There were several things that I liked about this episode. First and foremost was the guest cast. I was expecting not to like Charles Grodin; I never forgave him for having to waste my money on his 1972 film “Heartbreak Kid”, the only movie that I ever walked out on after 45 minutes because it was so bad. But he surprised me in this role of the school board chairman, a man whose pride and obsession for his school and his superiority complex blinded him to the trauma that his own son, and other students, experienced. Elliott Gould was well cast as the teacher who was smart enough to only enter into relationships with young men of a legal age; while his character appeared to be genuinely concerned that he may have hurt someone, he still creeped me out. But the scene stealer continues to be Raúl Esparza. As ADA Rafael Barba, he is the perfect combination of a pompous ass, smart prosecutor, and a snappy dresser. I really enjoy his character and Esparza really brings him to life. (I secretly find myself hoping that one day, the Law & Order mothership will return and Barba would be the EADA. I can dream, can’t I?)
In the very first scene, the SVU squad seemed busier than it’s been in years. In fact, for the past few seasons, the SVU bull pen area seems rather dull and boring, as if the precinct only had one case to work on at a time. This episode seemed to go in the completely opposite direction, as if the whole city of New York had exploded in sex crimes in one night. It was slightly jarring. Of course, this influx in sex crimes gave a good excuse for one man to leave the precinct in frustration (and/or depression) and hang himself afterwards. While Benson later commented that it was a zoo that night, this episode made me wonder what a typical night in a New York City SVU squad room would really be like. It seemed uncharacteristic for Benson to hit Amaro with such a low blow as to harp on him for his “nice work” when finding that Amaro had seen the dead man in SVU the night before he hanged himself. I would, however, have expected a comment like that from Munch (who, along with Cragen, was MIA in this episode).
Barba also had some great lines in the episode that made me literally laugh out loud: his channeling of Star Trek’s Dr. “Bones” McCoy (“I’m a prosecutor, not a healer”) and Barba later telling Benson and Amaro that Forrester asked like he was talking to a room of bad cheese.
This was a great episode that combined an interesting case with some nice legal maneuvering, a combination which always leaves me feeling satisfied.
Here is the recap:
Mariska Hargitay – Detective Olivia Benson
Ice-T – Detective Odafin “Fin” Tutuola
Richard Belzer – Sergeant John Munch
Dann Florek – Captain Don Cragen
Kelli Giddish - Detective Amanda Rollins
Danny Pino - Detective Nick Amaro
Elliott Gould – Walter Tompkins
Charles Grodin – Brett Forrester
Raúl Esparza - ADA Rafael Barba
Anthony Rapp – Nathan
Buck Henry – Morton
Elizabeth Marvel – Miss Calhoun
Frank Wood – Mr. Lennox
Mason Pettit – Curt
Jeremy Bobb – Vincent Moran
Alvin Epstein – Harold Lassiter
Jayce Bartok - Eli Fromson
Robert Sella – Friend of Tompkins
Marc Webster – Damon (?)
Tijuana Ricks – Principal
Marissa Matrone – Judge Maria Ana Defecco
Karen Shallo – Rose Matthews
Brooke Hoover – Toni
Brian Faherty - Frank
Apriel Starkweather – Young Woman
It is an unusually busy day in the SVU squad. Harold Lassiter, an elderly man, walks in and tells Amaro he wants to talk to a detective about a letter he received. Amaro, on the phone and clearly distracted, asks the man to take a seat. The man sees all the activity going around him as he sits there alone, and he decides to leave. Later, at home and listening to opera and having a drink, he looks at the letter.
Sometime later, Benson and Amaro are at Harold’s home, and Harold is dead – by hanging. He is a retired private school English teacher. Despite it appearing to be a suicide, Amaro tells Benson that SVU was called in as the man had his business card on him, The man came into the squad room the night before. Benson recalls it was a zoo, and when Amaro says he barely spoke to the man, Benson says “Nice work.” Amaro shows Benson the letter Harold had on him which mentions that Harold abused the writer’s trust and outlines abuse by Lassiter. It was signed by Curt with no last name. There is different handwriting on the letter which says “I am sorry.” Benson wonders if he came in to confess and then went a different way. Amaro wonders if Curt decided for him.
