‘Midnight Rider’ Director Pleads Guilty, Gets Two Years in Prison

Midnight Rider Filmmakers Manslaughter

Updated 11:40 a.m. PDT: JESUP, Ga. — A plea agreement was reached on Monday in the “Midnight Rider” case in which director Randall Miller was sentenced to two years in jail and executive producer Jay Sedrish was sentenced to 10 years probation.

Each was charged with involuntary manslaughter in the Feb. 20, 2014, death of Sarah Jones in a train accident on the set of the movie “Midnight Rider,” a biopic of singer Gregg Allman. They entered their guilty plea just as jury selection was set to begin at the Wayne County Courthouse.

Miller’s wife, Jody Savin, also faced the same charges, but those were waived as part of the plea deal. One of Miller and Savin’s attorneys, Ed Garland, said that fact weighed heavily in a plea deal, as the couple have two children.

“That was a substantial factor in our decision,” he said. “He was not going to put his wife at risk, and she was completely innocent of wrongdoing.”

Miller also was sentenced to eight years’ probation after serving his jail time. Garland said he expected his client would be released after 12 months.

Also charged in the case was Hillary Schwartz, the movie’s first assistant director. Her proceedings were severed from that of the three others, but according to prosecutors, there could be some resolution to her charges within the next day or so.

Miller was sentenced to pay a $25,000 fine and to perform 360 hours of community service. He will be barred from directing or directorial duties during the duration of his sentence. Sedrish also was sentenced to pay a $10,000 fine and will be restricted from serving in a directing capacity, including serving as a first or second assistant.

Miller, wearing glasses and a dark sport jacket and no tie, stood before Judge Anthony Harrison as he said he would agree to the plea deal.

Harrison also said he hoped the sentences would be a way to send a message to the entertainment industry.

“Hopefully, this will bring some meaning to the tragedy,” he said.

Miller immediately started to serve the sentence and was taken into custody. Savin cried as she left the courthouse.

John Johnson, a special prosecutor in the case, read a narrative of what happened to the court. “Miller knew that it was a live track and there was a possibility of other trains,” he said.

Miller did not address the court, but after his sentencing, Garland challenged the notion that the director would have knowingly placed a crew on the tracks, noting that Miller himself was out on the trestle.

“Randall Miller, at the time this happened, believed there were no trains that would come down that track,” Garland said. “However, he accepts full responsibility for these results and is willing to pay the penalty and service because a wonderful young woman died.”

On that day, a train came unexpectedly as the crew was shooting a scene from the movie, with a hospital bed placed across the tracks for a dream sequence.

Pre-shooting was originally intended for camera tests and one-off shots like establishing vistas, but it is now commonly used to extend shooting schedules and curb costs. The railroad line on which the production set up for shooting that afternoon is one of the busiest freight lines in Georgia. The crew was on a narrow walkway meant only for maintenance workers. As setup began, the crew was warned they would have a minute to clear the tracks should a train come. In fact, they had less time than that when the train sounded its whistle; they were unable to clear the bed from the tracks, and many did not have time to get off the bridge to safety.

The train hit the metal hospital bed, shattering it, and flying debris hit several crew members. One piece hit Jones and knocked her toward the train, which struck and killed her. Other crew members were also injured by debris, some seriously.

The case has hinged on whether the production had permission to be on the tracks — CSX railroad produced emails showing it had refused permission — and whether Miller was a attempting to “steal a shot” at the expense of safety.

Miller testified in a civil case that it was not his job to secure or review permits, but as it was his own production company making the film, that line of defense was questionable. Garland, however, told reporters that the director is not the one in charge of on-set safety, and that the person who was responsible for securing the permits, location manager Charley Baxter, never told Miller that the production had failed to secure permission.

Garland said that there was a “whole series of miscommunications and assumptions,” and that when it came to permission, “the message never got to him.”

“He had been told no other trains would be coming, so he believed that was a safe track at the time,” Garland said. “He also was under the impression that it was all right. There are a lot of details surrounding that. We chose not to litigate those so the charge against his wife could be dismissed.”

Jones’ father, Richard, sat in the witness box and read a letter he wrote to his daughter after her death. “To me, it was not time for you to die. Who I am I to say. Life is not about how long we lived but how well we lived it, and you lived it well,” he read.

He said that a life was cut short because of carelessness in the name of getting a shot. “It is not about payback, it is about drawing boundaries,” he said.

Judge Harrison asked about Jones’ siblings, as Richard Jones read a victim impact statement from her brother. “She loved her job and the people she worked with. Everyone did,” Richard Jones read from his son. “I have a hard time processing the world without her.”

