The CSX defense rested late yesterday in the civil trial brought against them by the family of 27 year-old camera assistant Sarah Jones who died on live train tracks when her supervising crew placed her there knowing that they did not have permission. The crime took place in Georgia on the first day of shooting the Gregg Allman biopic Midnight Rider.
As they presented their defense, CSX brought the film’s location manager Charles Baxter to the stand and entered into evidence a flurry of emails — back and forth communication between Baxter and CSX and Baxter and the company Rayonier. The railroad tracks on the Doctortown trestle were owned by CSX and the land surrounding the tracks and the trestle were owned by Rayonier.
Baxter testified (and emails showed) that communication between the property owner Rayonier lasted over a month as he tried to secure permission to shoot on the trestle. The emails revealed that the Rayonier rep Tina Kicklighter tried to help and acted as kind of a “middle man” between CSX and Film Allman to try to secure permission, according to a report filed by local news station WTOC.
Film Allman, LLC was the entity set up by director Randall Miller and his wife producer Jody Savin to film the movie.
Baxter testified that on the morning of the planned shoot, CSX denied permission to be on the tracks. He said, however, that Kicklighter told them that they had Rayonier’s permission to be on its property (which was next to the tracks).
“I called her to say – I guess you read the emails, we don’t have permission, and they still want to come, they still want to film, and, that I’m not going to be joining,” Baxter testified, “And she said no, don’t worry about it, they have permission to be on our property.”
Baxter said that he made it very clear to the supervising crew — specifically director Randall Miller, “an assistant director, and other production leaders,” according to the WOTC report, that the film crew did not have permission to film on the railroad tracks.
He then forwarded the email to his bosses, he said. Asked what happened when he told the supervising crew that they did not have permission, Baxter responded: “They said they were going to go down and film and try to get the shot done anyway.”
First AD Hillary Schwartz, upm/exec producer Jay Sedrish and Miller’s wife and producer Savin were all charged alongside Miller with criminal trespassing and felony involuntary manslaughter.
In a deal that Miller’s lawyers made with the D.A., his wife, producer Savin skated free from all charges in exchange for Miller pleading guilty. Both Sedrish and Schwartz got 1o years probation for pleading guilty to felony involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespassing.
Miller, who was the only one of any of these people to be incarcerated, became the first filmmaker in history to be convicted and thrown in jail for an on-set death.
Right before they left to shoot on live train tracks, Baxter was mocked for not participating.
He testified that there was some conversation between him and others, including and Nick Gant, an executive producer on Midnight Rider who rented the equipment to Film Allman. Gant was old friends with both Miller and Savin.
“I was watching her walk out, and Nick (Gant) had said to me, ‘are you going?’ And I said ‘no.’ He said ‘why,’ and Missy said, ‘because he’s a Rhode Island Red.’ And she looked at me and started laughing, so I figured she was insinuating that I was a chicken.”
(Missy Stewart is listed as the production designer on the crew list of Midnight Rider).
“So because you wouldn’t go down there and participate in this trespassing, she was calling you a chicken?” asked the CSX attorney.
“Yes,” said Baxter.
The supervising crew then left for the shoot, not revealing to their underlings that they were going to be trespassing while shooting on live tracks.
Photographer and videographer Izabeau Giannakopoulos testified earlier in the week that she had no clue that they were all trespassing until someone started screaming to get off the tracks because a train was coming. That train, it was revealed in court, was going 57 miles per hour. At that point, Miller and others tried desperately to get a metal hospital bed prop off the tracks as people began running for their lives, including lead actor William Hurt. Helmer Miller stumbled as he ran only to be helped up by another female crew member.
Some Midnight Rider crew members never made it off the tracks and had no choice but to clutch onto the side of the trestle bridge. Hairstylist Joyce Gilliard was one of those people; she was badly injured as she crouched down and clung to the side and prayed not to die.
The train did not put on its brakes until five seconds after impact, something that has been at the core of the argument in this trial. Why, when two other trains passed and saw the crew around the bridge, did the third train not slow down. The engineer and conductor testified that they thought they may have been buzzards or “rail fans” taking pictures of trains. He also said if they would have applied the brakes, they were worried about cargo spilling over.
Sarah Jones was killed and six others, physically and emotionally traumatized.”You’re asking if I feel deceived by my superiors? Yes, I do,” said Giannakopoulos from the stand.
Closing arguments will be Monday in what is a jury trial.