Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Christian Brando — A Hollywood Family Tragedy

Courtroom Dramas

William Kunstler (AP)
William Kunstler (AP)

Marlon Brando contacted his friend William Kunstler that night, telling the flamboyant and outspoken attorney, "The messenger of misery has visited my house." Kunstler, who was more of a "cause" lawyer than a criminal defense attorney, dealt with the press in the early days of the investigation, but soon advised Brando to contact Robert Shapiro, a skilled, high-profile criminal lawyer who had previously defended Erik Menendez in his murder case.

During the next several weeks, as evidence reports and statements were compiled and two autopsies of Drollet were completed, investigators began to question Christian's story that the two men were struggling for the gun. Forensics showed that Dag died from a bullet to the back of his head, not in the face as was earlier reported. The paramedics on the scene told investigators that the den was not disturbed as if there had been a struggle, and that Dag died with his tobacco pouch in one hand and the TV remote in the other.

The slaying quickly took its toll on the already fragile Cheyenne. She was able to make some statements to police but soon required sedation and isolation. The death of her lover was the beginning of the end of Cheyenne's tenuous grasp on sanity. Based on her statements, authorities said they believed the shooting was not an accident. They declined to elaborate on what Cheyenne told them that led them to that conclusion.

In a very controversial move, Marlon had Cheyenne hospitalized in Tahiti, which, under French jurisdiction, prevented U.S. authorities from subpoenaing her to testify. She fled the country only after prosecutors tried to serve her papers as a material witness.

Shortly after arriving in Tahiti, Cheyenne gave birth to a son who was immediately placed in postnatal detox. The unhappy mother then tried to kill herself by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. The attempt was unsuccessful but she would later try again, that time by hanging herself.

Days after the slaying, Christian was formally charged with murder and weapons violations. The municipal judge set his bail at $10 million, something even the wealthy Marlon Brando was unable to raise.

Christian sat in jail as prosecutors continued to gather evidence and the press dug through details of his life for stories. Cheyenne remained hospitalized in Tahiti, and Marlon Brando was hidden away in his compound. A two-day preliminary hearing was perfunctory and the judge ruled in early August that enough evidence had been presented to try Christian on first-degree murder charges. At the end of the preliminary hearing, the judge refused to lower the bail, citing Cheyenne's flight to avoid helping the police. That showed that the Brando family was uncooperative, the judge ruled. However, two weeks later the same judge reduced the bail to $2 million, which Marlon was able to post by putting up his house as collateral.

For the first time, a relieved Marlon Brando addressed the media outside the courtroom, where he personally surrendered Christian's passport.

"I have a hide this thick," he said, holding his fingers wide apart. "But when it comes to my son and my children, you're speaking to someone with a different impulse."

Marlon spoke to reporters for more than a half hour after the bail hearing, being more open about his personal life than he had ever been. The weight of the preceding weeks was clearly evident in his face. Although he responded courteously and openly, there was still a trace of the old Brando eccentricity.

He told them that the room where Dag died had been turned into a shrine to the dead man, complete with candles. Besides the mess left by the shooting, nothing had been changed, Marlon said.

"Could anything have been done to prevent the May 16 tragedy?" one reporter asked.

"Where is a feather dropped by a seagull on the heads of 2,000 persons going to land?" Marlon replied. "There are too many unknowns."

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