The true story behind “Freeheld”

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In the film: Laurel was closeted at work.

“When she was in college, she’d been part of this sort of early ‘70s gay and lesbian group and it had been reported—the reporter said she was going to use fake names and didn’t,” Cynthia said. “So when she went to her first police academy—not in Ocean County, I think it was Morris County—they called her in. She was very young, in her early 20s, and they said, ‘We know, basically, what you are and who you are and we’re telling you now, we don’t want to see it, we don’t want to hear it. Your work is your work and keep it quiet.’ And she said [to me] in an interview, ‘That was fine with me because I was there to work.’ So she’d been warned, sort of early on in her early 20s, but she was also a very—things had to have a certain place in her house. She was very orderly and regimented, just in terms of her personality. She just separated—and in a way, Stacie didn’t as much. Stacie was of a different generation.”

In the film: Laurel and Stacie sleep together on the first date.

“First, Stacie would tell you, right off the bat, that they did not sleep together on the first date,” Cynthia said. “That is very important for her. And Laurel would not have done that either. That obviously was compressed. It was a longer courtship.”

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In the film: The cops who worked with Laurel aren’t initially supportive.

“I think the way in which [Laurel] kept asking Dane, ‘Why hasn’t this detective shown up? I want to have lunch with this person. Can you get this person to show up?’ and a lot of them didn’t show up, and he’d have to fib to her: ‘They’re out of town, or their mother is sick.’ For a long time he had to fib to her because he didn’t want to tell her the truth,” Cynthia said. “And she kept saying to me, ‘You should interview this person, you should interview this person,’ and after she died I was able to interview them, but while the controversy was going on, they didn’t come visit her—most of them didn’t. The chief visited her at the hospital, but the others didn’t and she thought it was a matter of scheduling and really it was Dane trying to to protecting her from people kind of turning their backs in the police department.”

In the film: There was a closeted gay cop in the police office.

“The [Todd] Belkin character is fictionalized. There was no outwardly gay cop who came out as gay,” Cynthia said. “That was fictionalized.”

In the film: Dane Wells is still working as a cop.

In reality, Dane had retired by the time Laurel was fighting for her pension, but his daily visits to the department better served the story. “It’s true Dane had retired, but it’s also true that he was the guy doing everything for Laurel around the clock.”

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In the film: Dane Wells found out Laurel was gay by stopping by her house.

“Laurel was definitely very regimented about her life—very,” Cynthia said. “She didn’t like work and personal life to mix. She never said to Dane, ‘I’m in a relationship with a woman’ or ‘I’m gay.’ She never said that to him. I’m almost positive he didn’t learn it until she applied for pension benefits. She was very strict about everything, really. She had rules.”

In the film: Dane was Laurel and Stacie’s biggest supporter.

“It’s really really true to who Dane was. He got hate mail—his mother got pieces of mail that said, ‘Your son is gay,’ ‘Your son is a fag.’ He was getting all kinds of harassment from people in town,” Cynthia said. “He never expected to be an ally; he never expected to be an LGBT activist, but she was his partner, and the best partner he ever had and it was very hurtful for him. So that’s an example of the political becoming personal. And he was the person putting so much pressure on the department, on the freeholders, in the press. I don’t know whether if we would have won without him and Steven Goldstein.”

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