“Real Fake News” was accurately titled, with a fake news story that indirectly pointed to a real child sex trafficking ring. The episode draws from the real-life - and debunked - “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory, which attempted to tie members of the Democratic Party to a non-existant human trafficking ring run out of restaurants. This episode enforces how silly some of these theories can be, and, even when confronted with the truth, that some people are so gullible they still buy into the lies.
This well-constructed story had all the elements of an excellent episode. Each detective had an important part to play in the investigation; the case got personal when there was an attempt to smear Benson and Rollins through their children; and there was plenty of action. Mariska’s performance came alive when she demanded a retraction from the creep who ran that disgusting fake news web site “Endless Truth.” She seemed to be enjoying it. There were also some surprises, with one of suspects trying to shoot himself while under Fin’s watchful eye (it was the unis who failed to properly clear the scene) and the sad shooting of the Congressman (James Waterston, son of Law & Order’s Sam Waterston). This episode was well directed, giving the sights, the sounds, and the feel of being right there with the squad every step of the way.
When, in the ending scene, the restaurant owner asks if this is ever going to stop, the answer in reality is no, at least not in the near future. Carisi also verbalizes his frustration with the issue of fake news, saying there ought to be a law, but the Congressman rightly says it is not so easy. But while freedom of speech is protected, this only protects people from government censorship or retaliation, it does not protect people from slander, libel, and other limitations. I understand that while Benson demanded a retraction from the “Endless Truth” web site, I wished that she had taken a harder stance and try to find a way to have him prosecuted not only for his lies, but for indirectly spreading child porn and the eventual murder of the Congressman. At least in reality there are prominent web sites who are working harder to stop the spread of fake news stories. Too bad they didn’t do this a year before this last presidential election.
This episode is the first episodic mention that Fin is now a Sergeant, having passed the exam. (The only other mention made was in a deleted scene from the Law & Order SVU episode, “Net Worth”. Of course, Fin quips he didn’t get a perfect score, so it may be quite some time before he gets transferred to a Sergeant position elsewhere, as Benson had indicated was the usual next step. I don’t recall Benson being moved to patrol when she was made Sergeant, so she was probably just teasing him.
Here is the recap:
Mariska Hargitay - Lieutenant Olivia Benson
Ice-T - Sergeant Odafin “Fin” Tutuola
Kelli Giddish - Detective Amanda Rollins
Raúl Esparza - ADA Rafael Barba
Peter Scanavino - Detective Dominick “Sonny” Carisi, Jr.
James Waterston - Congressman Luke Bolton
Patch Darragh - Ron Duca
Kevin Carolan - Ronald Fleming
Tabitha Holbert – ADA Rose Caliay
Stephen Park -Eugene Lee
Brian McCarthy - Malcolm Barnstable
Bronwyn Reed -Lucy Huston
Roslyn Ruff – Computer Crimes Tech
Naiya Ortiz - Marian
Michael Baldwin – Vincent Johnson
Justin Ahdoot – Raj Garg
Barbara Miluski – Judge Lisa Peck
Jonatan Marimow – Jerry
Hadasa Isolino – Christabel
Kristen Solis – Maria
Shea Grant – Daughter
Jack Nawada-Braunwart – Noah Porter Benson
As Benson steps out of the elevator at SVU with Fin, she calls him “Sergeant” Tutuola, and says that wasn’t so bad. He replies that he hates tests. She asks, “Even when you pass?” He replies it's a little less, then. Smiling, she comments that she will miss him because they transfer new Sergeants to patrol, and he counters that first he has to get appointed and that may not happen for a while, he’s number 622 on the list. Benson, surprised, says “What?” and he replies with a laugh, “I didn’t get a perfect score. “ As he walks off, Rollins rushes in and says she is sorry for being late; the babysitter didn’t show and she had to park Jesse with her sister. Benson comments that maybe Lucy can pick her up after she drops Noah at preschool, asking if Rollins wants her to call her. Rollins replies, “Yes, please.” Carisi approaches and asks where everybody has been, it’s just been him and the Congressman, who walked in a half hour ago and has been waiting in her office. Fin comments that a Congressman waiting for a half hour…and Rollins finishes that he must really want her vote. Benson asks Carisi what does he really want, and Carisi explains he just wants to talk to her.