Her brother noted the safety campaign that has been launched since her death. Her brother noted that crews are now more aware of the danger, and more willing to speak out. “Sarah has changed the industry at the cost of her own life. I hope her death is not in vain.”

Jones’ mother, Elizabeth, also spoke to the court, as Miller, Savin and Sedrish stared forward, listening. “Her life was too short,” Elizabeth Jones said, as she recounted going through a box of her own books and other belongings, like scuba gear. “She was fearless.”

She also read a statement from Jones’ sister, Rebecca. “I have lost a best friend,” Rebecca Jones wrote in the statement. “I will have only memories of my own sister until my own death.”

“There is nothing the court could do … to really bring you justice in this case,” Harrison told the Jones family before approving the plea agreement. “This was clearly a tragic accident that caused the death of your daughter and sister and granddaughter and loved one that could have been prevented. I hope that this day will some day contribute a message to the film industry.”

Garland addressed the judge’s remarks about this case sending a message.

“That has been the goal of the Jones family,” he said. “Unfortunately, our client became the vehicle for this larger message. Let me be clear. These two people are two of the most wonderful people in the film industry. They have had thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of people, work for them in the film industry and never had a single significant injury of any sort. They cared and loved for their crew at all times.

Garland also defended his clients’ safety record. “This was a one-time-off event, brought about by a whole series of miscommunications. He had no thought in his mind that he was in danger. He wouldn’t have been out there because of his two children if he had imagined there was any danger. But mistakes get made, and these should have been prevented. But because he was the director who is not in charge of safety — there are all kinds of other people in charge of safety under the contracts — he got the blame.”

“The system needs to be better, and we ended up being the poster child.”

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  1. Christopher Markunas says:

    Why wasn’t the Director of Photography, Mike Ozier, charged as well? How could he put his crew on Live tracks?

  2. Stella says:

    “and that the person who was responsible for securing the permits, location manager Charley Baxter, never told Miller that the production had failed to secure permission.” – So why wasn’t this Charley Baxter character tried?

    • Mari says:

      Stella, that is COMPLETELY inaccurate information. Charley did inform Miller; even if not directly…believe me HE KNEW!! The Producer (his wife), the UPM (Jay Sedrish) & the 1st AD (Hilary Schwartz) ALL would have relayed this info to Randall Miller. Charley was in utter disgust of what they were doing and so chose not to even be there on that day…in protest.

  3. Matt says:

    So do they realize that there is a HUGE difference between jail and prison?

  4. C. Michaels says:

    His company but he’s not responsible, taking one for the team, WHATEVER!!! GUILTY! All of them,, including the wife, she was the PRODUCER!!!!!!

  5. CrapLawyer says:

    Garland said. “We chose not to litigate those so the charge against his wife could be dismissed.”

    Ed, you chose not to litigate because your client was guilty as hell. Or are you claiming you are such a crappy lawyer you could not win the case.

    Maybe you are a crappy lawyer who is better at media spin and lies out of court that in the court room.

    Maybe you were afraid to try this case being recorded on video because everyone would find out what a crappy courtroom lawyer you really are.

    Ed Garland you are as disgusting as your clients Randall Miller and Jody Savin.

    GUILTY ON ALL COUNTS FOR MILLER. FELONY Involuntary Manslaughter.

    Crappy Attorney Ed Garland loses another case.

  6. cotownextras says:

    I know Charlie Baxter, having worked with him on about a dozen productions over 30 years – including one involving trains. He is nothing if not fanatical about sticking to regulations, getting all permissions and conditions clearly and legally in writing, and adhering to safety requirements. I have witnessed him tell directors and producers of major motion pictures “no” when a location or situation was unreasonable or dangerous. His reputation with state film offices and producers alike is one of being the guy who imtimately knows the rules and regulations, has all his responsibilities buttoned up, whose team is organized and on top of every aspect of the locations under his care. He is a straight-shooter whose opinion and counsel is sought by production precisely because he is so knowledgeable and honest. There were clear emails and witnessed conversations from Locations saying the tracks, and immediate grounds adjacent, were off-limits. Office production staff and crew members have stated they saw them, discussed them, and forwarded them. Production Office people have said on record that the producers and director referred to Charlie as “the old man” and laughed at his protests that shooting on tracks was unsafe and illegal. To claim, as these slimy lawyers and their self-serving, criminally stupid clients weren’t clearly told anything other than “no shooting on or near tracks” is ludicrous, and shameful.

