‘Midnight Rider’ Trial: Director Randall Miller Pleads Guilty, Jody Savin Charges Dismissed, Jay Sedrish Gets Probation – Update
March 9, 2015 9:08 am
UPDATE, 9:08 AM: Midnight Rider executive producer and unit production manager Jay Sedrish gets probation and will not serve jail time in the criminal trespassing and involuntary manslaughter trial that is now over before it began in rural Georgia. Meanwhile, director Randall Miller was taken straight to the Wayne County Jail and booked after his guilty plea; he was taken right from the courtroom to jail. Miller’s lawyer, Ed Garland said. Insisting that Miller thought the shoot was safe, Garland added. “We expect him to be released in twelve months. That’s our expectation.” The dismissal against Miller’s wife, producer Jody Savin, was “a major role in our decision to enter a guilty plea,” Garland said.
PREVIOUSLY, 8:20 AM: Midnight Rider director Randall Miller today pleaded guilty to criminal trespass and involuntary manslaughter in connection with the death of Sarah Jones last year. Under a plea agreement with prosecutors, he was sentenced to two years in prison, 10 years probation, $20,000 fine and 360 hours of community service to be served in California. He also agreed during the terms of the probation, he agreed not to serve as a director, a assistant director or a supervisor in charge of safety on any film production.
As part of the overall plea agreement, charges were dismissed against Miller’s wife and producer Jody Savin. After Assistant D.A. John Johnson read the lengthy statement of facts about the case, Miller’s attorney Ed Garland agreed that the facts were correct, including the fact that they had not received permission from CSX to film on the railroad tracks.
After terms of the plea bargain were read, Judge Anthony Harrison asked if it is Miller’s intention to plead guilty to the charges, Miller said, “Yes, it is, your honor.”
Under Georgia law, the two charges – criminal trespassing and involuntary manslaughter – are directly linked. “A person commits the offense of involuntary manslaughter in the commission of an unlawful act,” the law states, “when he causes the death of another human being without any intention to do so by the commission of an unlawful act other than a felony.” In this case, criminal trespassing, a misdemeanor, is that unlawful act. Criminal trespass carried a one-year term, while manslaughter carried a 10-year maximum sentence.
Georgia law states that “A person commits the offense of criminal trespass when he or she knowingly and without authority enters upon the land or premises of another person or into any part of any vehicle, railroad car, aircraft, or watercraft of another person after receiving, prior to such entry, notice from the owner, rightful occupant, or, upon proper identification, an authorized representative of the owner or rightful occupant that such entry is forbidden.”
For the defendants, the key word was “knowingly.”
Last October, the attorneys for Miller and Savin issued a statement to ABC News saying that their clients “believed there was no danger present in filming on the tracks that day because they believed they had permission to be on the tracks from Rayonier and CSX. Before filming, the film crew was let onto the property by Rayonier representatives. They were informed that only two trains would be going down the tracks by a representative from Rayonier, who was present. Then they personally observed two trains pass by. So when they were told to go ahead and film on the tracks they had no reason to believe that anyone would be placed in danger by doing so.”
However, they changed their tune today as that flew in the face of what Rayonier stated earlier. In fact, the card were clearly stacked against them.
Landowner Rayonier filed court papers in a subsequent civil suit brought by the parents of Sarah Jones that denied any responsibility in the death of their daughter. (Read it here.) In the filing, the company acknowledged it had granted producers en access to the bridge trestle where Jones died, but denied giving filmmakers any knowledge of CSX train schedules on the tracks. They also stated that the filmmakers knew the dangers and knew they had to get permission from CSX. They stated that the bridge trestle, the tracks, the right of way were all owned, operated and controlled by CSX. The testimony of Rayonier’s employee who spoke directly to the filmmakers as well as that of the film’s location manager Charles Baxter are expected to be key. Baxter did not show up the day of the trestle shoot.
The Rayonier filing stated that the defendants “planned to film a scene on active railroad tracks despite their knowledge of the danger presented by filming a scene on active railroad tracks.”
Baxter’s own filing last year in the civil case (read it here) also revealed that he was unable to get permission from property owner CSX to conduct filming on the trestle and said that he did not plan to film on active railroad tracks.
An OSHA investigation into the accident leaves no question that they did not have CSX’s. “Prior to going onto the trestle,” the OSHA accident report found, “the employer failed to obtain proper permission from CSX to film on the trestle.”
The OSHA report, first reported by Deadline, revealed that in January 2014, the film’s location manager reached out to CSX for permission, but that CSX responded in a Jan. 27 email that it does not allow filming on its tracks because of the safety of those accessing and working on their railroad. OSHA investigators were told by a production official that this email was shared with all three defendants.
Also, the supervising filmmakers did not hold a safety meeting and purposely did not include a bulletin on railroad safety on the call sheet prior to loading camera equipment and the crew onto the trestle.
The OSHA report stated that on the evening before the accident, a discussion was held about whether or not the crew should be informed of a safety bulletin that had recently been issued by the AMPTP Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee about the hazards of working on and around railroad trains and tracks. According to the OSHA report, when a production official “asked unit production manager Jay Sedrish if he wanted the safety bulletin attached to the call sheet, Mr. Sedrish said a resounding ‘No’ No, No, No.”