Benson enters her office to find Congressman Luke Bolton waiting. They greet each other and Benson asks how can she help him. He explains that according to the internet, he is the customer of an underage sex trafficking ring out of a Chinese Restaurant called the Coral Dragon. Benson asks “You are?” and he explains no, he’s not, but facts don’t seem to matter these days, it’s fake news but a lot of people seem to believe it. Benson comments they are people on the internet, and Luke says they are real people but they have drawn some crazy conclusions from his emails – he got hacked. Benson comments she’s heard about it, adding that the NYPD got hacked as well and she had to change her password about five times. She still gets nervous every time she logs on. Luke says he wishes that were the only problem here; it’s a dangerous situation – the owner has received threats. Benson says that is not good, but…Luke cuts her off and says he just put out a statement but he is afraid he only made the situation worse. He asks if she can send someone to take a look at the place, the “teenage sex slaves” are supposedly held captive in the basement and establish that it is not true. Benson asks if anyone would believe it, and Luke replies that one hopes the NYPD is still a trusted institution. Benson says it is nice to think so. Luke emphasizes this is an alleged sex crime, and asks that they investigate alleged sex crimes, don’t they? Benson replies yes, they do.
At the Coral Dragon Restaurant at 130 Mott Street on Wednesday, April 19, Fin and Carisi arrive and Carisi comments he guesses they can pick up some General Tso chicken while there are here. Fin adds that Rollins wants some sesame noodles. Carisi quips that maybe tomorrow they can investigate Italian. They enter the restaurant and speak with Mr. Lee, who says the Congressman told him they were coming. He says he has been getting death threats and his employees are as well. Carisi comments he can pass that along to the other detectives and asks if Mr. Lee can show them around. But as they move off, a man yells as he enters the restaurant, holding a gun. As people scream, he asks where are the girls in the basement for sale, then tells the patrons to stay calm and he is not there to hurt anybody. Carisi tries to talk him down and explains he is a police officer. The man says good, he can help him self-investigate. Carisi again tries to talk him down and when Mr. Lee tries to back away, the man fires the gun into the ceiling and says they are not done here. Fin says yes we are, and has his gun trained on the man’s head. Carisi also pulls his weapon and tells the man to get on his knees and hand him the gun slowly. The man hands over the weapon and gets on his knees.
Mr. Lee comments that this is out of control, wondering who will eat there now. Carisi says they will get the precinct to provide security but hopes this is a one-time event. As they take the man away, he yells for them to do their job. Fin replies, “Why don’t you shut up.” The man asks them to show them the basement, the man insists he saw the building plan on line and tells them to look through that door. Mr. Lee opens the door and it is a storage closet with cleaning supplies in it. Fin holds up a mop which has fallen and asks the man if this is his teenage sex slave, and examines the walls which are concrete block and there is no secret door. They get the man out of there.
Back at SVU, the detectives discuss that they found no evidence at the Coral Dragon but the intent is not letting it go and that the detectives didn’t look hard enough. Benson questions who is putting out this stuff and Rollins explains it is a website called “Endless Truth” and the guy with the rifle, Malcolm Barnstable, has been posting comments. Benson suggests Fin and Rollins pay the web site a visit.
