'True Detective' Season 2's Real-Life Inspiration Really Was That Corrupt

The industrial city of Vernon has a long history of graft.
Flickr Creative Commons/HBO

One of the more seemingly fantastic elements of True Detective's second season — the corrupt city of Vinci, which has only a handful of residents but a lavishly funded local government — is actually among the most realistic.

Creator Nic Pizzolatto has said he based Vinci on Vernon, an "exclusively industrial" city with a population of 112, per the 2010 census, and more than 1,800 businesses. It also has a long, long history of corruption.

City founder John Leonis was investigated for corruption in the 1940s, but charges were dropped. He died in 1953 and left many of his holdings to grandson Leonis Malburg, who would become the city's long-time power broker.

For decades, nearly all Vernon residents lived in city-owned housing. City council members usually ran unopposed; there were no contested elections at all between 1980 and 2006, and Malburg served as mayor for more than 50 years.

Unlike Vinci, Vernon does not have its own police force, but it does have a municipally owned utility that generates a significant portion of the city's revenue. (Per an L.A. Times investigation in 2010, the city had an annual budget of $300 million, more than those of Beverly Hills, Manhattan Beach or Culver City.

The L.A. County district attorney brought corruption charges against Malburg and then-city administrator Bruce Malkenhorst Sr. in 2006. Among other items, the charges alleged Malburg lived in L.A.'s wealthy Hancock Park neighborhood rather than in Vernon — a detail mimicked in True Detective, as Vinci's mayor really lives in Bel Air.

Malburg was convicted in 2009 of voter fraud. Malkenhorst and another former administrator pleaded guilty to corruption charges.

Another investigation followed in 2010, alleging that city officials paid themselves huge salaries — at times topping $1 million per year. The state legislature even moved to disincorporate the city, though the proposal failed.

Another former city administrator, Eric T. Fresch, was found dead in Marin County in 2012, soon after a state audit of Vernon called out his performance (Fresch made more than $1 million from the city in 2008). His death was ruled an accident, but it seems to be the inspiration for the death of Vinci's city manager in the series.

Vernon has tried to clean up its image in recent years and even granted True Detective a permit to film portions of the season in the city.

"True Detective will have some settings that look like the city, sound like the city and feel like the city," Vernon spokesman Frederic MacFarlane told the L.A. Times. "But it's not going to be the city of Vernon."

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