  7. Ally says:

    I hope that he is blackballed forever. As I recall, this wasn’t the first time the director tried to steal a shot that was dangerous. The crew was instructed that they would have less than a minute to get off the tracks if a train came. If everything had been in order, there would have been numerous people from the train company on the set ensuring safety. The fact that they weren’t there should have been glaringly obvious to him. He knew exactly what he was doing, and that it was terribly dangerous.

  8. Mari says:

    What is total b.s., too is that this guy is serving his time in county jail…it’s not even a prison sentence.

  9. attorney lies says:

    District Attorney John Johnson: “…on the day before Sarah’s death, those in charge of Midnight Rider had already made the decision to come to Wayne County to film scene 14 on tracks and trestle that CSX had refused them permission to be on, it’s called stealing a shot …”

    It is sad we will not hear the full details of the trial to show how guilty all four of them were.

    Miller, Savin, Sedrish and Schwartz conspired together to deceive their cast and crew about the danger and willfully chose to risk their lives to save money.

    The single prison term is too short for their crimes.

  10. Mari says:

    G Turner and Tom: You make excellent points. The problem is PEOPLE WON’T SPEAK UP! They “don’t want to get fired” or “worry about getting rehired”…basically, they’re sheep. And no, I don’t mean it was the crew’s fault, of course not. But I watch day after day, show after show where Production breaks union rules, fudges the clock, has crew members working under a fake title…basically screwing the crew at every possible turn…all so they can save a blessed dollar. But most people are weak…”I just wanna woooork” and so they say nothing, they question NOTHING. It is damned sad.

  11. Pat Petry says:

    I work in clinical research and the doctor in charge is responsible for everything that happens at our site. So it should be with the director – the director is in charge and so the responsibility falls to him or her. To say that he didn’t know in this case is irresponsible. What if it had been his child?? It was a very obvious risky location – it was his responsibility to make sure it was completely safe for HIS crew. You can’t put that responsibility off on someone else!!! Therefore, I agree with the guilty verdict in this case.

  12. Real Comments says:

    The film industry needs better education on health and safety. Whatever industry you work in in the world most industries have very strict health and safety education systems to educate employees with the film industry it is different as you have a lot of production companies with no regulations. There should be some kind of health and safety regulatory body for the film industry which runs courses and employees from production companies who are production managers or even freelance production managers should attend and hold certificates as production managers so they are more aware and can avoid these kind of tragedies in the future. Its tragic that an woman died to highlight this lack of regulation and safety awareness but it will be a reassurance to her family if some kind of proper action is taken to avoid such incidents in future happening to other people.

    • Larry Horricks says:

      I guess you’re not in the industry…the film industry and all unions do have very clear and strict health and safety regulations and practices. Risk assessments are posted daily on call sheets and mandatory safety meetings are held at each new set by the 1stAD…in this case it should have been Hillary Schwartz. The sad fact that in this case all of this was thrown out the window…those in charge willingly shot in a place they knew they did not have permission to be…and that it was a live track with all the dangers that come with that. Of course there was no safety rep from the rail company because they didnt have permission to be there. The Location manager boycotted the day due to that they did not have permission to be there. It wasnt a lack of awareness it was a clear reckless dismissal of all the protocol we have in place in our industry.

    • Real Comments says:

      And this comment is very serious and strictly about the article and the tragic accident which lead to a woman’s death.

  13. G Turner says:

    I am not a movie person, I work for a telecommunications company. We do a lot of work in railway corridors. There is no way that this was a “miscommunication” — when working near tracks there is one person solely responsible for radio communications with the railtrack scheduler. Even then the signals are set to prevent a train for proceeding. Even then the workcrew places spotters uptrack and downtrack to give the crew time to clear the tracks. Even then there’s a person on the workcrew with their heads up so that signals from the spotters aren’t missed. The essential point is that none of this everyday rail industry safety procedure was followed, presumably as a direct result of wilfully ignoring the lack of permission to be in the rail corridor. A lack of permission wholly justified by the lack of safety culture demonstrated by subsequent events.

    It’s remarkable that none of the film crew noticed the lack of everyday rail safeworking. Even on a “blocked” line you would place spotters. There’s certainly no way my coworkers would have missed this if I had chosen to mislead them (although this would be difficult, as I am required to pass around the permission paperwork so each member of the workcrew can sight it and satisfy themselves that all is in order). Maybe that goes to the lack of a safety culture in the film industry — did anyone on the crew have any rail safeworking accreditation whatsoever? And if they didn’t have any training or accreditation, why would the crew think itself competent to be in a rail corridor in the first place? Why don’t film crews expect to be shown the safety plan and related permissions for each new worksite? Not that I am seeking to blame the crew — it’s clear that there’s such a huge deficiency in safety culture that these basic safety questions from other industries did not even occur to this crew in the film industry.

