Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Twilight Zone Tragedy

Kesselman and Wingo

The dispute about former prosecutor Gary Kesselman's recollections versus those of Donna Schuman showed up again in this trial. As Farber and Green wrote, "On March 10, 1987, in one of the most bizarre turns in this bizarre marathon of a trial, Deputy District Attorney Gary Kesselman was called to the witness stand to help exonerate the very defendants he had once worked so sedulously to convict. . . .

"Now testifying with the jury present, Kesselman stated that the first time he interviewed Harold and Donna Schuman was on May 11, 1983, less than a month before the case was to be presented before the grand jury. . . . Kesselman had no recollection of hearing about the remark that Schuman attributed to George Folsey regarding the penalty for his infractions: 'a slap on the wrist and a little fine, unless they find out about the explosives, and then they'll throw my butt in jail.' Nor did Kesselman recall her reporting that John Landis once threw his arms in the air and joked, 'We're all going to jail.'" However, Kesselman went on to say that after Sergeant Tom Budds interviewed Cynthia Nigh, he had learned through Nigh that Folsey had joked about going to jail

Pilot Dorcey Wingo took the stand. His lawyer, Eugene Trope, asked the witness about his background. The jury learned that he had flown hundreds of hours in combat during the Vietnam War, battled forest fires, and aided in the rescue of stranded forest hikers.

Wingo testified that he anticipated movie work as a piece of cake after the demanding missions, both military and civilian, in which he had participated. "I was used to doing live performances before hundreds of thousands of people at a time," he said. "And I thought [in movie work] if there was a problem, the director would say, 'Do it again.' And in the live performance, you only had one shot at it."

His attorney led to safety issues on the Twilight Zone. Wingo claimed that Dan Allingham often used the phrase "safety first." He testified to several preparation meetings taking place on the night of the accident. He claimed he had told Paul Stewart, "The helicopter and the special effects could not occupy the airspace at the same time." He said he also told Stewart that, as the pilot, he should approve it before they decided to put any intentional debris into the air. He also testified that, "I just concluded that he [Stewart] knew more about pyrotechnics and the way of the fireballs than I did."

Dorcey Wingo
Dorcey Wingo
The pilot later described the accident itself and lost his composure as he did so. He said he had suffered from bad nerves and insomnia and been to a psychologist who diagnosed post traumatic stress syndrome.

In her cross-examination, D'Agostino tried to establish that Wingo was shielding Landis as well as himself. The following dialogue was pieced together from that reported in both Outrageous Conduct and Special Effects.

"Since the trial have you become friendly with John Landis?" the prosecutor queried.

"We've found it ..." The pilot seemed to grope for an answer, then said, "Propinquity has set in, yes."

"Propinquity?" D'Agostino asked, her voice ridiculing the rarely used word meaning, in context, a sense of kinship or nearness.

D'Agostino referred to the word again when she questioned the pilot about his failure to confront the director or special effects supervisor after being upset by the force of the 11:30 explosions. "Didn't you feel," she asked, "it was absolutely mandatory that you express your dissatisfaction to Landis or Stewart?"

"No," he answered.

"You hadn't developed a propinquity by then?"

This exchange caused many people in the courtroom to wince but it was not as bad as when Wingo revealed his sense that Vic Morrow failed both himself and the children by not running from the falling aircraft. The pilot said he had discussed danger with Morrow. "I described to him that he should make himself like a chameleon and, that is, keep one eye on the helicopter at all times. I didn't want him to be ignoring where the helicopter was if something happened and I had to make an emergency landing."

"How did you expect him to keep one eye on the helicopter," D'Agostino asked incredulously, "making his way across the river with children and explosives?"

"It was not out of the ability of the man," Wingo asserted. "I saw no problem in him looking up a few degrees to his left, to see if the helicopter was still there. I saw no problem in him keeping his ears tuned to any changes in the helicopter, because we were not that far away. And I am extremely distraught to this day that the man never looked up."

"Are you blaming him, sir?" D'Agostino pressed.

"I am saying it is extremely — it distresses me to the max that he never looked up after having that conversation with him."

After a couple of other questions and objections from defense lawyers, D'Agostino went on, "Where did you expect Mr. Morrow to run with these children if he heard a change in the noise of the helicopter?"

"Away from the helicopter," a distressed Wingo replied. "He had over five seconds between the time that the sound of the helicopter changed and it impacted. I would hope to God he could have used those five seconds to his advantage and the children's."

"And you are now assuming the Mr. Morrow had the ear that he would know precisely the split second when the pitch on that helicopter changed? Is that what you are telling us?"

Trope objected and the judge declared an afternoon recess.

When the court was back in session, D'Agostino again zeroed in on the five seconds the pilot said the dead actor could have used to save himself and Renee and My-ca. "Mr. Wingo, you have the same five seconds, Mr. Morrow had, did you not?"

