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Everything You Need To Know About The Industrial SoCal Town Featured In 'True Detective'

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Water tower that says "City of Vernon" (Photo by Laurie Avocado via the Creative Commons on Flickr)
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We'd been eagerly awaiting the season two premiere of HBO's True Detective mostly because season one blew us away, but also this time around the story takes place in a SoCal city: the industrial town of Vernon.

While the name of the city featured in True Detective is called "Vinci" (pronounced like "Leonardo da Vinci"), it's basically based off of Vernon, a city located just five miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. When a Vanity Fair reporter recently asked the show's creator, Nic Pizzolatto, for specifics on this season, Pizzolatto hinted at him to do some research on the city of Vernon. The similarities between Vernon and Vinci are also spot on. Up until this point, Pizzolatto had only said the show would be based on "lesser known venues of California," and the show's co-star Vince Vaughn later divulged that it would take place in Los Angeles.

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Vernon, Calif. (Photo by fred hoerr via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr)
The action kicks off when a body is found in another lesser-known SoCal locale: Point Mugu in Ventura County, just up the coast from Malibu. A Ventura County deputy asks during episode one, "What the fuck is Vinci?" which is the same question we're sure lots of folks—even many Angelenos—are asking about Vernon. Unless you work there, it's not the kind of city you casually pass through. Its motto: "Vernon Means Business." And it does: there are about 1,800 businesses operating in the 5.2-square-mile city, but only about 112 residents actually living there, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

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In the first episode of True Detective, we're greeted by breathtaking aerial shots of a very industrial city full of gray smokestacks, power plants and cargo containers. Vinci's yellow, saucer-shaped water tower that has the words "City of Vinci" emblazoned across it is a spitting image of a water tower in Vernon. While there are some shots of our crisscrossing freeways and PCH, for the most part, this season takes place far away from the iconic Los Angeles locales that usually end up in the movies.

What makes Vernon interesting is that it's a town with a very long history of corruption—not unlike its neighbors in the Southeast, notably Bell—which is where real life intersects with the fictional drama.

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Rachel McAdams and Colin Farrell in 'True Detective' (Photo via Lacey Terrell/HBO)
Season two of True Detective follows ethically compromised Vinci police officer Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) who has ties to Frank Semyon (Vaughn), a career criminal trying to turn his empire into a legitimate business by heading a project to build a railway through Central California. There's also Ventura County Sheriff's deputy Ani Bezzerides, played by a brooding Rachel McAdams; and Paul Woodrugh, a war veteran and California Highway Patrol officer with a dark past. Their lives all intersect when Frank's partner and Vinci city manager Ben Caspere disappears.

The series shows the complicated web of politics, policing and newspapers, as well as the corrupt and seedy underbelly of Vinci. It's not too far off from real life, as the L.A. Times has been writing about the corruption in Vernon since the 1920s. They penned in-depth investigative pieces on the city officials of Vernon in 2010, and in the premiere episode, they even highlight these L.A. Times pieces.

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The L.A. Times writes that critics called Vernon 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."

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Vernon is a very industrial city (Photo by eyetwist via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr)
The corruption goes way back to the beginning when John Baptiste Leonis founded the city in 1905 with two ranchers, with the plans of making it a manufacturing hub. Leonis would later become Vernon's mayor, with critics accusing him of running the town like a feudal lord. He amassed a great fortune while he served as a political leader in Vernon for 45 years. He lived in a lavish home in Hancock Park, far away from Vernon, according to the New York Times. He would be indicted on voter fraud charges, but those were later dropped.

Leonis died in 1953 and left his grandson Leonis Malburg with a sizable inheritance, according to the Hollywood Reporter. He, too, would serve as Vernon's mayor and city councilman for more than 50 years and also live in a fancy pad in Hancock Park. (This is mirrored in True Detective, as Vinci's mayor lives in Bel Air instead of Vinci.) Malburg would be convicted of voter fraud in 2009, and he and Vernon's former city administrator Bruce Malkenhorst Sr. would later plead guilty to corruption charges.

Vernon's top officials were paid excessively high salaries and were misappropriating public funds on lavish hotel stays and flights. The city was in major debt.

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Former Vernon city administrator, Eric T. Fresch, was one of the officials who was investigated by the state for his performance, as he made more than $1 million in 2008. However, Fresch was later found dead in Marin County, and though his death was ruled as an accident, the Hollywood Reporter points out that it may have inspired the plotline behind the missing Vinci city manager in True Detective.

It got so bad that in 2011 there was a proposed bill that tried to disincorporate Vernon, but they ended up working out a deal where the city of Vernon had to set aside $60 million for community projects, and agree to make governmental changes.

However, it looks like Vernon isn't touchy about their corrupt past. Frederic MacFarlane, a spokesman for the city of Vernon, told the L.A. Times that they gave the series their blessing in making a series about a city that was similar to theirs. They even gave the show permits to film in Vernon. But they would like to point out that Vinci is not Vernon, MacFarlane 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."

Sure...

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'True Detective' airs on HBO on Sundays at 9 p.m.