On Feb. 14, six days before the accident, Sedrish and two other production officials tried once again to get permission from CSX, but were once again told no. “Unfortunately,” the railroad company responded via email, “CSX will not be able to support your request.”
In the aftermath of the accident, some of the representatives from Film Allman, the movie’s production company, told OSHA investigators that the email from CSX was “confusing,” but OSHA noted that no one from the company contacted CSX for clarification. Sedrish told investigators that the email from CSX was a “no” concerning permission from CSX, but not a forceful “no” as in a previous email response from CSX.”
In its report, OSHA stated that “Jody Savin, a company representative, said that (name redacted) read her the CSX email, where CSX said that they would not support shooting on their tracks, and (name redacted) said that CSX knows how to say ‘no’ and that they are not saying ‘no.’”
So in the end, Miller pleaded guilty, finally admitting responsibility for the death of Sarah Jones in exchange for charges being dismissed against his wife/producer Savin, and saving himself and his family the possibility of having both of them serving time in prison.
UPDATED: Participants walked from the DGA to the nearby International Cinematographers Guild headquarters for a memorial.
The International Cinematographers Guild (IATSE Local 600) held a candlelit walk and memorial Friday evening for Sarah Jones, the 27-year-old assistant camerawoman who was killed Feb. 20 while on location in Georgia.
Well over 500 participants –Local 600 members, fellow union and guild members, and members of the production community—gathered at DGA headquarters, and at 7 p.m. began walking to a memorial service at ICG’s national offices, which is nearby on Sunset Blvd. Some carried signs that read “Never forget, never again.”
In the ICG parking lot, a memorial video featuring photos of Jones played.
Jones’ parents, Elizabeth and Richard Jones, were in attendance. Richard Jones thanked the crowd for the “beautiful tribute to a beautiful soul,” adding, “She considered you family.”
“This is the beginning of a movement for safer sets,” he said, adding there was “no reason for another father to have to give this talk.”
Jones’ parents also issued a statement ahead of the walk.
“We are so overwhelmed with the vast outpouring of love and compassion from not only those who knew our Sarah Elizabeth Jones, but from those of you who never even met her,” the statement read. “In her own way, Sarah touched each of you and her passing has left a void in many parts. From her unnecessary death, a cry for change has circled the globe. We are hopeful that this tragedy is just the beginning to making film sets a safer place to work, and that Sarah’s death will not be in vain. At this time, Sarah’s family has chosen not to make any comment and asks that you respect their privacy at this time.”
Two of Jones’ friends and co-workers, assistant camerawoman Amanda Etheridge and director of photography Robert LaBonge, also spoke.
Etheridge, who worked with Jones on Lifetime’s Army Wives, called Jones a mentor, saying “everything with her was fun.” LaBonge remembered “everyone wanted Sarah by there side.”
Also speaking at the memorial were ICG president Steven Poster, ICG national executive director Bruce Doering and IATSE vp Mike Miller. Attendees included cinematographers John Toll (a two-time Oscar winner), John Bailey, Nancy Schreiber, Julio Macat and James Chressanthis.
Doering was the first to address the mourners, calling Jones “One of us.”
“Not above the line or below the line. She is international,” he said.
Poster spoke next, saying, “We must never, ever forget this.
“The death of Sarah Jones will stand for something. No movie or job opportunity is worth a human life,” he said, getting emotional as he spoke. “Our union is a family. We vow never to forget. Never again.”
Miller asserted that the accident “should never have happened. … Nobody dies making movies again.”
Participants also remembered the members of the crew that received injuries in the accident.
Poster concluded the memorial, urging everyone to support the memory of Sarah, and asking for a moment of silence.
Jones was killed when she was struck by a train in Wayne County, Ga., while filming Gregg Allman biopic Midnight Rider. Multiple investigations are underway, including from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Georgia law enforcement authorities are treating the investigation into Jones’ death as a negligent homicide.
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Jones’ mother, Elizabeth, tells THR, “A dollar mark cannot be put on stealing a shot at the risk of someone’s life.”
The night before she was killed on the set of Midnight Rider: The Gregg Allman Story, camera assistant Sarah Jones sent text messages to her father expressing concerns about the production she was about to begin work on, her parents reveal in an exclusive interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “She was a little nervous,” says Richard Jones. “She made a comment that some of the people asking her questions should have known more than her.”
Jones died Feb. 20 when she was struck and killed by a train during preproduction on the Gregg Allman biopic. The accident occurred on a train trestle over the Altamaha River in Wayne County, Ga. (For a detailed account of the accident, click here.)
The full transcript of the interview with Richard and Elizabeth Jones follows.
When did you last speak with Sarah?
Richard: I did speak to her at length the evening before the shoot. She did make some comments that she was a little bit surprised. She was going to start filming and she did make some comments about it being low-budget, and she was a little nervous about a few things. She was excited about meeting and working with William Hurt. That’s the last text I received from her.