At the apartment of Ronald Duca at 295 East 39th Street on Wednesday, April 19, Rollins questions that this place is his headquarters, and Ron says that’s all it takes. His computer connects him to the world. This is his news service and had no employees, with the internet, one person’s voice can be as big as any organ of the mainstream media. Rollins states the mainstream media doesn’t spread lies about a sex ring that doesn’t exist. Ron insists they are not lies, reminding them that Luke Bolton’s email was hacked and says his emails were a revelation and he had a moral duty to publish them. Rollins counters that he got a few free rounds of golf from a lobbyist, but Ron states that was nothing. He adds some of his readers took a closer look at his emails, and points to an email on his computer. Rollins read the message which says “Meet you at the Coral Dragon as usual. Four PM? They’ve got a new dish on the menu – fresh Chinese broccoli. Highly recommended.” Ron says this isn’t about Chinese food, asking who eats diner at 4PM? He adds that Chinese broccoli has the initials CB which on message boards, it stands for child brides. Fin states dryly it also stands for Chinese broccoli. Ron shows them photos taken outside a restaurant with young girls, asking where are those girls going. Rollins says home, with their fathers. Ron asks where are their mothers and then shows them the restaurant logo, pointing out the heart-shaped dragon’s tail. Rollins gets a look of disbelief, saying says “oh my god.” Ron says he is sure from their law enforcement research, it is a butterfly with heart-shaped wings, a symbol for pedos on the dark web. He says the restaurant is advertising what does on there for those in the know. Rollins focuses on the word advertising, asking Ron how much does he make when the nut jobs that believe all this stuff go to his web site and click on the ads. Ron states he is entitled to make a living, he is providing a public service. Fin says, “Public service. One of your wacko fans walked into that restaurant with a gun, he could’ve killed somebody.” Rollins adds if he really wanted to do a public service, he could switch his focus to UFOs or maybe Bigfoot. She states this is dangerous, but Ron thinks this is free speech and they can’t make him stop and instead of harassing him they should be investigating the Coral Dragon. Fin states firmly they already did and there is nothing there. Ron laughs and asks if they have seen a list, showing them a file about Varsity restaurant supplies – owner Ronald Fleming – arrested by the NYPD, and convicted of sex with a child, asking if that is a coincidence. Rollins asks if they show that it is, will he let this fairy tale go. He replies he is a reasonable man. Rollins testily grabs the file and she and Fin walk off.
Later, at his business, Fin and Rollins speak with Ronald Fleming who says he sold them dishes and cutlery but lost the account more than 10 years ago. They explain he is part of the web site’s so-called evidence because of his conviction, and he explains it was statutory and 30 years ago, he was sent upstate for 4 years. That was another lifetime, he is married with children. He never met the Congressman and hasn’t been at the restaurant since he lost the account.
Later, Benson is speaking at a press conference outside the Coral Dragon, saying the man who fired the shot yesterday - Malcolm Barnstable - has been charged with criminal possession of a weapon, criminal mischief, and menacing. Benson, watching this at SVU with Luke Bolton and the detectives, listen as she informed the press that the NYPD has investigated this alleged illegal activity that brought him here and they have concluded there is absolutely no basis to these allegations. The Chinese restaurant is that indeed – a Chinese restaurant, period. She appeals to the public not to believe…Carisi turns off the TV. Luke thanks her and the detectives, and asks if that web site will cut it out now. Rollins says she is not sure Duca believes one word he’s saying, he’s making a bundle attracting readers who click on the ads. Carisi says there ought to be a law, glancing at Luke. He smiles and nods, saying it is easier said than done. He says he hopes this suffices, and thanks Benson again. She wishes him good luck as he gets his coat and leaves. Carisi asks what now, can they go back to actual sex crimes? Benson says, “There’s a thought.” Rollins, looking at her laptop, says there is no shortage of those, adding one of those endless thruthers searching for clues found a real sex trafficking site on the dark web. She shows them the page with photos titled “fresh off the boat.” Benson tells her to get it to NCMEC [National Center for Missing and Exploited Children] and computer crimes and see if they can trace it.
At One Police Plaza on Thursday, April 20, Fin and Carisi discuss the web site with an officer who says the site could be out of anywhere and the phone number is a burner cell, you have to be a known customer. It is not hard for johns to anonymize themselves and it would be dumb for them not to. Fin suggests they try to track one and they do so, but are surprised when it comes back to Congressman Luke Bolton and it looks like he sent in an order for a little girl.
Later, Benson and Rollins speak with Luke Bolton at his office who says he’s never seen this. They ask to take his computer and after he explains his frustration and worries this was planted but those opposing him, Benson gets him to agree to surrender his computer.
