Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Twilight Zone Tragedy

Parents and Powder

Inevitably, the most heart-tugging testimony was that of the parents. My-ca's mother, Hoa-Kim Le, was the first of the parents to testify. She was a social worker who aided abused and neglected children. Under D'Agostino's questioning, she claimed not to know that permits were required for children working at night or that My-ca would be near a helicopter or explosives. She also remembered Folsey saying after the first night of shooting, "You don't have to come back. I will treat your children as my own."

D'Agostino asked about the next night when her husband went alone with My-ca to Indian Dunes. "Did you ever see My-ca again?" the prosecutor asked.

"No," the witness replied, her eyes brimming with tears.

Then Renee's father, Mark Chen, testified. He denied being told that his child should have had a permit to work legally at Indian Dunes or that the girl would be in close proximity to a helicopter and explosives. At one point, Mark Chen began crying.

Over defense objections, jurors saw the film of the accident at Indian Dunes. That 20 minutes of celluloid included the 2:00 a.m. rehearsal and the scenes shot at 9:30 p.m., 11:30 p.m. and 2.20 a.m.

The court met at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater on Wilshire Blvd. in Beverly Hills. As Rob LaBrecque wrote, "The movie began with scenes from the nine-thirty shot, close-ups of Morrow running to the hut where the children were huddling, and carrying them away just before two mortars explode."

John Landis called "Action!" and Vic Morrow came on the scene. He grabbed up Renee and My-ca, then ran toward the camera as mortars exploded around the little group. "Cut!" Landis yelled. The film showed the director walking up to the camera and signaling the helicopter pilot to fly away. A special-effects worker hosed the fire from a hut. Other segments showed the violent thrashing of a rotor and My-ca's hair blowing.

The 11:30 p.m. scene was more frightening and D'Agostino argued that it ought to have unequivocally warned of the danger of special-effects explosions close to a helicopter. Camera operator Roger Smith appeared unsteady in his movements. A mortar exploded in the water and splashed large columns of water against the aircraft.

The mood in the theater was somber and became even more so as the 2:00 a.m. rehearsal appeared on the screen.

The segment showed Landis with his bullhorn wading through the river. Morrow was seen holding a child under each arm. There was an explosion, sprays of water, and simulated machine-gun fire.

In Special Effects LaBrecque wrote, "Then Morrow stumbles forward in the water, which rises to his waist. Suddenly there is only a large spray of white water filling the screen . . . The wall of water quickly falls and reveals the helicopter's fuselage, lying at an awkward angle on the ground.

"The sound ends, creating a silently fearsome scene. . . . people running toward the helicopter. Landis runs desperately to the far side of the helicopter as a red landing light on the aircraft flashes on and off . . . the village huts are engulfed in billowing flames."

There was another view from a camera on a cliff looking down at the mock village. A crash off-screen was heard.

Renee and My-ca (AP/Wide World)
Renee and My-ca (AP/Wide World)
Then, according to LaBrecque, the film showed "a close-up of Morrow, apparently taken from directly across the river, looking into the village. He is seen tightening his grip on the children as the rotor wash pushes at him. Here, his struggle — whether exaggerated by his acting or made real by an unexpected combination of wind, water, and the children's weight — is obvious. The children's feet drag in the river, and Renee is immersed to her knees. Just after Morrow stumbles, the flash of a fireball washes out the images. When the three are seen again, My-ca is held high above the water, but Renee is in water up to her neck. She appears to slip in Morrow's arms as he tries to stand upright.

"Just as Morrow strengthens his grip on the children, the sound of a rotor blade hitting the water is heard. A massive spray of water hides from view the terrible moment of death. The bodies of Morrow, Renee and My-ca are never discernible on film. The main rotor blade makes one revolution before the tip of one blade sticks in the mud of the riverbed."

George Folsey's wife Belinda and Sgt. Tom Budds were weeping. D'Agostino commented, "The jurors are not supposed to make up their minds until they've heard all the evidence but you can't not see what you've seen. They've just seen three people killed. And for what? For a lousy movie."

