investigator she had hired, consulted with the FBI about the letter and advised her to leave her house. That March, she told Kahler via email that she was having a safe room installed in her house with a ‘with an interior bullet-proof safer room.’
Fears for her safety led her to buy a blonde wig and check into a hotel under an alias. She moved six times in five months and used a burner phone to contact her family, according to Kahler.
Gruen’s book still wasn’t done, and she was out of money. As their last hope of freeing Murdoch, she prepared a 50-page dossier stating her case to the DA’s Office.
‘This is the culmination of three years of work and money and it is the ONE and only chance to get him free,’ she told Kahler. ‘I have to do this. Otherwise, I’ve flushed all of everything, including missing my deadline, down the drain. And it’s still a guy’s life. If I don’t at least try to convince the DA, I have done all of this for absolutely purely nothing.’
Gruen was determined to write her novel as she waited for the Conviction Review Unit to review the dossier, which could take a year, but her failing health prevented her from doing so.
She couldn’t ‘understand anything’ she had written and had to reread her own book from the beginning. Her vertigo had come back along with a host of other issues, including migraines, severe brain fog, the flu, and pneumonia.
The author could barely eat and dropped down to 95 pounds. She would faint daily and her adrenal glands were so out of wack she felt nothing but stress or fear. Her crippling migraines kept her from writing, and she spent her days lying in a dark room trying to stave off nausea.
Kahler recalled visiting Gruen in August 2019, detailing how her friend was unable to form short-term memories or hold sensical conversations. She was too sick to go to the doctor’s, so her mysterious health issues went undiagnosed.
Gruen’s stepdaughter, Margaret, a veterinary doctor at North Carolina State University, thought her symptoms might be related to the near-deadly case of cat-scratch fever she had when she was 11.
Stress, among other things, can cause Bartonella — the bacteria that causes the infection — to flare up after years of being dormant.
The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed her treatment, but she was prescribed medications to help stabilize her adrenal levels. Now, she works on her book when she can, when she feels lifted from her brain fog.
Aside from drives with her husband and walks to her backyard, Gruen hasn’t been out in public for three and a half years. Despite everything that has happened, Bob continues to write to Murdoch, who tested positive for COVID-19 in prison.
The couple is now waiting on a final decision from the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office regarding Murdoch’s case, and Gruen still hopes that he will one day soon be free.