Back at SVU, Rollins hangs up the phone and explains that Computer Crimes says Luke’s hard drive was full of incriminating photos. Luke gave them his schedule and he was in Washington every time one of those messages was supposedly sent from his computer in New York. Benson adds it is a coincidence that his computer address is the only one that wasn’t shielded. They agree the pictures were planted but the girls are real; someone is running the girls and selling them. Computer Crimes found messages and they are ordering these girls. Benson states that finding and rescuing the girls is their priority. Whoever is framing Luke found them, they needs a real situation to make their frame stick. Carisi wonders if the “spies” went through the trouble to find the girls to frame Bolton, maybe they can help them find the girls. Fin asks if they have to call James Bond, and Benson says no, someone a little less dashing – Duca. She tells them to find out who sent him the hacked emails.
Later, Fin and Rollins are back at Ron’s apartment to question who sent him Luke’s hacked emails that could help lead them to the actual ring. He says the emails were anonymous and refuses to let them look at his computer. When Ron refuses, Fin explains they brought a subpoena.
In Motions Court Part 27 on Monday, May 1, Benson, Rollins and Carisi are sitting in the gallery. Ron is representing himself to block the subpoena, claiming he is a reporter/watchdog for the people reporting the truth. ADA Rose Caliay argues for the subpoena, citing a case from US vs Sterling, saying if the subpoena is issued in good faith based on the legitimate need of law enforcement, the government need not make any special showing to obtain evidence, criminal conduct from a reporter in a criminal proceeding. She explains what is happening to the girls and that Ron has the information on his computer. Judge Peck agrees with her, and the subpoena stands. Ron looks unhappy.
Afterwards in the hall outside the courtroom, Benson tells Carisi and Rollins to get Ron’s hard drive to Computer Crimes ASAP and Carisi says he is on his way to evidence control right now. Ron storms out and says this isn’t over, they are attacking the wrong journalist. Benson tells him to watch himself or he will be back in court as a defendant. He asks if that is a threat, and Rollins says yes. He replies as long as he knows the rules of engagement, and Benson tells him to go home. He says he will; they have his hard drive but not his brain or his web site. His site has 2 million unique visitors a day and they all believe whatever he tells them. He storms off. Rollins asks Benson if Ron believes his own hype, and Benson thinks he doesn’t believe anything at all. Rollins sighs.
Back at SVU, Benson says Computer Crimes has opened Ron’s hard drive and they will let them know when they find something. It could take hours or days, and in the meantime they should use other ways to track them down; run the photos through facial recognition and cross reference them with missing persons, follow up with NCMEC, and cultivate sources and see if they can flip anyone who might be involved or know someone that knows something. As she begins to walk off, Carisi calls her back, saying Endless Truth just posted some accusations against her and Rollins. Benson and Rollins are shocked to see that Endless Truth has posted photos of them with their children, taken the day before, questioning if the children were a payoff for a cover up to look the other way, and that they both have fatherless babies of unknown origin. Fin comments he thinks Ron needs his computer shoved down his throat. Rollins looks at Benson with worry.
Later, Benson and Rollins are sending off their children with Lucy who will take them to her mother’s, with a squad car escort and then the township police will keep an eye on the house.
Afterwards, in the squad room, they find the web site is still pushing the story and readers are now posting threats against Benson and Rollins. They read one of the threats and Benson says to arrest the son of a bitch running that thing. Fin asks for what, and Benson says, “Breathing.”
Later, Benson and Carisi are in the interrogation room with Ron Duca and Carisi explains the photos are felony stalking and when Ron says he didn’t take them, his readers sent them in, Carisi says the readers were encouraged by Ron. Carisi threatens an attempting kidnapping case, and Ron says he didn’t stalk or kidnap anyone, he just raised a legitimate question about the unit’s odd failure to investigate the child ring. Carisi thinks this is all about getting money for ads, and Ron says they should have the kids; DNA tested. Benson angrily gets in his face, saying he has an insane fantasy about human flesh payoffs. Fin, who is observing with Rollins, wonders if Benson is going to rip his head off. Rollins replies if Benson doesn’t, she will. Benson and Carisi continue to press Ron as to who sent those emails but Ron claims he doesn’t know. He does know that sometimes sex slaves have babies their boss doesn’t want and Benson is a single woman without a child who suddenly out of nowhere gets a mystery baby. Benson counters that baby is not a mystery, that baby is her son. Ron asks where he came from, and Fin interrupts. Benson is getting very angry and Fin is forced to repeatedly call her out of the room. She storms out and then asks Fin why he pulled her out. Fin tells her to listen, and Rollins explains that Computer Crimes found something on the hard drive. Fin adds someone has been sending info to Endless Truth and it could be the same hacker who planted the info on Luke’s hard drive. He just got picked up and is being held at One PP. Computer Crimes has been tracking this kid for months, he is a pretty active hacker. Benson moves to go talk to him.
