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How a girl's stark words got lost in the Polanski spectacle

Samantha Gailey, at 13, was unequivocal in her testimony against Polanski. But her account was turned into something almost benign.

October 25, 2009|Joe Mozingo

In the flat light of the grand jury room, a nervous, deeply embarrassed 13-year-old girl sat alone -- no attorney, no mother, no friend -- facing three tiers of middle-aged strangers silently studying her from their leather armchairs.

The questions that day in March 1977 were clinical in tone.

The answers would set off a furor from Hollywood to London and Paris that has yet to subside.

Samantha Gailey -- sandy brown hair, dimpled chin, missing class at her junior high in Woodland Hills -- described her alleged rape by director Roman Polanski two weeks before at Jack Nicholson's home above Franklin Canyon. She clutched a small heart charm her friend had given her.

"After he kissed you, did he say anything?" asked the prosecutor, Roger Gunson.

"No," the girl said.

"Did you say anything?"

"No, besides I was just going, 'No, come on, let's go home. . . .' He said, 'I'll take you home soon.' "

"Then what happened?"

"And then he went down and started performing cuddliness."

"What does that mean?"

"It means he went down on me, or he placed his mouth on my vagina. . . . I was ready to cry. I was kind of -- I was going, 'No. Come on. Stop it.' But I was afraid."

Samantha's testimony that day was unequivocal: She had kept trying to get away from him, putting her clothes back on, saying no repeatedly. She had made up a lie about having asthma to get out of a Jacuzzi. He persisted. She was scared. She did not physically fight him off. He began to have sex with her, then, concerned she might get pregnant, switched to anal sex. When he drove her home, he told her not to tell her mom, adding, "You know, when I first met you, I promised myself I wouldn't do anything like this with you."

A generation of spectacle would follow: Polanski's indictment, his plea deal, his flight from the country, allegations of judicial and prosecutorial misconduct, his decades of exile and critical success, his Oscar, a sympathetic HBO documentary last year, his rearrest in Switzerland last month.

Along the way, various people would scrub the core allegations into something more benign -- a probation officer would deem the crime a "spontaneous" act of "poor judgment," a prison psychiatrist would call it "playful mutual eroticism."

But Samantha's stark testimony has never been seriously impugned, in or out of court. When she sued Polanski years later for sexual assault, he pleaded the 5th when asked if he illegally gave her champagne and part of a quaalude pill, then performed oral copulation on her and sodomized her.

An extensive review of several thousand court documents, as well as numerous interviews, shows a basic dynamic defining the entire saga -- one force trying to drive debate away from a young girl's unshaken allegations, and another trying to reel it back in.

Now with the debate renewed by his arrest, the 32-year legal, media and cultural odyssey may finally be coming to an end.

Taking pictures

Samantha met Polanski through her mother, Susan, a television actress who had had small roles in episodes of "Starsky and Hutch" and "Police Woman." The director said he had an assignment to photograph young girls for a Paris fashion magazine, Vogue Hommes, and had heard about Samantha from a mutual friend.

Polanski went to her home on the afternoon of Feb. 20 and took some pictures in the hills nearby. He picked her up again March 10, stopped at Jacqueline Bisset's house and, as the light was fading, went to Nicholson's compound on Mulholland Drive.

Polanski dropped Samantha off at her home a few hours later and went about his business. He met with Robert De Niro that evening to discuss making a movie based on a William Goldman novel, "Magic."

The next night, a team of seven police investigators and prosecutors pulled up to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

Polanski was meeting friends in the lobby. The boyish, 43-year-old Polish director was as recognizable as any star, known not just for his movies but the extremes of his life -- the death of his mother at Auschwitz, his playboy image, the killing of his wife, Sharon Tate, and their unborn child by the Manson family.

The lead detective, Philip Vannatter, spotted him and strode up, quietly saying he had a warrant for his arrest and needed to search his room.

"We don't want to create a sensation," the detective said, according to Polanski's 1984 autobiography. Polanski asked what the charge was.

"Rape."

Polanski led him to the suite, according to Vannatter's grand jury testimony. As they walked, the detective saw him pull what looked like a tablet out of his coat pocket and lower his cupped hand, as if he were going to drop it on the floor.

Vannatter opened his hand below Polanski's. "Why don't you drop it into my hand instead of the floor?" he said. It was a quaalude pill, marked "Rorer 714."

In the suite, Vannatter and his team collected cameras, lenses, film, slides and negatives, and found a small vial of prescription quaaludes. They arrested Polanski and drove to Nicholson's house with another search warrant.

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