Back in the courtroom, Shyan-Huei Chen took the stand. Uncomfortable in English, she testified through a Mandarin interpreter. She related how she believed her daughter appearing in a movie would be "a good experience, a very good memory."

She told how she had been concerned after the 9:30 p.m. shot and George Folsey reassured her that it was "not dangerous. Just the sound, very loud sound." Then she testified about Folsey visiting her in the trailer and saying, "If the fire department people come over and if they ask what you are doing here, just tell them you are friends helping us. Don't mention anything about money."

Shyan-Huei Chen testified about the accident itself. "I saw my child and the actor," she began. "He carried her across the river. John Landis was right behind us. Then he went over to a hill. Then I saw him with this speaker, a big speaker. Then I saw the helicopter in the sky above the three people. Then the producer [apparently she confused producer with director and meant Landis] was yelling, he's yelling 'Lower! Lower!' Then I heard loud explosions, and then the sparks and the wind. Very windy and dusty.

"Then I saw the helicopter fall, fall on top of three people. At that moment I was so scared. I felt something happened to my daughter. They were running, also yelling, asking to run. I was yelling for my daughter." The witness broke into tears, still talking about how Folsey had protectively pulled her away from the helicopter's path.

Harland Braun (AP)
Harland Braun (AP)
Braun cross-examined her gently and drew an admission that she had not listened carefully to everything Folsey had told her a week before the shooting, raising the possibility that she could have been informed of more details about the scene than she had said she recalled.

Next, neatly attired in a dark blue suit, Daniel Le took the stand. He claimed that no one told him his son would be working illegally or explained that the child would be around a helicopter and special-effects explosives. When he was asked about the fatal scene, he answered, "I fell to the ground because I was so horrified. The next thing, I saw people running, shouting, running for their lives. Then I saw the body of my son."

Arnold Klein, Paul Stewart's attorney, questioned Le concerning what he knew of explosives. Le became visibly flustered. "I don't know about the technicalities!" he replied. "I was scared. I've never been so scared in my entire life!"

D'Agostino called several fire-safety officers who had been at the Twilight Zone crash to the stand. George Hull, chief fire-safety officer at the shooting, testified about the explosions that "these were the largest I had ever been involved in, in the magnitude of fire and smoke." As Farber and Green wrote, "Hull testified that he had never been informed the helicopter would hover twenty-four feet over the river, or that a bomb had been placed under one of the huts, or that live actors would be used in the final scene. He had never before been on a movie location where children were filmed in the same scene with special-effects explosives."

The prosecutor would call 71 witnesses in as many days. A juror would eventually complain of "overkill" in D'Agostino's presentation of the case. That may have referred to her calling so many witnesses but also to her tendency to grill those she called. Set designer Richard Sawyer testified that he had been "ill at ease" when a mortar was placed under a structure prior to the fatal scene. At the preliminary trial he had used the word "shocked." D'Agostino repeatedly questioned him about this discrepancy to suggest he was trying to lessen the impact of his testimony. Additionally, D'Agostino sometimes called witnesses whose testimony she knew would be different than the version of events she wanted the jury to accept. She believed jurors would "respect" her integrity but this tactic was surely misguided. After all, the defense puts on its own case without the prosecution doing it for them.

While D'Agostino usually went for the jugular even with her own witnesses, she took a markedly different approach in the examination of James Camomile. Farber and Green called her attitude "protective, almost maternal."

The powder technician often seemed confused. He was clearly haunted by the tragedy and was vulnerable on cross-examination. James Neal tried to pin the blame on Camomile for being derelict as he ignited the charges from his firing board.

"When you set off the number-two explosion," Neal queried, "you were not looking at the helicopter?"

"I don't believe so," Camomile answered quietly.

He acknowledged that he had not looked at the helicopter before setting off explosions three, four, five, and six either.

Neal pressed, "isn't it a fact that the special-effects man on the firing board is supposed to look at the set before you set off any of the special effects to determine at that particular point whether it is safe or not?"

"That is correct, sir," Camomile replied.

The powder technician appeared to concede that at least some of the responsibility for the accident was his.



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