At SVU, Amaro explains to the other detectives that Harold Lassiter taught at Manor Hill Academy for 30 years and retired in ’02. Fin explains it is a fancy school in the city on 25 acres and a kid from his block got a scholarship there. Benson outlines the abuse that Curt mentioned in his letter. Fin wonders if Curt staged a suicide but Benson said there was no sign of a struggle and the ME is checking to see if he was killed first and then strung up. She put the time of death between 9 and midnight. Curt could be a victim and the suspect and Benson says they have to track him down. Rollins says they have no last name and no prints on the letter. Amaro suggests they get a list from Manor Hill of Lassiter’s students. Fin is skeptical someone there will want to talk about abuse, telling him to have a nice drive. Benson says they will, and orders Fin – calling him Detective Tutuola – to check on his friend with the scholarship to see if they new Lassiter or Curt.
At Manor Hill Academy, trying to get a student list, Benson and Amaro speak with Rose and then to Andrew Lennox, the headmaster. Lennox is disturbed by the allegations in the letter and says he has been there 9 years and this is the first he’s heard of this. Amaro explains the letter was found at Lassiter’s when he was found dead. Lennox says Lassiter retired before he got there and was much admired. He says he will do all he can to help find Curt.
Meanwhile, Fin and Rollins speak with Fin’s friend Damon. They explain what has happened to Lassiter. Damon admits the man got touchy feely after drama rehearsals and that he may have looked like a target to Lassiter. He says he got a shoulder massage form him and he tried rubbing him somewhere else and Damon threatened to break his arm. He did not report it. He does not recall a student named Curt. Despite Damon being on the board and liking the school, he says he has the alumni information and adds that Curt stared with the drama club.
Benson and Amaro speak with Curt, who is walking dogs in the park. He says he wrote the letter a while ago, saying his new therapist thought it would help to get the feelings out. He says last night he was working his survivors of abuse program and Benson tells him Lassiter was found dead last night. He says he did not kill him but thought about it. What he did to him has affected his life badly. Benson asks if he knows anyone else who was targeted, and Curt says he has been talking to his former classmates at Manor Hill and admits they never filed a police report. Benson presses him for the truth and “keeping the dragon buried” will hurt a lot of people. Curt says the people he is talking to are not in recovery and they are struggling. Benson thinks that talking to them can help them get to the truth.
At the Murray Hill Community Center, Benson and Amaro explain why they are there and Curt tries to get them to speak. Benson explains that keeping the abuse secret does not make it go away. They begin to open up and talk about the “Lassiter Lasso” on how he would start the abuse. But Nathan says he doesn’t know what they are talking about. He gets agitated and leaves. Curt then explains that the “lasso” was a test and if you did not laugh or back off, the next step was the massage. If you went with that, he would then says there was another part that was tense. Amaro gets a message on his phone and excuses himself as the men continue to explain what Lassiter did. Vincent mentions that “Strepek, ” another teacher, was ten times worse, saying Strepek raped him. Strepek is now dead and he gave the man gonorrhea. Eli mentions another abusing teacher – Morton. Amaro calls Benson over and he tells her that the ME says Lassiter was a suicide, and they hear one of the man mention another teacher by the name of Mercer. More men arrive to the group session, and Benson says they have to stay.
At ADA Barba’s office, Rollins displays a chart of the teachers and students, explaining that Lassiter was not an isolated predator. The abuse went on for 3 decades and counting. Benson says at least 4 teachers were serial abusers, all under the previous headmaster. Barba somewhat sarcastically comments on the “terrific graphic work” but asks if any of the events happened in the last 5 years. Benson says no, and he asks if any of the victims are under the age of 23 now, and Rollins says no but…and Barba cuts her off, saying different states have different statutes. He asks if any of these events took place on a field trip or a sports team road trip. Rollins asks Barba if he ever thinks about going off caffeine. He replies that would be a no, and quickly asks why are they here again? Rollins asks if they could let them get a word in…and Benson smirks at him. Benson goes on to say that is it highly unlikely that anyone in the school administration knew about the systemic abuse. He says that is a long way from “beyond a reasonable doubt and asks if they have been to the school. Benson explains they have been less than forthcoming. Rollins adds they got names and yearbooks from a friend of Fin’s who went there on scholarship and is now on the board. Barba comments that Lassiter hanged himself and asks if any of the others are still working. Rollins replies that the previous headmaster and Strepek are both deceased. Mercer, the swim coach is in Thailand. Morton did teach until a few years ago and Benson thinks it is possible his abuse falls within the statute. Barba thinks if he did abuse students he wouldn’t admit it, suggesting they tell Morton that they already know and Morton may try to save himself by turning on Manor Hill. Barba says in schools like this there is an insularity and a culture of secrecy and self preservation, and if they want those fieldstone walls to tumble they will need heavy artillery.