"No," Wingo said, "I didn't have. I don't agree with that."

Then she asked a related, and pertinent, question. "How did you brief the children on what to do for this flight, sir?"

"I never talked to the children," Wingo answered.

While it may have been misguided for Wingo to believe that the 53-year-old actor, knee-deep in water and holding a child under each arm, should have successfully escaped from a crashing helicopter, there are others who think that Morrow was to some degree culpable in the case. Sgt. Budds is quoted in Special Effects as saying, "Had Morrow lived, he should have been charged. He knew about the problems they had at eleven-thirty and what they were doing about it. He's an adult, he can make a choice."

After the pilot left the stand, the defense called experts to support their heat delamination theory of the specific cause of the accident. On rebuttal D'Agostino called a witness to say that debris caused the crash. Since Judge Boren had indicated that he intended to instruct the jury that the precise cause of the accident did not have to be foreseeable for a manslaughter conviction, the debate on this point may have been something of a diversion. However, there had been many issues in this lengthy, complicated trial that were arguably distractions from the most important points.

In her closing argument, D'Agostino suggested that the perverse values of the defendants depreciated human life. "There is no motion picture that was ever made," she declared, "or that ever will be made, that is worth risking one human life for, much less three. The utterly senseless, needless loss of three lives for a motion picture is what makes what these defendants did so barbaric."

D'Agostino believed the opposing attorneys had put on three major defenses. "The 'SODDI' defense — 'Some other dude did it.' He's James Camomile. Defense number two was what I'll call the red herring defense, the technical defense, confused with technicalities that obscure the facts. . . . And the third one was the 'BEE' defense, and ladies and gentlemen, I assure you it was not in honor of my broach. This one was 'Blame everyone else.'"

Referring to the involuntary manslaughter charges against Landis, Folsey and Allingham stemming from the illegal hiring of the children, D'Agostino said that these defendants "knew from day one that the children were going to be placed in a scene involving special-effects explosions and a helicopter and that Landis intended on doing it at night. Common sense tells you that is a dangerous scene." Then she discussed the charges against Landis, Wingo and Stewart of allegedly reckless acts with, she asserted, "wanton disregard of these three human beings."

Landis' attorney James Sanders was the first of the defense attorneys to speak in closing. "There is one main issue and one main truth in this case," he declared, "and that is whether Mr. John Landis believed that the scene was dangerous and acted in a reckless, wanton, or grossly negligent manner." This was not precisely true. The criterion for an involuntary manslaughter conviction was not just the defendant's personal perceptions but included what the accused reasonably should have thought. Then Sanders went on to attack Donna Schuman's credibility, implying that the state's case was based on lies.

James Neal spoke and blamed Camomile. "How could anyone foresee that a man holding the highest powder card issued by the state of California," he asked, "would not follow instructions, would not follow the first principle of his profession, and would prematurely set off a special effect with the helicopter right there?"

Defending Paul Stewart, Arnold Klein told the jury, "The evidence shows that Paul Stewart approached the task with careful consideration of the safety of those around him . . . I am not trying to blame Jim Camomile, but Paul Stewart cannot be held criminally responsible for the acts of Jim Camomile."

Eugene Trope said, "Dorcey Wingo might be classified as a scapegoat. I must say one thing about all types of pilots. I never met one that wanted to commit suicide. They all wanted to make that trip home. His helicopter was blown out from under him. Let Dorcey Wingo rebuild his reputation. Let him resume his career. Let him resume his life."

In closing for Dan Allingham, Leonard Levine said, "He took the risk that [the production team] would be charged, convicted, and punished [for illegally hiring the children], but he never would have taken that risk [had he thought] that these children were in any danger of losing their lives. . .

"It's time for the prosecution to go back to what they do best, or should be — prosecuting real criminals and real crimes. These five men were not perfect. The last perfect man was crucified two thousand years ago. They are not heroes. They are not martyrs. They are not saints. But they were not prophets. And they are not guilty."

Harland Braun, in summing up for George Folsey, attacked Donna Schuman's mental state. "The statements come from a witness who looks like she's emotionally distraught, unbalanced, probably guilt-ridden," he claimed. "Not in the sense that she's guilty of anything but psychologically, in the sense that she participated in the hiring of some children who died."

The prosecution had a final rebuttal before the case went to the jury. In this summation, D'Agostino put on a demonstration unique in its irrelevancy and foolishness. She took out an ordinary potato and a plastic soda straw, then dramatically shoved the straw through the vegetable. "If I can do this with a straw on a raw potato," she rhetorically asked the jury, "what do you think a piece of bamboo, a hard piece of bamboo, could do on that tail rotor blade?" She handed the pierced potato to an understandably befuddled juror.

Judge Boren ordered the jury to disregard the demonstration because no evidence had been put on to suggest "that the potato and the plastic straw have any relevance to this case." His order may have been intended to aid the prosecutor despite herself.

 

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