What did she say?
Richard: She did comment that she was in the studio that day seeing about things, and it was her first day on the job that she was killed. In the studio, she’d made some mention about a low budget and she made a comment that some of the people asking her questions should have known more than her and she thought that was odd. But I don’t want to misstate anything. I don’t know.
You said she texted you. Do you mind sharing what she said?
Richard: It was Feb. 19th, at night. She wrote, “I’m most excited about meeting William Hurt, I like him.” I wrote back and said, “I like him too.” And then we lost connection. Ironically, I wrote back a short text, and said, “Lost you.” That was at 7:57 p.m. Of course, I meant that I had lost reception with her, not, you know, that I had lost my daughter.
Have the directors and producers reached out to you with an explanation or an apology?
Richard: On the 20th, [director] Randall Miller called us to inform us of the accident. We had just heard it from someone else, the coroner I think, that informed us just before that. The calls were close together. Randy Miller was shaken, very, very upset. He apologized many times. I don’t really know myself what part Randy Miller played in this. But he was very upset that day. He was saying he was so sorry.
Have you heard from them since? Richard and Elizabeth (both speaking): No, we haven’t heard from any producer or director since.
Can you tell us about Sarah?
Richard: You’ve heard most of what people said. That was her. She was truly a wonderful person, she was driven to do a lot of things, energetic. We loved her very much.
Elizabeth: She always reached out to people if they needed a friend. She went out of her way, really went out of her way to help them.
Richard: In the industry when she first started, I told her, “Don’t be afraid to go ask the old guys, go ask them, ‘Show me how to do this.’ They’ll tell you.” And she did. They were all very good to her. They mentored her and she mentored others. A lot of the people she worked with were big brothers and fathers to her; they took her under their wing and showed her how to do things.
What was she like as a little girl?
Richard: She was full of energy, determined. She was driven to always do something new, she liked to adventure. She liked to dress up as Pippi Longstocking; she would always dress up with pipe cleaners.
Elizabeth: She was an avid reader, lifeguard, scuba. She had a motorcycle license. She loved the outdoors, skiing, traveling. She went to Alaska, she backpacked across Germany with her brother, went to Costa Rica, Greece. She was an active gymnast.
Richard: We are a very close family; she and her brother and sister were very close and kept in touch constantly. We have a close-knit family, thank goodness we do — we’ve needed it here.
Elizabeth: She had a camera at a young age and was always filming her brothers and sisters. She was making movies from a young age. She’d make her sister roll down the stairs.
Have you learned details about what happened?
Elizabeth: I don’t want to visualize what happened. I’ve chosen to believe that God wrapped his arms around her and lifted her from pain and suffering. I have to believe that in order to get through with all this.
Richard: We realize that some of the description of what happened will come out. I’ve already heard a few things. I was in the train industry for a decade; I’ve seen films and things happen like that. I understand it’s a horrible thing. I can’t imagine — my heart goes out to these people who witnessed this as well as this train engineer. I know they have a very hard time when something like this happens.
Elizabeth: Knowing Sarah, her concern was saving equipment before saving herself. She was responsible for her equipment, and it was in her interest in saving the equipment. She may well have had that in mind, not realizing the immediate danger. Whatever comes from this, it has to be something positive, so that her life will not be wasted in vain. All the energy and devotion and love that she had, it can’t be in vain.
The outpouring of grief has been tremendous.
Richard: We are both overwhelmed with the response, the love and the condolences from the public. It’s overwhelming, that one person’s life can make such a difference, it’s incredible. It’s part of therapy. It’s helping us get through this whole ordeal. It does offer some level of comfort to have so much support. It’s good to think that it appears that this will make a difference. That there won’t be other … that maybe it will save somebody else’s daughter.
Richard, you played a beautiful song for Sarah at her memorial in Columbia.
Richard: I’d written “Andy’s Song” for my father, who’d be 96 this Friday. And that was the last song Sarah ever asked me to play. I played it four weeks ago, when Atlanta got snowed in, and there were traffic jams, it was our first snow in the Southeast. I was flying back from Texas and got stuck in Atlanta. I thought, well, I may as well go see my daughter, and that was the last time I saw her. One of her roommates had an electric piano, so I played on it.
Would you like to share anything else?
Elizabeth: You know they were shooting a dream sequence on those tracks. But instead of a dream sequence, we call it a nightmare sequence. This is not all about Sarah; it addresses a much, much bigger problem. The value of a dollar cannot be put on Sarah’s life, the way that directors and producers put a dollar value on a movie. Everything she did was in a big way and this is a testament to her love of the camera and making a difference after everything is said and done.
You’re talking about the bigger problem of safety on movie sets?
Elizabeth: Yes, the problem of safety in the industry. I understand from people in the industry that safety is oftentimes compromised in order to steal a shot, and a dollar mark cannot be put on stealing a shot at the risk of someone’s life.
Scott Johnson, a former Newsweek correspondent, is the author of The Wolf and the Watchman: A CIA Childhood.
Follow him @scott_c_johnson
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