Fin and Rollins speak with Morton at his home, and he is distracted by his model train station. He says Eli, David and Charlie were his stars, and comments about Cambridge, Fin reminds him they are talking about Manor Hill. He asks if this is before or after Chosin, and Fin realizes he is talking about the Korean War. It is clear that Morton’s mind is not all there.
Back at SVU, Amaro brings in Mr. Tompkins, a former teacher at Manor Hill, who wants to talk. Benson comments none of the victims mentioned that name. In the interview room, Tompkins says he taught there 40 years and is still in touch with many of his former students. He heard that they were investigating some events. Benson says it was allegations of sexual abuse by the teachers. Walter says those are two words that should never go together. He asks if anyone has named him, and then admits he had sex with two older students and he was physically affectionate with a third. He says this was in the ’70s and early ‘80s, saying this was a different time and he does not mean this as a confession as if they did something wrong, Their relationships were warm and spontaneous, caring. He says the students were 17 and 18. Benson comments that is convenient, she breached their trust and knows they can do nothing about it now. He insists he is not there to avoid responsibility, he explains his actions may have had consequence he did not foresee. If any of them feel that he harmed them, or he did harm them, perhaps it would held them to confront him, or through them, to share their anger. Benson asks if anyone at Manor Hill knew he was having sex with student, and he says no, the relationships were private and no one was “out” in those days. Only now are they coming forward, and some of his student emailed him just a few days ago to tell them about coercive relationships and he is horrified. He says he did not know about other teachers, and has been beating himself up that students were abused and he failed to see it and he failed to help them.
Afterwards, Benson, along with Barba, speak with 3 of the former students who are shocked they are talking to Tompkins. Benson explains why Tompkins came in. Curt says he has spoken to 25 victims and no one had a bad word to say about him. Benson says Tompkins felt the school may have known. When one of the students says the school was covering it up, Barba, while texting on his phone, says Tompkins had no proof and as of now, neither do we. When one student asks if Barba is going to drop this case, Barba says there is no case, Lassiter and Strepek, Mercer is halfway around the world, and Morton is senile. Curt explains he is getting calls and emails from more survivors and this is more widespread than any of them knew. Barba agrees it is an outrage but the only case is against the school if it knew about the abuse and covered it up. Vincent says they knew and covered it up, his dad told them. He goes on to say that after he got gonorrhea, his father became suspicious of Strepek, he told him nothing happened but his father confronted the headmaster who is now dead. His father is also dead. When Vincent volunteers to testify, Curt says they won’t let it, he sent an email petition to the school and they say they will sue him for defamation. Barba says that is a legal maneuver, it doesn’t rise to the level of a crime. Eli says he doesn’t care. About charges, would it kill them to acknowledge that something bad happened an apologize, Benson thinks he is right, an apology can make a huge difference in getting closure. Barba explains it can also be perceived as an admission of guilt which leaves the school open to liability claims, and they would rather close ranks. Curt comments that abuse means never having to say you’re sorry. Benson tells Barba they have to push back – a DA asking to meet with the headmaster is heavy artillery.
Later, Benson and Barba meet with Lennox, Brett Forrester the board chair, and their attorney, Ms. Calhoun. Benson begins to outline the claims and Calhoun begins to argue about the time delay in making the claims. Barba counter argues the point and the schools failure to report, but Calhoun calls the meeting a fishing expedition. Benson mentions the victims want an apology to help their healing. Calhoun says it would also help them sue Manor Hill. Lennox says he is sorry for their pain, but they have to understand the school’s reputation is t stake. Barba cautions that they need to get out in front of this, and Forrester says his grandfather, his father, he and his son all graduated from Manor Hill. They created leaders in art, science, politics, etc., and Benson reminds him it also created victims, failed relationships, unemployment, substance abuse, adding she can go on. Forrester counters that these failures are just trying to excuse their own behaviors. Benson says they are only asking Manor Hill to do the right thing. Forrester says the right thing is to protect the institution and coldly adds they need to excuse them as they have to prepare for their capital campaign reception tonight.
