Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Twilight Zone Tragedy

D.A. John Van De Kamp

Kesselman soon uncovered much troubling and confusing information. When he interviewed Donna and Dr. Schuman, they told him that they had no idea that the children they helped recruit would be near either explosives or a low-flying helicopter. Cynthia Nigh told him that Landis as well as Folsey and Allingham knew they were breaking the law when they hired the youngsters and she told him of Folsey's nervous joke that they would "probably all go to jail" for it.

To obtain information he needed, Kesselman granted several of those people involved immunity from prosecution. Second assistant director Anderson House, James Camomile (who had set off the explosives that downed the helicopter), and all the special effects crew that served under Paul Stewart, but not Stewart himself, got immunity.

House told Kesselman that the children had been deliberately hidden from Jack Tice, a fire-safety officer who was sometimes a teacher-welfare worker and would surely have reported the illegal hiring. House also said he had warned Dan Allingham about risks to the children.

At the grand jury hearings, Paul Stewart and Dorcey Wingo refused to answer questions, citing the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. Folsey testified and said that "in retrospect" he would have wanted "to shoot the helicopter at one time and the actor and the children at a separate time."

John Landis testified and blamed underlings for the tragedy. He said he had assumed Stewart and Wingo had worked out the coordination of their jobs. He did not make certain of it "because I assume if these men are experts, licensed by the government to do their jobs, they've done their jobs."

Kesselman pressed on as to why he did not make sure they talked. "Because when you get into a taxi," Landis replied, "you assume the driver is not going to drive you off a bridge. It's just assumptions. The guy is a licensed taxi driver. These are experts."

Later the prosecutor began, "The final authority in terms of camera, actor positions, helicopter, or whatever on that set — "

"Is not mine!" Landis broke in, "because if I ask an actor — I said, 'Would you please take your hand and stick it in this garbage disposal,' the actor is going to say, 'Of course not.'"

On June 15, 1983, the grand jury brought back its indictments. Landis, Folsey and Allingham were each charged with two counts of manslaughter in the deaths of Renee Chen and My-ca Le. The charges were based, as Farber and Green wrote, "on the legal theory that if death occurs as a result of the commission of an 'inherently dangerous' unlawful act, that constitutes manslaughter." The illegal hiring of the children was the "unlawful act."

Paul Stewart, Special Effects Coordinator
Paul Stewart, Special
Effects Coordinator
Landis, Stewart and Wingo were indicted on three counts of manslaughter because of "aggravated, reckless, grossly negligent" acts resulting in the deaths of Morrow and the children.

Early on, Kesselman made a decision that would haunt the prosecution. He decided not to seek an indictment against Landis, Folsey and Allingham for the illegal hiring of the children itself or the crime of hiring them to work past curfew, crimes of which they were indisputably guilty. Kesselman thought making these minor charges would give a jury an easy, comfortable way of avoiding convicting these men of much more serious charges. Farber and Green quote him, explaining that decision. "Both of [the hiring crimes] while denominated misdemeanors," Kesselman said, "in fact are infractions. My recollection is that both of them carry a maximum sentence of ten days in the county jail. No one in their right mind would have gone through the investigation we did, the grand jury proceeding, a preliminary hearing that was really a trial, and the trial itself merely to get convictions on infractions."

Twilight Zone — The Movie opened in theaters on June 24, 1983. Most reviews were dismal. The freshness of vision that had made the TV series so memorable was absent from the movie, and special effects could not compensate. Landis' segment was especially panned for its ham-handed moralizing. Time critic Richard Corliss said, "the story hardly looks worth shooting, let alone dying for." The movie showed nothing of Renee Chen and My-ca Le. In fact, Landis' segment appeared about as he had written it before the decision to "soften" Morrow's character. The bigot just gets a magical comeuppance.

The lawyers for all five Twilight Zone defendants requested that the charges against their clients be dismissed in a January 1984 hearing before the Los Angeles Municipal Court's Judge Brian Crahan.

Tall, flamboyant, combative Harland Braun was Landis' attorney and head of the defense team. Roger Rosen represented George Folsey and Leonard Levine was Allingham's lawyer. Former prosecutor Arnold Klein represented Paul Stewart. Eugene Trope, hired by Wingo's employer, Western Helicopter, was the attorney for the pilot.