At One Police Plaza on Monday, May 1. Benson and Rollins speak with Raj who swears he is not a pervert. He claims he didn’t look at any of the photos but admits he planted them on Luke’s computer. It was a job and he got paid but he doesn’t know by who. They found him on the dark web. He was told to hack Luke’s email and send them to Endless Truth and Ron stared the Chinese restaurant hoax. It wasn’t, they wanted him to connect Luke to the ring. He found the info on the Endless Truth, there were lots of posts about a guy who used to do work for the restaurant so he hacked his computer too and found a link to the trafficking web site. That guy is the real pervert.
Afterwards, Carisi and Rollins are back. with additional police, at Varsity, and Ronald Fleming denies any involvement. TARU takes his computer.
Later, Benson and Rollins have Fleming in SVU interrogation and confront him with all the incriminating photos on his computer. He claims he was only looking, and Benson says that is a confession. They found messages him ordering girls. He admits he can’t help himself and it will destroy his wife. He can’t go back to jail; his business, his children…Benson states they can put in a good word for him with the DA but he will have to do something for them. He nods.
At Varsity Restaurant Supplies at 297 Bowery on Monday, May 1, Benson is in one car and Rollins and Carisi are in another, staking out the business. Fin is inside with Fleming and they have tried to set up a “buy.” Fleming is drinking cheap scotch and Fin advises that the unis checked the place and it is clean. Rollins asks if the drinking is a good idea and Fin states is it keeping Fleming from crying. Fleming asks why they need him here and Fin tells him to shut up. He adds there is a couch in a room in the back, saying with sarcasm that Fleming is first class all the way. A black car arrives and Benson tells the others to wait to move until the girl is inside and Fleming offers her money for sex. Inside, Fleming tells Fin he needs another drink and he gets up and goes into a cabinet. Outside, as the driver and the young girl are moving to get out, a gunshot is heard from inside the building. Benson radios to Fin and asks what was that. Fin shouts back that the fool just tried to shoot himself. The driver of the black car drives off quickly and when Rollins tries to block him with his car, the driver hits it and disables them. Benson makes chase in her car. She radios for the others to call for backup and Carisi gets out of the car and does so. Rollins also jumps out to chase on foot. The black car is stopped by a stopped taxi and Benson manages to catch up. She gets out of her car and draws her gun, ordering the driver to turn off the car and open the door. He complies. He puts up his hands and does as instructed. Carisi cuffs him. Benson tells the girl sitting in the back seat that she is okay and she can come with her, she is safe now. Carisi tells the driver he is under arrest for sex trafficking and when Rollins asks where are the other girls, he claims he is just a car service driver, the girls is just a fare and she owes him $11. As Benson puts the girl in her car, she tells the detectives to get the driver to the squad.
Later, at SVU, the driver makes his denials to Carisi. Meanwhile, in the interview room, Benson speaks with Marian who says she is from Salvador. She explains she is working for Jerry, their boss, who forces them to do sex. Carisi continues to press the driver while Marian tells her story to Benson, saying the driver takes her to the sex and has driven her many times before. The driver says maybe it was her father that called him, but he dries to continue to skirt the issue. Rollins storms in and tells him to cut the crap; the girl is talking and says he drives her all the time at $50 buck a pop, he waits a half hour and then takes her back. He caves and says maybe he suspected. Marian tells Benson there are other girls at Jerry’s. They came to America for jobs, not for sex. There are four other girls - Maria, Sofia, Valeria, and Christobel - but she doesn’t know where the house is. Carisi and Rollins ask about Jerry and where does he bring the girls from, but he says Jerry fixes it so he doesn’t know. Marian says the house is close to where they pick her up, and says there is a fireman house, there is no number on the house. She asks if there is a number on the house where she lives and she does not know or know the name of the street.
