An ex-husband and a former boyfriend both hoping to make a fast buck off Erin Brockovich, the legal campaigner whose story has become a Julia Roberts film, have been arrested and charged with extortion after they threatened to badmouth her to the tabloid media and demanded $300,000 (£187,500) to keep silent.
Ex-husband Shawn Brown and ex-boyfriend Jorg Halaby were lured into a sting with their lawyer and videoed accepting money from Ms Brockovich and her boss, Ed Masry. Mr Masry, the environmentalist lawyer played on screen by Albert Finney, said the men threatened to tell papers he and Ms Brockovich had had an affair and that Ms Brockovich, a twice-divorced mother of three, mistreated her children. Neither was true, Mr Masry said.
On Wednesday Mr Brown, Mr Halaby and their lawyer, John Reiner, met Mr Masry and Ms Brockovich in Thousand Oaks, a suburb of Los Angeles. All signed a document agreeing not to talk to the media. Mr Masry and Ms Brockovich handed over two cheques, one for Mr Brown for $280,000 and one for Mr Halaby for $30,000. The meeting was captured by a video camera and, when Mr Masry and Ms Brockovich left the room, police swooped. Ms Brockovich said: "I was on the verge of crying. The whole thing made me sick."
The episode illustrated the perils of fame for a woman catapulted from obscurity to the status of folk hero. Erin Brockovich tells the story of how, after two failed marriages, dead-end jobs and a car accident, she lifted herself from the verge of penury, talked her way into a job at Mr Masry's law practice and uncovered an environmental scandal in the Californian desert community of Hinkley, where hexavalent chromium was being dumped in the water supply and was poisoning local people.
Mr Brown does not feature in the film but Mr Halaby does. He is the biker who agrees to look after Ms Brockovich's children while she spends ever longer hours working on the Hinkley case. In the film he accuses her of taking advantage of him and failing to spend enough time with the children.
Mr Halaby was paid by Universal Studios for permission to portray him but was apparently angry at the way his relationship with Ms Brockovich ended around the time she helped win a $333m settlement with the company responsible for the toxic dumping at Hinkley, Pacific Gas and Electric, and earned a $2m bonus. Ms Brockovich told the Los Angeles Times: "I was thankful for what he did. And I was kind and good to him, but I was simply not in love with him."
Mr Brown's bitterness has been evident for some time, since he is in a custody dispute over the children. Wednesday's sting was at the offices of Ms Brockovich's family lawyer.
While Mr Brown and Mr Halaby continue to live relatively modestly, Ms Brockovich has appeared on talk shows and at Hollywood parties. She said she had tried to be fair to everyone in her life and in the film: "I've been trying to do the right thing, and it kind of came back and bit me in the butt."
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