As noted in Outrageous Conduct, "From the start of the preliminary hearing, there was a clear division between the above-the-line defendants — Landis, Folsey, and Allingham — and the two below-the-line workers, Stewart and Wingo. The latter two even sat apart from the other three at a side table. Landis had continually argued that blame for the accident belonged to the 'experts' who had failed him. At the preliminary hearing, the 'experts' began to fight back. Trope said stingingly, 'The responsible party here is the director-producer, and I think Landis is trying to shift the blame off to anyone and everyone he can.'"

Braun called Landis "an artist" and praised his Twilight Zone segment as "a cinematographic statement against racism and bigotry." He also gave a strangely cynical reason for the casting of the children. "Children are classically used in films other than as principals," he opined, "in order to evoke emotion in an audience because adults generally don't like one another but everyone likes children."

Renee's mother (L) crying with relative (CORBIS)
Renee's mother (L) crying
with relative (CORBIS)
Kesselman called Shyan-Huei Chen to the stand. Renee's mother spoke through an interpreter. She cried as she talked about watching her daughter die.

In the corridor after this heartbreaking testimony, Landis told a reporter, "This is a terrible, terrible accident and it will cause pain and anguish to all of us for the rest of our lives. I can think of nothing worse than losing a child. The idea that this could be anything other than an unforeseeable accident is not only wrong, it's bewildering."

The prosecutor called casting director Marci Liroff to the stand and she testified that she had told Landis that hiring the children was illegal and the scene he spoke of shooting "sounded kind of dangerous." She claimed that Landis, Folsey and Allingham said they were going to hire the kids illegally.

Farber and Green wrote that, "Braun tried to make an issue of the cause of the crash." Prosecution witnesses said debris from an explosion had caused it. Braun called experts who thought "heat delamination" had pared off the rotor blade's protective skin and downed the chopper. Metallurgist Gary Fowler testified that the heat from the fireball had been about 180 degrees, a lower temperature than was known to cause heat delamination. Braun argued that the defendants could not have foreseen the danger since the problem was unprecedented.

Kesselman contended that the exact reason for the crash was immaterial because the helicopter was brought recklessly close to explosions.

Judge Crahan announced his decision on April 23, 1984. He dismissed the manslaughter charges against Folsey and Allingham because "there is no hard evidence in this case to reach the inferential conclusion of homicide by mere [illegal] hiring." He upheld the charges against Landis, Stewart and Wingo. The judge said that Landis "appears to have gone beyond the realm of simple mechanical direction, but in fact set up, among other things, the combination of circumstances which, in the final seconds of filming, caused death and destruction." He described Stewart as the "ultimate arbiter of the special effects" and said Wingo "knowingly hovered his helicopter at such close alignment to the explosions as to create a known risk of harm to anyone within the danger zone of the crash."

The prosecutor appealed the decision to dismiss charges against Folsey and Allingham and the defense appealed that to uphold those against Landis, Stewart and Wingo. Judge Gordon Ringer reinstated the charges against Folsey and Allingham in November 1984. The court of appeals upheld the charges against all five and the California Supreme Court decided not to review that decision.

Before the actual trial got underway, Landis decided to change attorneys. Braun had sent a letter to the chief deputy district attorney charging that there had been "a consciously truncated investigation" into involvement by others including Steven Spielberg and Warner Bros. executives. Landis did not appreciate that letter because it was mailed without consulting with him.

The director hired James Neal, a well-respected lawyer from Tennessee, to represent him. Neal had been in the national spotlight in the early 1970s as a Watergate prosecutor. He successfully defended the Ford Motor Company against manslaughter charges in the infamous exploding Pinto case. He also won a not guilty verdict for Elvis Presley's doctor who had been charged with overprescribing medication to Presley.

Braun did not leave the defense team, however, but became an attorney for Folsey.

The prosecution did some shuffling as well. Gary Kesselman was assigned away from the Twilight Zone case because of negative publicity involving a dance hall he owned. Hostesses at the club had been arrested on lewd conduct charges and several who were in the country illegally had been deported.

 

 

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