Afterwards, Benson tells Carisi and Rollins the girl is scared and confused. Fin enters and said Fleming just grazed his head; he thought he was going for another bottle of scotch but he had a gun stashed in there, the unis missed it. Benson states they have to find the house before the pimp runs. All they know is it is a five minute drive from the north end of Astoria Park and there is a fire station in between. Carisi says engine 312 is in that area and they decide to look at street view.
They show the street view image of the fire house – she thinks this is the one - and show her homes in the area. She recognizes a grocery store; they walk there with Jerry, it is very close.
Later, the detectives are outside the grocery store in a cars and Marian points Rollins in the direction of the house. They drive around and she spots the house. Rollins radios it is number 3712, white door. A large black, unmarked ESU van pulls up along with Benson and the detectives. Fin pounds on the door and announces they are NYPD and when there is no answer, ESU breaks down the door. A man - Jerry - sitting inside is told to sit down and put up his hands, Jerry playing dumb when Fin asks about the girls. Fin wants to open a locked basement door and Jerry asks if they have a warrant. Carisi says yeah, and he is under arrest. He cuffs Jerry and takes him away. Rollins cuts the lock on the basement door and she and Fin race downstairs. They find the 4 girls and Rollins tries to assure them they will be okay and explains Maria is with them. Fin says Jerry is going to jail right now. As they help the girls upstairs, a photo of the Statue of Liberty hangs on the wall.
Outside Ron Duca’s apartment building and on the phone, Benson tells Rollins that is great news, then tells her to call the CAC and let them know she is on their way. Benson enters the building and confronts Ron in the lobby. He says this is harassment, but Benson counters that this is a warning. She states that if he ever posts another word about her son or Rollins’ daughter, she will make it her life’s mission to connect him to that sex trafficking ring. He tries to walk off, saying he is a journalist, but Benson stops him and laughs, saying no, he is not. She adds he is a fraud and he spreads lies and he writes stories he knows are false, just to create hysteria and panic. He claims he just put it out there, if people didn’t want to believe it, that is on them. But Benson says no, that is on HIM. She demands a full retraction today, by end of day, and if not, she will arrest him on child porn charges and she will do everything in her power to make it stick. She asks if he understands her, and he blankly nods yes. She says they are clear and she steps back and Ron leaves the building. Benson takes a deep breath.
Back at SVU, Benson explains to the detectives that the girls are all from Central America and CAC will be getting in touch with their families and they will be getting counseling and medical treatment here and then going home. When Carisi asks what kind of jobs they thought they would get in America, Benson replies, “Nannies.” They shake their heads. Benson adds she has been checking in on the Endless Truth web site and they have backed off on her and Rollins. Fin thinks she put the fear of god into Duca, and Benson comments that was the idea. Rollins says Duca is so going after Luke Bolton, saying an absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. Fin cracks that the dude is nuts. Carisi comments that his fake news did lead them to a real sex trafficking ring indirectly. Rollins quips to send him a thank you card. Lucy enters with Noah and Jesse and Benson hugs Noah, who says Lucy has a doggie. Lucy comments her mother wants to adopt both kids. Benson smiles and says that’s not happening. Benson says they are going home, and Rollins asks for two hours of personal time. Benson replies “Absolutely.” But as Benson moves to leave, her phone buzzes and she answers it, and says “When? Okay, I’m coming.” Rollins asks what is it, and Benson says, “The restaurant.”
Benson arrives at the Coral Dragon and police are on the scene. She asks Mr. Lee what happened, and he replies that the Congressman felt bad his business was down and after she told the truth on TV, he wanted to show people it was safe to come here. He came to lunch with his daughter and brought a photographer. Benson enters the restaurant and Mr. Lee points out a man who came in with a gun. The Congressman is laying dead on the floor, as Mr. Lee explains the shooter saw the Congressman with his daughter and he shouted at him and thought the girl he was with was a…Benson stares in horror, and tells Mr. Lee she knows. Mr. Lee cries the man shot him. Benson walks to the body on the floor and kneels, and Mr. Lee asks if this is ever going to stop. She does not answer and looks over to the Congressman’s daughter who is sitting nearby, crying, being consoled by an officer. As Benson stares in disbelief, we fade to black.
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