‘Midnight Rider’ First A.D. Found Guilty, Sentenced to 10 Years Probation

Midnight Rider Doctortown Trestle Sarah Jones
Mike McCall for Variety

JESUP, Ga. — Hillary Schwartz, the first assistant director on “Midnight Rider,” was sentenced to 10 years probation Tuesday as she faced charges of criminal trespass and involuntary manslaughter.

Judge Anthony Harrison found her guilty on a charge of criminal trespass and a charge of involuntary manslaughter after a brief hearing, after prosecutors and Schwartz’s legal team reached an agreement on Monday for how to resolve her case in lieu of holding a trial.

Her sentence came a day after the film’s director, Randall Miller, plead guilty in exchange for a 10-year sentence, including two years in custody and eight years on probation. Executive producer Jay Sedrish also reached a plea agreement, and was sentenced to 10 years probation. Charges were dismissed against Miller’s wife, Jody Savin, producer on the film.

Schwartz also was sentenced to a $5,000 fine and restricted from acting as a director, producer, first assistant director or any department head with safety responsibilities.

Schwartz’s sentence brings to an end criminal proceedings over the Feb. 20, 2014, train accident that killed camera assistant Sarah Jones and injured eight others.

Jones’ family still has pending civil litigation against the railroad, CSX Transportation, and others injured on the set have their own lawsuits.

Scwartz’s plea came after a hearing in which prosecutors showed video footage, taken by the film company, out on the trestle as the train approached, with crew members scrambling. Johnson also entered into evidence actual footage from the set for the movie, but it was not shown in court.

Schwartz may have been called as a witness in the trial of the other three defendants, and Jackie Johnson, the district attorney, said they considered her cooperation with them in showing them “how things work in the film industry and how things went wrong that day.”

Richard Jones, Jones’ father, briefly addressed the court and said first assistant directors were “in charge of safety” and he wanted to “emphasize that Hillary Schwartz failed in her duty to do so.” He did say they were in agreement with the district attorney of the resolution.

Harrison told Jones he hoped the resolution would bring them closure.

Schwartz did not speak.

Detective Joe Gardner, who led the investigation for the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office, testified at the hearing that Schwartz was tasked with on-set safety. Based on interviews and deposition testimony of Charley Baxter, the location manager on “Midnight Rider,” Gardner said he found CSX had sent an email that morning saying they would “not be able to support your request” for filming on its tracks.

Schwartz, along with Savin and Sedrish, were sent the email, Gardner said, and Schwartz later said she knew they did not secure permission and it was a live track.

Gardner also testified that Schwartz was asked whether a safety bulletin for shooting on train tracks should be attached to a call sheet for that day’s shooting, she referred that question to Sedrish, who said it should not be.

Gardner also said the production failed to post adequate lookout personnel for oncoming trains, and violated other industry guidelines, like having a representative from the railroad present. But those guidelines, Johnson asked, “sort of requires you have permission to be on the tracks?” “Yes,” Gardner said.

After the hearing, Johnson said Schwartz “was a very big part of what we were going to present” if the case against the other three went to trial.

“She knew who said what to who,” he said, adding that Schwartz was an “eyewitness to what was going on at the time.”

He also said Schwartz was aware of the lack of permission to be on the CSX tracks, and, once they were on set, “she told people to stay away from the tracks; she told people not to put anything on the tracks.”

But Miller went ahead with the scene, in which a hospital bed was placed on the tracks as part of a dream sequence.

Johnson also said Baxter’s email from that day, showing that CSX had not given permission, also was sent to Miller as he and his wife had a joint account.

Miller’s attorney Ed Garland on Monday said Miller never received the email because he was preparing the actors, including William Hurt, for the shoot.

Nevertheless, Johnson insisted the defendants knew that they didn’t have permission before they left that day.

He also said the defendants were aware of a previous CSX email saying they did not permit shooting on the tracks.

“They knew they did not have permission, yet they planned (the shoot on the tracks) the day before,” he said.