Midnight Rider’s first assistant director Hillary Schwartz, who in March 2015 was sentenced to 10 years probation for criminal trespass and felony involuntary manslaughter for her role in the death of 27 year-old camera assistant Sarah Jones, this morning asked a Georgia Judge to end her probation now. The Judge has not yet ruled on the motion (read it here).
Under terms of the original sentence she was given, Schwartz would not serve any prison time, but could not be a director or assistant director. She could, however, be a producer in a capacity other than overseeing the safety of others.
The motion states that Schwartz “has been employed outside of the film industry with no intention of returning to her prior career.” Like director Randall Miller before her who asked for his court-imposed three-year supervision to be removed, she is also seeking a lighter punishment. Schwartz’s Georgia lawyer Todd Brooks cited case law in making his argument before Judge Anthony Harrison.
Sarah Jones’ father Richard Jones (as he did before when Miller attempted and failed to get his supervision removed) attended the hearing this morning and asked that Schwartz’s full sentence be carried out, and in fact, that was the family’s understanding in 2015 when Schwartz was sentenced.
The case law that Schwartz’s lawyer cited in court was then questioned by Judge Harrison because, as the Judge pointed out, the law cited did not exist until 2016 — a year after Schwartz was sentenced. Schwartz’s lawyer then argued that it should be used retroactively.
In court, Jones read this statement in opposing Schwartz’s motion:
Your Honor, thank you for allowing me to speak to this important matter.
There is no reason that making a movie or TV show should place lives in danger.
Sarah’s death was absolutely senseless. If my daughter’s death was a one time
event, I would say that the weight of her death rest on the shoulders of her family
and those who knew her. But we have learned that safety issues are all too
common in the industry.
It has already been established that Ms. Schwartz committed a crime and failed in
her duties as a First Assistant Director. Additionally, I want to point out the degree
at which she failed and deceived the people in which she was in charge.
“The 1st AD (First Assistant Director) is the person responsible for implementing
the Safety Program on the Production side when the cameras are rolling and the
set is active and shooting.”
Among the most basic of Ms. Schwartz’s duties was to hold a safety meeting at
the first of the day. She failed to do so. The DGA’s (Directors Guild of America)
Safety Bulletin #28, Guidelines For Railroad Safety states “Prior to starting rail
work, the Production, in conjunction with the railroad representative, will
conduct a safety meeting with all involved personnel to acquaint cast and crew
members with possible workplace risks.”
This was Ms. Schwartz’s job to know this Safety Bulletin. Not only that, but
knowing that they were going to shoot on railroad tracks, she should have studied
this important bulletin prior to the shoot. Notice that this requires not only a
safety meeting be held, which it was not, but that it also requires railroad
representation to be on site. There were no railroad personnel present.
This same Safety Bulletin says “Do not place any objects on the rails …”. If the
performance of any of these activities is required for production purposes,
specific permission must be obtained from the designated railroad representative
and additional safety precautions may be required.” As we are aware, not only did
Ms. Schwartz instruct the crew to move a bed onto the tracks, but again, there
was no railroad representative present to even ask.
I understand that Mr. Miller was in charge of the Midnight Rider, LLC production,
that he was the equivalent of the CEO in a company, but all of the cast and crew
put their safety and their lives in the hands of Ms. Schwartz that day. And Ms.
Schwartz failed them on many levels.
The people that relied on her for their safety must now live the rest of their lives
with the memories and the pure horror of a train baring down on them. And then
with the image of Sarah’s body laying mangled on those railroad tracks.
We are working to change the culture of an industry. Through the Sarah Jones
Film Foundation, Sarah’s mother and I, along with support of many in the
industry, have worked very hard to change this culture. We choose to focus on
the positive spirit that was Sarah Jones, film student grants, scholarships and
safety awareness programs that carry a positive message. But there is also the
necessity to hold those who made decisions that led to Sarah’s tragic death fully
Your Honor, Elizabeth and I ask that Ms. Schwartz be required to serve the
remainder of her probation. That we hold strong with our message to the film
industry. Let us continue to change a culture to one of safety and respect for all.
Thank you, Your Honor, for allowing me to speak.”
Schwartz, as the first AD on the Midnight Rider film, was responsible for set safety. Jones was killed and several others on the crew suffered serious injuries when a train plowed through the “set,” and hit a metal bed prop which had been placed perpendicular on a Doctortown train trestle. The filmmakers had set up there illegally in order to film a dream sequence involving actor William Hurt in the biopic about rocker Gregg Allman.
Though the supervising crew had twice been denied access to the tracks by CSX, they decided to steal a shot and went onto the tracks anyway. Most of the workers were kept in the dark and thought they were safe. There had been no safety meeting prior to that shoot, nor any medic on the set.
Hurt escaped unharmed as he ran off the set in the path of the oncoming train. Others, like Jones and hairstylist artist Joyce Gilliard, couldn’t get off in time. Jones was killed and Gilliard seriously injured as she clung to the side of the trestle. The train came through the trestle at about 60 mph.
As the train rapidly approached, the crew had no where to run. In one video, director Miller is seen trying to get the metal bed off the track while others scrambled to save their lives. Metal supports extended only two feet across the less than 3-foot-wide walkway along the eastern side of the trestle, further narrowing potential exit routes. Crew members who could not get to safety in time hunkered down as the train passed. Gilliard, who was holding on the iron girder for dear life, was sucked into the train. Her arm snapped, but she continued to pray and hold on.
Afterwards, they immediately witnessed the aftermath with their colleague and friend Sarah Jones dead on the tracks, having been hit by the train. Meanwhile, Gilliard tore off one of the bedsheets to create a makeshift tourniquet to stem her own bleeding. The crimes caused physical injuries to some and mental injuries to many.
So far of those who were guilty, only Midnight Rider UPM Jay Sedrish has not petitioned the court to try to get leniency for his sentence. He is serving 10 years probation, during which time he can not work as a director or assistant director, or serve in any capacity overseeing the safety of others, although he can work as a unit production manager.
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