It was a day when even the judge wept openly.
It was a day when two families filed into the West Los Angeles Municipal Courthouse, separated--yet inseparably yoked--by tragedy. They sat on opposite sides of the aisle, struggling in statement after eloquent statement to come to grips with the loss of one family's son and brother.
The court record will reflect that former 20th Century Fox executive Dylan Sellers, 37, was sentenced Wednesday to a year in County Jail and three years' probation after pleading guilty to gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, a felony. In October 1995, Sellers ran a stop sign in Brentwood and slammed into a palm tree, killing his friend and Fox colleague Lewis Cherot, 26.
But the law could offer neither man's family any relief from their open wounds.
Both families have been forever changed.
"I have stood at the scene of Lewis' death," Cherot's mother, Kathleen Hutchins of Needham, Mass., said, her clenched fist resting on the courtroom podium. "I have seen the stop sign, the palm tree and fragments of glass and metal from Mr. Sellers' car. I have read the description of Lewis' blood and brains leaking onto the road."
Tears flowed freely in the courtroom as she spoke. Judge Judith Abrams cried openly on the bench, repeatedly wiping her tears with a tissue.
"And in my mind's eye," Hutchins said of her son, "I always see him, twisting in the air, straight hair and glasses flying, as he heads toward the ground and that long, long good night."
Her voice lowered as she directly addressed Sellers:
"I miss him so. And I hope one day I will forgive you, Mr. Sellers."
Before Hutchins or other Cherot family members spoke, Sellers had addressed them. An independent producer on the Fox lot since the accident, he sighed heavily and vainly tried to clear his throat.
"Basically, I hate myself so much for what happened," he said, his voice breaking. "You know how much I loved Lewis. I would never have done anything to harm him. It was an accident. If you can find it in your hearts to one day understand and forgive, I can only hope for that."
Under a plea bargain, Sellers was ordered to surrender to authorities on Dec. 12. The charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in state prison. But county prisoners on average are serving only about 110 days of a one-year sentence such as Sellers received because of early-release policies forced by jail overcrowding, said the prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Latin.
Sellers' assistant, Bonny Giardina, told of how she had seen firsthand the friendship between her boss and Cherot.
"A day did not pass without Lewis marching into the office with a new thought on a character or idea on a project," she said. "I watched them work tirelessly. And I watched them debate and laugh and close the door on occasion to sneak in a quick game of chess.
"They were co-workers. But more importantly, in this harshly competitive Hollywood world, they were friends."
Sellers and Cherot had gone to a Westwood theater Oct. 10, 1995, for a studio premiere of "Strange Days," a film Cherot had helped "shepherd to production," in the words of a Fox spokesman shortly after the accident.
After the screening, Sellers, an executive vice president of production at Fox, and Cherot, a director of development at the studio, went to a nearby restaurant at 10:30 p.m. Both men had been drinking, Latin said outside court.
"Neither should have been driving," Latin said. "Mr. Cherot was not doing anything wrong because he was not driving."
Witnesses reported seeing a BMW matching the description of Sellers' car speeding on Sunset Boulevard shortly before the 12:30 a.m. accident, Latin said. When Sellers reached the "T" intersection at Bristol and Cliffwood avenues, he ran a stop sign and slammed into the palm tree, Latin said.
"The car flipped over," he said. "The sun roof was open. Cherot was not wearing a seat belt. His head hit the ground through the open sun roof. He was killed instantly."
Sellers suffered minor injuries, Latin said.
Friends have said that Sellers offered Cherot a ride because he felt that Cherot had been drinking too much to drive. Two hours after the accident, Sellers had a blood alcohol level of 0.14%, said Gerald L. Chaleff, one of his defense attorneys. Cherot's blood alcohol level was 0.24%--three times the 0.08% level needed to be considered legally drunk.
Cherot graduated from Harvard College in 1990 and moved to Los Angeles the next year, working as an assistant for a group of agents. At Fox, he started in the mail room before moving up to his development job.
Wrestling with his grief and anger, Army Capt. Bevin K. Cherot, 29, recalled how his younger brother had worked 12- to 14-hour days "for peanuts" after Harvard to reach his lifelong dream.
He spoke of his own close calls as an Airborne Ranger and helicopter pilot.
"I have parachuted into combat under enemy machine gun fire," he said. "I have survived a parachute malfunction, helicopter malfunctions."
He has twice been in cars that rolled over in accidents, and awoke just a few days ago to find his apartment in flames.
"I have cheated death more times than I care to think about where good friends of mine have perished," he said. "I just wish God Almighty had given Lewis just one of the many chances that I've had."
He called for a crackdown on drunk drivers to make "this crime so unbearable that no one will even feel they could even risk driving even after one drink."