Afterwards, Barba comments to Benson that it is a nice campus, as a kid growing up in the south Bronx going to Catholic school he would have given anything to go there. Benson questions that a smart guy like him couldn’t get a scholarship? Barba replies the only kids they took from his neighborhood were athletes. Barba adds this is a waste of time, he’s a prosecutor, not a healer. Benson counters, asking that he doesn’t want to make a case – she knows something criminal went on here, and so does he.
Back at the ADA’s office with Benson, Amaro, Fin, and Rollins present, Barba says their lawyer thinks they are on a fishing expedition so he says they should go on one. The detectives outline what they do know that is for them. Amaro says what is against them is all the witness to the report they heard about are dead. Rollins thinks she has another way in. She went over the alumnae newsletters and Manor Hill gave Strepek a going away party 9 years ago and he wasn’t even 60. Benson thinks this is young for that school, thinking they forced him into early retirement because they knew. Rollins says two months later they congratulated Strepek at his hire at a charter school in Harlem. Barba thinks they are getting closer and tells them to talk to the charter school and get him something he can take to a grand jury.
At Community Charter School, Fin and Rollins speak with the principal of the school who said they fired Strepek a month later. They heard voices from the boys’ locker room and saw him with an eighth grade boy, too close. Nothing was happening but she got bad vibe. She spoke to the student who said Strepek was tutoring him. She called headmaster Lennox who said he would get back to her. They she spoke to his secretary who said off the record to go with her gut. She canned Strepek that day. She will send them a copy of Manor Hill’s recommendation.
Back at Manor Hill Academy, Benson, Fin, Amaro and Rollins approach Lennox as a private event is underway. Fin shows Lennox a subpoena and Damon, who is also there, asks if they can take it outside. Rollins hands him the subpoena and tells him sure he can, and to take that with him. Forrester tells them they are on private property and to leave now. The detectives hand subpoenas to others at the event. Calhoun calls it harassment and Benson replies to call it a fishing expedition.
In Grand Jury number 5, Barba question Lennox on the recommendation for Strepek. He admits he did, but never worked with him personally but he had a good reputation, When Barba questions him about not calling the charter school, he says he was new to his job and overwhelmed. Barba asks if it was because he passed off a sex abuser to the school, and he says of course not, he had no knowledge. Barba states that Lennox wrote a glowing reputation for a man he never met, and goes on to ask if anyone on the board told him that the father of one of the students, Vincent Moran, made allegations of sexual abuse to the school about Strepek. Lennox said they did not., if they had he would not have sent the recommendation.
Later, with the secretary testifying, Barba asks her about telling the principal to go with her gut. She said she meant nothing, she should do what she thought best for her school. She thought maybe he was not a good fit there – Barba asks if it is because he sexually abused students, and she replies no. He mentions Strepek left Manor Hill before retirement age and asks why he wasn’t a good fit there? She replies she could not day. Barba asks if she couldn’t or she won’t? She doesn’t answer.
Afterwards, Vincent is waiting in the hall and Barba tells him the Manor ill witnesses are playing close to the vest and too careful with their answers but he thinks the jury is smelling smoke. Vincent comments that is sounds like he won’t need him. Barba says he is his star witness, and says he will testify to the abuse and the STD and that his father confronted the school; he will make the grand jury connect the dots. Barba pats him on the shoulder and Vincent nervously looks down and then says “cool.”
Later, Forrester is testifying, saying nice things about Strepek. Barba brings up the fact that Strepek was compensated for his departure and asks if Forrester was at the board meeting where this was discussed. Forrester says of course, and when Barba wants to know what happened, Forrester says it was 9 years ago and he sits on 15 boards in 3 time zones and this is why they take minutes. Barba says those minutes seem to be missing from the school files. Forrester says he is the chairman, not the damn secretary. Barba says Forrester was aware that one parent had complained about Strepek having sexual contact with his son. Forrester says he is not aware of that and he doesn’t believe it.
Afterwards in the hall, Barba tells Benson and Amaro that Forrester asked like he was talking to a room of bad cheese and says the jury will love taking him down. He asks them where is Vincent – who is now gone from where Barba last saw him. Benson says they are on it.
