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'Twilight Zone' Expert on Explosives Will Testify

November 24, 1986|PAUL FELDMAN | Times Staff Writer

As well, Marci Liroff, a casting director, testified that she told Landis that the scene "sounded kind of dangerous to me" when he described it to her more than a month before it was shot. Landis, she noted, gruffly replied, "The hell with you guys . . . we'll get them off the streets ourselves," when told it would be illegal to hire children for nighttime filming. - The children, Renee Chen, 6, and Myca Dinh Lee, 7, were indeed hired illegally. In fact, according to testimony from production secretary Donna Schuman, Landis and associate producer George Folsey Jr., a co-defendant, both joked about going to jail for illegally hiring the children.

Attorneys for Landis, Folsey and unit production manager Dan Allingham have indicated all along that their clients would have readily pleaded guilty to failing to apply for state work permits for children--but not to the crime they are instead charged with, involuntary manslaughter as a result of child endangerment.

The two sides have presented conflicting arguments about why the child work permits were not sought. The prosecution insists it was because the scene was potentially dangerous while the defense counters that the defendants correctly believed that such permits were not granted to youngsters for late-night shooting.

Called a Screamer

- Landis' demeanor may have discouraged discussion about safety on the set. Several witnesses described Landis as a "yeller" and a "screamer," with chief fire safety officer George Hull terming him "irrational." In court by contrast, the 36-year-old director sports a trim beard and wire-rim glasses that lend him an almost professorial image.

D'Agostino, outside the presence of the jury, told the court that Hull went so far as to ask the assistant director whether Landis always acted like that and was informed, "Yes, he's an artist." Hull reportedly replied, "Bull . . . he's crazy." Even an insider like House testified that he never took his safety concerns directly to Landis because he "was intimidated."

- The film makers may have been rushing to complete the final scene because they were running a day behind schedule. According to one witness, Landis ordered that live shotgun ammunition be used in a scene shot several days before the accident rather than wait an extra 15 minutes to prepare a special effect. The ammunition was not fired in the direction of any people, witnesses added.

The most gripping evidence that the prosecution has thus far shown, except perhaps for the tearful testimony of the children's parents, is the film of the accident itself.

Death Scene

Shot from six different camera angles, the vivid footage does not graphically depict the actors' deaths. Yet the searing, eerie images of a helicopter spinning crazily out of control toward Morrow and the children--with no further trace of them after the chopper finally comes to rest--is likely to leave an indelible impression on jurors' minds.

"All you have to do is look at the film and you know," D'Agostino said. "The film graphically demonstrates the violence. This was not an illusion. It was all too real. The magnitude of the explosions and fireballs constituted a firestorm." She said it was not a scene in which to put human beings.

In coming weeks, D'Agostino plans to call still more of the 100-plus eyewitnesses, film industry experts and scientific experts to the stand. Testimony is expected to include opinions that the scene could have been filmed without using actors and explanations of what caused the helicopter to plunge into the actors.

Defense counsels, for their part, contend that the evidence thus far presented is not nearly enough to show that the crime of involuntary manslaughter was committed. In fact, they say, much of the prosecution evidence actually helps disprove gross negligence and child endangerment, which must be shown to establish the defendants' guilt.

For example, while technician Williams said he considers special-effects explosions inherently dangerous, he also testified that he had deemed the fatal scene safe because of precautions that he and his co-workers took.

Fire Safety Officers

Along with double-edged testimony, the defense believes its case has been bolstered by other prosecution witnesses such as the six county fire safety officers on the set that night. None moved to shut the filming down, attorneys emphasize, although they had every right to if they felt the sequences were dangerous.

Moreover, the only firefighter who says he believed there was a safety problem, Richard Ebentheuer, acknowledged on the witness stand that he failed to present his concerns to the film makers before the accident occurred.

Finally, the defense is expected to make additional hay of a lingering dispute between D'Agostino and the former prosecutor on the case, Deputy Dist. Atty. Gary P. Kesselman, on the veracity of testimony by production secretary Schuman. Both prosecutors are likely to be called to testify in an effort by the defense to show prosecutorial misconduct in the handling of the case.

The defense has yet to indicate whether Landis or his four co-defendants will testify.

Whatever, more surprises are predictable, said Folsey's attorney, Harland Braun, in a case that reminds him of "a trip through a sewer in a glass-bottomed boat."

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