05/15/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
For even the most casual viewer, there is one can't-miss lesson to be gleaned from the Julia Roberts
movie hit Erin Brockovich: that the film's real-life inspiration—a legal researcher who crusaded against a California utility company for poisoning a small town's water and helped win one of the biggest liability settlements in U.S. history—is not someone to mess with. Ever.
Somehow this seems to have been lost on two people who should have known better—one of Brockovich's two ex-husbands and a former boyfriend. On April 26, the pair, along with their lawyer, were arrested in suburban Los Angeles for trying to extort $310,000 from Brockovich, who, instead of knuckling under, helped police set up a sting. "This really makes me mad," says Brockovich, 39, who still works as chief researcher at Masry & Vititoe, the Westlake Village, Calif., law firm depicted in the movie. "It's so sad—and all for money."
The alleged plot began to unfold on April 11, when Brockovich's friend and boss Ed Masry, 67, received a call from another lawyer, John Reiner, 53. Without getting specific, Reiner reportedly said that Brockovich's first husband, Shawn Brown, 38, a sometime carpet cleaner to whom she was married from 1982 to 1987 (and who is the father of two of her three children, Matthew, 17, and Katie, 15), was prepared to give media interviews that would be unflattering to Brockovich and Masry unless Brown was paid $200,000. It later emerged that Brown, along with Brockovich's ex-beau biker Jorg Halaby, 46, a carpenter who is portrayed in the movie as a cuddly nice guy, was planning to accuse her of being an unfit mother and of having an affair with Masry, who is married. Their price for silence rose to $310,000.
According to Brockovich, Brown and Halaby were upset that they hadn't got a big cut from the movie, which so far has taken in $113 million at the box office and for which Brockovich was paid in the low six figures. Investigators contend that Brown hatched the scheme partly because he wanted to turn around and use the money to pay Brockovich the roughly $100,000 he owes in back child support. But Brockovich wasn't about to let anybody shake her down, even if it meant some bad publicity. "I talked to my kids and told them, 'When you do wrong, you pay,' " she says. "And this was wrong."
And so on the morning of April 26, Brown, Halaby and Reiner arrived at the office of Brockovich's attorney Cathleen Drury for a meeting, thinking they would be getting a payoff. Instead, unknown to them, Drury had contacted the Ventura County D.A.'s office, where investigators had already taped many of the telephone negotiations. Several police officers, along with FBI surveillance specialists, were standing by with a hidden video camera as the alleged extortionists sat down with Masry and Brockovich. The pair handed over two checks, one for $30,000 for Halaby, the other for $280,000 for Brown, in return for a signed agreement guaranteeing their silence. No sooner had the exchange been made than Brockovich left the room. "Erin couldn't stand to be there," says Drury. "She was crawling out of her skin."
What incensed Brockovich the most was the attempt to smear her reputation. In the past she has candidly acknowledged that Matthew and Katie have had problems at school and with drugs. But she angrily dismissed the notion that she was an unfit mother as "despicable." She and Masry also vehemently denied any impropriety in their relationship. "My wife knows I don't fool around," says Masry. "She's got utter confidence in me."
The three suspects are awaiting their first court date later this month. Meanwhile, Brockovich, who last year married actor Eric Ellis, 34, is hoping to get her life back to normal and is having mixed feelings about her celebrity. "When the movie came out, my dad sent me a little cartoon. There's a big pedestal and at the top of it is a bull's-eye," she says. "Well, I feel like I'm standing on top—and look what's happened."
Ron Arias in Los Angeles