'Midnight Rider' 1st A.D. Wants Criminal Charges Dismissed

Courtesy of A.M.P.A.S
Sarah Jones

Hillary Schwartz's attorneys claim prosecutors got her to talk by assuring her that she was a witness, not a suspect.

SAVANNAH, Ga. — Authorities broke a promise to grant a filmmaker immunity from prosecution when they charged her with crimes in a fatal train collision during shooting of a movie about singer Gregg Allman, the woman's attorneys said.

Hillary Schwartz was working as an assistant director on the ill-fated Midnight Rider movie Feb. 20 when a freight train plowed into the crew on a railroad bridge spanning the Altamaha River in rural Wayne County. The crash killed Sarah Elizabeth Jones, a 27-year-old camera assistant from Atlanta, and injured six other crewmembers.

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Schwartz is one of four people charged with involuntary manslaughter and trespassing. Schwartz's attorneys filed court documents Monday asking a judge to dismiss the charges against her. They said prosecutors got her to talk by assuring Schwartz she was a witness, not a suspect. Less than two months after she gave authorities an interview, Schwartz was indicted.

Schwartz's motion included a copy of a May 29 letter from John B. Johnson, an assistant district attorney, asking Schwartz to return to Georgia from California for an interview with prosecutors and sheriff's investigators.

"I have talked with Jackie Johnson, the district attorney, and we both agree and it is the office opinion, that your client is only a witness in this case," the letter says. "It does not appear from any of our investigation that she is culpable in any crime involving the incident on the railroad trestle in February."

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Jackie Johnson said Tuesday she was looking into the allegation. Her office has two weeks to file a response.

"I'm not aware of any immunity agreement," she said.

A March 9 trial has been scheduled for Schwartz; the movie's director, Randall Miller; his wife and business partner, Jody Savin; and executive producer Jay Sedrish. CSX Transportation, which owns the railroad trestle, has said in previous court filings that it twice denied the filmmakers permission to shoot on its tracks, each time in writing.

Sheriff's investigators have said the crew had permission to be on property surrounding the tracks that is owned by forest products company Rayonier.

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Production on Midnight Rider, based on the life of the Allman Brothers Band singer, was halted after the train collision.

Defense attorneys say Schwartz sat for an interview with authorities on July 29, less than three weeks after a grand jury indicted Miller, Savin and Sedrish. Schwartz's lawyers say John Johnson again told her during their face-to-face meeting: "This interview is being done for the purpose of you being a witness and not being prosecuted in that case."

A grand jury indicted Schwartz on Sept. 10.

Schwartz's motion doesn't quote any prosecutor saying specifically that she had been promised immunity from prosecution.

Involuntary manslaughter is a felony carrying a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. Criminal trespass is a misdemeanor punishable by no more than a year in prison.

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