At the Dover Hotel, Fin knocks on the door and a woman opens it and leaves. Rollin stops her She says he said his name was Fred. Fin opens the door and sees Vincent laying on the bed, unconscious, with drugs nearby. Fin calls for a bus.
Later, Amaro, Benson, and Barba are walking outside and Amaro explains they picked up Vincent at a dive hotel with a hooker and bad coke. Benson adds that the doctors hope he will be coherent by tomorrow. Barba says that is just terrific. Amaro says Vincent screwed up but that speaks to his case and what happened to him at Manor Hill. Barba says it what he says happened, there is no record of his father complaining and Vincent’s credibility issues are shot now – even with him. They need something tangible. Benson reminds him of the gonorrhea, and the medical records prove he had it. Barba says it does not prove who he got it from. Amaro asks about getting Stripe’s medical records and see if he had it at the same time. Barba comments that’s good and the jury might make that leap. But medical records are privileged even after death, they need permission from Strepek’s next of kin, if they can find out who that is. Benson says they are on it.
Later, at Barba’s office, Rollins explains that Strepek’s only living relative is a second cousin, Benson adding it was an awkward conversation but they got the records. Strepek had gonorrhea 3 weeks before Vincent was diagnosed. Ms. Calhoun interrupts them and she knows they are looking at Strepek’s medical records. She says the records are privileged and Barba counters that the next of kin waived privilege and tells her to please come again. She quotes CPLR section 4504 subsection C – no one can waive a dead person’s patient/doctor privilege with respect to records that would disgrace the memory of the decedent. She hands Barba the motion to the supervising judge, saying always a pleasure. After Calhoun leaves, Rollins questions that you can’t speak ill of the dead because that would be speaking ill of the dead? Barba confirms it is the law – an obscure one but the law. Benson asks what are they going to do and Barba replies they will argue that it does not apply. He thinks they can put this in a different context. They all think it was disgraceful but asks Benson about the teacher they interviewed – Tompkins – said back in the day sex with students was warm and affectionate, not disgraceful and to get him to tell that to the judge. Rollins looks disgusted and Benson comments that they are going to argue that raping boys is morally acceptable. Barba says Tompkins said it was loving, consensual sex – lose the battle and win the war. Benson is speechless.
In Superior Court, Tompkins testifies that times has changed and he knows more now than he knew then. At the time he felt relationships between teachers and students was not necessarily wrong if one’s heart was in it. Maybe he was naïve but he didn’t mean to hurt anyone. The attitude was not condemned at the school as it is today. Under cross, he said it didn’t seem disgraceful. He did not announce it publicly, it was private Calhoun says it was wrong, then tells the judge the argument is preposterous and asks if next Barba will bring a cannibal to say how eating people is wholesome and healthy. Barba counters they are talking about attitudes toward sex that shift over time and the attitude that Tompkins is describing was apparently prevalent at Manor Hill Academy. He asks how else to explain so many unreported incidents of teacher/student sexual contact, adding they were as common as trust funds. Calhoun tells him to save it for the next march on Wall Street. The judge takes her point and says the release of the medical records, no matter how they spin it, would bring disgrace to the deceased. She tells Barba the grand jury can proceed but without Strepek’s medical records.
Afterwards, Tompkins tells Barba he is sorry for it all, and Barba, Benson and Amaro watch as Tompkins joins the former students. Forrester approaches them and comments that was enlightening, to which Barba replies they are not done with this. Forrester thinks they are, saying that the school will be issuing a statement shortly. Benson asks if they will be taking responsibility for the culture of abuse and the damage it caused, and Forrester doesn’t know if there was any culture – there was one bad apple, their witness, Tompkins. Amaro asks if he is going to scapegoat the one person who came forward, who no one complained about.. Forrester questions scapegoating, they heard Tompkins on the stand, he is self confessed pederast, and he is shocked and dismayed that he worked for them. He adds it is a terrible thing and is very upsetting.
Back at SVU, Rollins reads a news brief posted by the Ledger, saying Manor Hill has been made aware of the pedophile who taught there decades ago and the school is outraged that he can’t be prosecuted, adding that otherwise everything is always good there and always has been. Amaro calls it a smart play, burying a big story with the little one and asks out loud if Barba has a plan to get past this. Benson says he is open to suggestions. Fin gets a call and says that was one of the former student that Tompkins had a relationship with and he saw the article too and he wants to come in.
