A star turn: The town of Vinci in the sec­ond sea­son of HBO’s “True De­tec­tive” is based on Ver­non; scenes were filmed there.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - HEC­TOR BE­CERRA and RUBEN VIVES hec­tor.be­cerra@latimes.com ruben.vives@latimes.com

Af­ter months of mys­tery, Nic Piz­zo­latto, the cre­ator of HBO’s “True De­tec­tive,” has of­fered some hints about the new sea­son, which be­gins Sun­day.

Times read­ers might find the sto­ry­line a bit fa­mil­iar.

Piz­zo­latto told Van­ity Fair and GQ that the sec­ond sea­son is based on the tiny in­dus­trial city of Ver­non, lo­cated south of down­town L.A. In the show, the fic­tional town is called Vinci.

The Times has writ­ten ex­ten­sively about past cor­rup­tion in the real-life city of Ver­non, dat­ing back to the 1920s. In the past, crit­ics have called the city a fief­dom run by a small ca­bal who con­trolled the pop­u­la­tion of about 100 peo­ple and used the city’s cof­fers to lav­ish them­selves with huge salaries and ex­pen­sive meals and trips. Af­ter a se­ries of in­ves­tiga­tive sto­ries in 2010, the state Leg­is­la­ture at­tempted to dis­in­cor­po­rate the city, but that ef­fort failed. Since then, new lead­ers emerged and re­form ef­forts were un­der­taken, in­clud­ing al­low­ing the cre­ation of pri­vate hous­ing to boost Ver­non’s pop­u­la­tion and slash­ing of City Coun­cil mem­bers’ salaries.

A welcome mat for f ilm crews

Fred­eric MacFar­lane, a spokesman for the city of Ver­non, said of­fi­cials were aware that the se­ries would be based on Ver­non. City Hall even granted the film­ing crew a per­mit to shoot in the city, he said.

“‘True De­tec­tive’ will have some set­tings that look like the city, sound like the city and feel like the city,” MacFar­lane said. “But it’s not go­ing to be the city of Ver­non.”

MacFar­lane said when view­ers tune in to watch the show, they may prob­a­bly think of other cities that have been mak­ing head­lines, such as the City of In­dus­try, another city with a small pop­u­la­tion that has re­cently been the sub­ject of an in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Ver­non has moved passed the scan­dals, he added.

“That’s where it is now,” MacFar­lane said. “It op­er­ates like any other city, and, in the past, it didn’t op­er­ate like that.”

From farm­land to in­dus­trial hub

Ver­non’s founder was a charis­matic Basque im­mi­grant named John Bap­tiste Leo­nis, who saw the po­ten­tial to turn the farm­land into an in­dus­trial hub.

The area had a dirt road run­ning to Los An­ge­les Har­bor and mul­ti­ple rail lines. So, in 1905, Leo­nis and two lo­cal ranch­ers in­cor­po­rated the “ex­clu­sively in­dus­trial” city, char­ac­ter­ized as the first town west of the Mis­sis­sippi de­voted to man­u­fac­tur­ing. This re­mains al­most lit­er­ally true: The city cur­rently has fewer than 100 res­i­dents.

Leo­nis ini­tially pro­moted ac­tiv­i­ties that other ju­ris­dic­tions spurned: gam­bling, prize­fight­ing and drink­ing. He leased land to a saloon owner who opened the “long­est bar in the world.” On one side was a box­ing sta­dium; on the other, a base­ball sta­dium.

Leo­nis was at the cen­ter of the fi­nan­cial ac­tion, op­er­at­ing the town bank, a large stock­yard and a feed mill, and he was al­ready draw­ing flak from crit­ics who com­plained he acted like the king of Ver­non.

The early years

In 1925, The Times quoted one foe as say­ing of Leo­nis: “In that town, you do not file pa­pers at the City Hall. You sim­ply hand them to John and he puts them in his pocket. If he is in fa­vor of the propo­si­tion, it goes through; if he is op­posed, that’s the last you hear of it.”

Two decades later, a county grand jury launched a wide-rang­ing cor­rup­tion probe that led to Leo­nis, who by then had be­come mayor, and five other top of­fi­cials be­ing in­dicted on charges of voter fraud.

Pros­e­cu­tors called Leo­nis a “boss” who ruled like a feu­dal lord. They also al­leged that he lived not in Ver­non but in a spa­cious home in Han­cock Park. Charges against Leo­nis were dropped, but four other peo­ple were con­victed, in­clud­ing the po­lice and fire chiefs.

By the time Leo­nis died in 1953, he had amassed an es­tate re­port­edly worth $8 mil­lion. The in­her­i­tance went to his grand­son, Leo­nis Mal­burg.

Re­cent scan­dals in Ver­non

A se­ries of scan­dals marred the city’s rep­u­ta­tion in more re­cent years, prompt­ing an un­suc­cess­ful ef­fort by state law­mak­ers to “dis­in­cor­po­rate” Ver­non. Among them:

Leo­nis Mal­burg, the city’s long­time mayor, was con­victed of voter fraud in 2009 for ly­ing about liv­ing in the in­dus­trial city. He re­ally lived in a large home in a posh Han­cock Park neigh­bor­hood.

The long­time city ad- min­is­tra­tor, Bruce V. Malken­horst — who one year made more than $900,000 — pleaded guilty to il­le­gally us­ing public money to pay for golf out­ings, mas­sages and meals. Another city ad­min­is­tra­tor pleaded guilty to felony cor­rup­tion charges in­volv­ing ques­tion­able busi­ness deals be­tween the city and his wife.

Times in­ves­ti­ga­tions found high pay and travel ex­penses for top Ver­non of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing first­class flights to New York and Ire­land and nearly thou­sand-dol­lar-a-night stays at lux­ury ho­tels in­clud­ing the Ritz-Carl­ton in New York.

In 2011, The Times re­vealed that Ver­non had amassed nearly half a bil­lion dol­lars of debt and suf­fered ma­jor losses over the last six years in an ag­gres­sive pur­suit of in­vest­ments through its elec­tric util­ity.

Eric T. Fresch, a for­mer city ad­min­is­tra­tor and city at­tor­ney who be­came a le­gal con­sul­tant, made $1.6 mil­lion in 2008 as ad­min­is­tra­tor. In June 2012, Fresch’s body was found in the rocky wa­ters off a state park in the Bay Area. He died just hours af­ter a state au­dit re­leased a grim pic­ture of Ver­non’s fi­nances and ques­tioned de­ci­sions made when Fresch was Ver­non’s top ad­min­is­tra­tor. The Marin County coro­ner’s of­fice said his death was an ac­ci­dent, caused when Fresch slipped while walk­ing on wet rocks on An­gel Is­land and struck his head.

Ac­cord­ing to GQ, the sec­ond sea­son of “True De­tec­tive” be­gins with the bru­tal death of Vinci’s city man­ager “whose demise brings to­gether three cops and one cash-strapped gang­ster to in­ves­ti­gate a case that it’s not clear whether any­one re­ally wants solved.”

Lacey Ter­rell HBO

COLIN FAR­RELL por­trays Det. Ray Vel­coro in sea­son two of HBO’s orig­i­nal se­ries “True De­tec­tive,” set in the fic­tional town of Vinci, based on Ver­non.

Luis Sinco Los An­ge­les Times

BRUCE V. MALKEN­HORST pleaded guilty to il­le­gally us­ing public money.

Luis Sinco Los An­ge­les Times

MAYOR Leo­nis Mal­burg was con­victed of voter fraud in 2009.

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