    • Tom says:

      If these folks had even the most remote idea of safety around railroad tracks, they would have known better than to rely on [unnamed] workers at a nearby pulpwood mill for information on railroad schedules and operations. Didn’t anybody think the RR people might be a more reliable source of info? This was much worse than ignorance. It was willful ignorance. What is complicated about “No means no”? Several people have suggested that the film crew should have posted spotters. That’s not a good idea since the swampy area provides few accessible places to locate those spotters, cell phone service is iffy, and the railroad could provide better info and more advance warning of train movements in the first place. Advance warning is essential in an area where the trains routinely exceed 50 m.p.h. That train was not “unexpected”. It was expected by every railroader on its route from Memphis, TN to Savannah GA, It and other trains were operating in that corridor, and CSX knew it. That’s why CSX said no. It wasn’t the film crew’s business to know the train was coming. Their trespassing is the only thing that made that train relevant to their filmmaking.

      • G Turner says:

        Yeah, it’s just amazing. Not in a million years would we consider working near a stretch of rail without the permission and close cooperation of the rail owner. If the owner said “no” then we’d sort through the issues at a project management level well beforehand, maybe waiting and combining our work with the rails’ own maintenance.

        It’s the lack of any exposure to any safety culture in the crew which is just as worrying. That suggests that the crew are extraordinarily vulnerable, not just to rail operations, but to construction activity, heights, vessels, and the many other areas of risk where a modern approach to safety has reduced the number of deaths from routine to extraordinary.

    • Production Crew says:

      I would like to hear what the Location Manager has to say about the so-called miscommunications. The attorney is shifting blame when everything in this event points to a director determined to get a shot at any cost and the UPM and 1st AD facilitating that.

  14. NHLPUSSYHAIRBEARDATHON says:

    I worked with Jay Sedrish many years ago. He was a great guy to work with, sounds like he made some poor choices that unfortunately cost a young woman her life.

  15. Dre says:

    Not sure why commenters are suggesting no one is serving time. The article clearly says Randall Miller will serve two years and was taken into custody. Also that will be followed by 8 years where he cannot work in any directorial capacity. It is not much but it is at least beginning to send a message to productions that endanger their crews so irresponsibly.

  16. bob says:

    Disgusting but no surprise. I thought they just might do the right thing and at least make them serve some time. Now all it will do is make then all more bankable.

  17. Mike says:

    No director ever serves time for killing people lol,,, its like the courts are in awe of the movie business , when the chopper was knocked out of the sky by the explosions in the TWILIGHT ZONE MOVIE ! They had said they were probably going to knock the chopper out of the air ,, im sure they want no one hurt , but they need to be drug tested as somethings not right

  18. J.E. Vizzusi says:

    They all got off in my opinion.

    Let make damn sure these felons never work on our sets and if they do its in positions so they can learn production from the ground up. And learn safety and learn how crews need to be protected from half crazed Producers demanding Directors do whatever it takes to get that difficult shot.

    So far the track record of getting a Director convicted of Manslaughter is zilch. What the Industry really needed was a 10 year no parole sentence for both of them. But now with a couple of years in prison and several years of probation, the signal on the active tracks is a bad one.

    Directors think they can take chances, get away with murder if you will. That mindset must change and hopefully forever the memories of Sarah will haunt us and make us all realize the reality and culture and meaningful value of the loss of life on a Movie set or any Industry safety standards are completely disregarded.

    This tragedy has already changed me, Sarahs tribute mobile safety app is on all my devices. I reserved 2 minutes of silence for Sarah today and said a few prayers that this begins a new era of Set Safety. jv

  19. Bob says:

    This wasn’t just about getting a shot, it was about getting a shot on the cheap. Throw the book at these guys.

    • Justice For Sarah says:

      When the people in charge KNOW they have intentionally put their crew in danger by sneaking in illegal/unpermitted shots that are clearly dangerous to the point of death, and that results in someone’s death… THAT IS CLEARLY NOT AN ACCIDENT! Shame on you Judge Harrison.

      • Tom says:

        Jenny, I’m just concerned that these folks might be back at it in 10 years.

      • Accident is a poor choice of words on his part (my first thought too). But the 2 men pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter, where death is not intended. Judge Harrison seems in his overall remarks to emphasize the loss to Sarah’s family as well as the message to the film industry that this kind of carelessness cannot continue. It’s important that neither of them can work in any directorial role for a full 10 years (until end of probation), ensuring that they won’t be in charge of anyone’s safety for a long while.

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