Later, Benson and Amaro speak with a former student who says he wants to testify FOR Tompkins, not against him. He was 18 and has known he was gay since he was 6. It was very hard and Walter let him know it was OK. He asks if they heard about the other teacher, Strepek. Somehow Strepek found out about the relationship with him and Tompkins and he guesses he seemed like easy pickings. Strepek came on to him and was pushing himself on to him. He told his mother was Strepek was up to and she wrote a letter to the school complaining about him. He does not have a copy of the letter but he saw the letter they wrote back, it was signed by a member of the board – Forrester. He doesn’t know if his mother kept the letter.
Afterwards, Benson and Amaro confront Forrester with the letter, which said that her son misunderstood or exaggerated what happened with the teacher and that Strepek’s character and behavior is beyond reproach. Amaro says he committed perjury with the grand jury, and Forrester asks to see the letter. He says it is 28 years ago and says to try to prove it. Benson looks over at a photo of Forrester’s family and sees that Nathan, one of the men in the support group, is in it. Forrester says Nathan is his son and he asked him about Strepek and Nathan said that the boy who made the complaint was a crybaby and a screw up. His son was in Strepek’s class and adds he would not have left him there if the man was a sexual molester. Benson asks if his son is there now, and Forrester says he has an apartment in their guest house.
Forrester takes Benson and Amaro to see Nathan. Benson says they met with Curt Haskins and some other alumni. He says he doesn’t know what they were doing there. Amaro says they were investigating sexual assaults at the school and explain that Strepek’s name came up after he left. Forrester said he told the detectives what Nathan told him when Strepek was first accused. Nathan says he does not remember and when they bring up the sexual assault, Nathan says that never happened and it is not true. He says he has no idea why he was invited to the reunion. They question why Nathan lives there by himself or why he does not work at Forrester’s brokerage firm. Amaro asks what Nathan does and he says he has been writing some songs but they have not be published. Forrester barks that he will invite them to the first concert and tells them to leave now, they are done. Benson says not quite. She reminds him when she first met Forrester he said some people lead disappointing lives, and asks if he is disappointed that Nathan did not join the family firm and that he writes songs here at his house that no one will sing? He says he doesn’t see how that is their concern, but Amaro says it is if it has anything to do with Strepek. Forrester said he already told them the answer to those charges. Benson asks Nathan one last time if he is sure that Strepek didn’t rape any students, and Forrester instruct him to tell them again so they can get out of here, Nathan asks then what, then sarcastically says his dad is right they have to save the good name of Manor Hill. Benson says Manor Hill is all his father ever cared about, and Forrester interjects that Nathan does too, he did well there. Benson asks Nathan did he, really? He said until upper school and then he had Strepek and after that his grades went to hell and so did a lot of other things. He shouts at his father, asking if he ever looked at him or noticed what was really happening to him? Forrester said Strepek was a tough teacher and he challenged him. Nathan said he couldn’t tell him, he would just call him a fairy like he told the mother of the other kid who wrote the letter. He goes on to say it would have hurt his precious school. Forrester looks stunned, and Nathan says it was a long time ago and he does not remember. He walks off. His father whispers his name and then follows him.
Later, at Manor Hill, Curt, Elli, and Vincent arrive, Eli saying to Benson and Amaro that it is strange days, they sent a car for them. They ask Benson and Amaro if they are coming in, and Benson says they would not miss it. Inside, Lennox is speaking to a crowd, saying the school is beginning a healing process; they are going to talk about what happened here and try to learn from it and make absolutely certain that it never happens again. Benson and Amaro are listening and Barba approaches, asking Benson if she is happy. She replies she is. Amaro says the grand jury can still probably indict some of these people, and Barba says he may get the indictment but he would never get the conviction, but that was never really the point, was it? As Forester begins to speak, he looks on the students and says nothing can ever undo the damage that was done here. He slowly and dryly states that they will help and support those who were victimized and will launch a thorough investigation of those responsible. He pauses and says that for whatever it is worth, on behalf of Manor Hill Academy, he apologizes. He quickly exits as the victims look on. Tompkins also looks on. As Benson, Amaro, and Barba also watch, we fade to black.
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