Sara Gruen became a best-selling author in 2006 with her novel Water for Elephants, which was later turned into a movie. Gruen has received tons of fan mail over the years, including a 2015 letter from convicted murderer Charles Murdoch, who is imprisoned in California. The letter struck a chord for various reasons—his grandparents were circus performers, for instance, and the novel centers on the circus—and Gruen took an interest in Murdoch's case, writes Abbott Kahler at the Marshall Project. That part is simple enough. The problem is that her interest "bloomed into a frenzied obsession," writes Kahler, who is not only a journalist but a friend of Gruen's. She has witnessed firsthand Gruen's astonishing downward spiral over the past six years—physically, mentally, and financially—as the case consumed her life. "She is now, in her words, 'absolutely broke,' 'seriously ill,' and her current work in progress is 'years past deadline," writes Kahler.
Kahler provides details on all of the above—Gruen's weight dropping to 95 pounds, vertigo, temporary amnesia, crippling brain fog, death threats, borrowing against her house to pay lawyers trying to prove Murdoch's innocence, and more—as well as on the particulars of Murdoch's case, which is currently under review by the Los Angeles County’s Conviction Review Unit thanks to Gruen's efforts. (Gruen herself laid out the broad strokes in this video sent in to Dr. Phil.) The 52-year-old author has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in the effort, with her husband's blessing (he mentions the figure "half a million" at one point), though she is the family's sole breadwinner because he is 25 years her senior. And no, Gruen insists she has no romantic interest in Murdoch, though Murdoch clearly seems to have an interest in her. The story ends with a slowly recovering Gruen allowing herself a "spark of hope," in the words of Kahler. "Maybe, at long last, justice will finally prevail." (Read the incredible story here.)