Fargo’s true story — The shocking crimes behind the film

1996 film Fargo

The 1996 film Fargo was an overwhelming success, earning critical acclaim and millions in profits. It told the story of a desperate Oldsmobile salesman, Jerry Lundegaard, who hired men to kidnap his wife so they could pocket ransom money from her father. Lundegaard’s plot was doomed from the start as he hired two incompetent men to carry out the abduction. 

Furthermore, Jerry didn’t count on the determination of pregnant police detective Marge Gunderson. In bizarre yet comedic fashion, Jerry’s extortion scheme failed, and, in perhaps the most memorable scene from the film, one of the kidnappers found himself on the wrong end of a woodchipper. 

Fargo falsely alleges it is based on a true story

As the film starts, the following text appears against a black background: “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occured.”

However, despite the bold claim, Fargo isn’t based on a true story. In 2016, co-writer Ethan Cohen explained the reasoning behind the falsehood:

“We wanted to make a movie just in the genre of a true story movie. You don’t have to have a true story to make a true story movie.”

Two true crimes inspired the creators of Fargo

Fargo isn’t based on a true story, but two real-life crimes inspired aspects of the film’s narrative.

In the movie, Jerry Lundegaard hatched the extortion plan to pay back the money he’d stolen from the dealership. Jerry, employed by the man he attempted to defraud, had sold cars and pocketed the money. 

Lundegaard’s inspiration was likely real-life criminal John McNamara. Through fraud, McNamara, a car salesman, acquired $6 billion worth of loans from General Motors. 

McNamara claimed he needed the money to buy and customize non-GM vans for sale in Cyprus. However, there was no market for the vans, which McNamara planned to purchase from his dealership. 

To facilitate his grand theft, McNamara bribed executives from 67 partnerships and corporations. The fictional vehicles bounced from company to company as McNamara collected his loot. McNamara accepted a reduced sentence of five years in exchange for information about the officials he’d bribed. 

In the film, Gaear killed his accomplice in the kidnapping, Carl, with an ax. He dismembered his body, hoping to dispose of the evidence into a wood chipper. Detective Marge caught Gaear before he completed the job. 

The real-life murderer who inspired the wood chipper scene, Richard Crafts, completed disposing of his victim’s body but didn’t get away with the crime. Richard’s wife, Helle Crafts, disappeared in November 1986 in Newtown, Connecticut. 

An investigation revealed that Richard killed Helle and cut her body into tiny pieces using a wood chipper. Richard was the first person in Connecticut convicted of murder without a body. He received a 50-year sentence and, as of January 2020, was living in a halfway house in New Haven.