On Oct. 20, 1996, Bob and Marietta Marich received a phone call that is a parent's worst nightmare: According to a Los Angeles Police Department officer, their 27-year-old son, Michael, was dead of an apparent drug and alcohol overdose. In Part One of a special report by Howard Rosenberg that appeared in Sunday Calendar, the Marichs soon discovered that, without their knowledge or permission, a crew for the true-life series "LAPD: Life on the Beat" was videotaping their son's body, apartment and the phone call in which they were notified of his death. In Part Two of this report, the family tries to prevent the footage from being broadcast.
It was Oct. 21, 1996, the day after 27-year-old actor Michael Marich's death in Hollywood from drug-related causes.
His older sister, Allison, a Los Angeles actress, recalls being relieved that morning when told by a Los Angeles Police Department officer that he expected the syndicated TV series "LAPD: Life on the Beat" to be "very cooperative" about withholding footage of Michael's body that it had shot in his apartment while accompanying police officers to the scene.
Allison didn't know then that the "Life on the Beat" crew had also recorded an LAPD officer calling Houston and informing their parents, Bob and Marietta Marich, of their son's death. That call later would become the basis for two lawsuits that the Marichs would file, claiming that "Life on the Beat" had invaded their private grief.
The Marichs have appealed the dismissal of one of those suits, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court against MGM/UA Telecommunications Inc. and its subsidiary, QRZ Media Inc., which produces "Life on the Beat." In throwing it out, Judge Irving S. Feffer said, "Newsworthy events are taking place on this show." The city of Los Angeles is seeking dismissal of the second suit, filed in federal court against it and the two officers called to Michael's apartment to investigate his death.
Feeling relieved about the assurance she had received about the videotape, and busy seeing to the return of Michael's body to Houston and other matters pertaining to his death, Allison asked James Hewitt, a family friend in Los Angeles, to follow up with "Life on the Beat."
Hewitt says the person he contacted was Cynthia Shapiro, who was then legal coordinator for QRZ Media. He recalls having several phone conversations with Shapiro between Oct. 23 and Nov. 8, 1996, and asking her "more than once," on behalf of the Marichs, not to air the footage "out of deference to the family's suffering." He says that Shapiro expressed sympathy but rejected the plea, assuring him that the segment would be "tasteful" and "would not linger on the body."
He says that when Shapiro called Nov. 8 to inform him that the program was scheduled to run Feb. 5, 1997, she again turned down his plea that it not air.
Allison said she delayed informing her parents about the videotaping of Michael's body until they came to Los Angeles for a Nov. 23 memorial for Michael organized by his friends. "His face turned white," she recalls about her father. "He called them grave robbers and ghouls."
By this time, Allison also had contacted homicide Det. Michael McDonagh at LAPD's Hollywood Division. His job then included speaking to families about the deaths of their loved ones. She expressed her family's feelings about the footage of Michael, and says she was promised by him that the proper calls would be made and the matter "dealt with." Again she was relieved, assuming the matter was in good hands.
McDonagh today says he does not recall the case clearly, but does remember calling QRZ Media to say the family "didn't want to have their son or his face shown." He does not recall to whom he spoke.
Attempts to Stop Airing Fall Short
Allison's memory is crisper. She says that McDonagh informed her in late January that he had contacted QRZ Media twice in December about the family's wishes to stop the segment, and would call again. Two days later, she says, he repeated those assurances.
A week before the show's scheduled airing, Allison began getting nervous, and asked McDonagh if she should contact QRZ Media herself, send a fax or "do something," but was again assured by him that "proper procedure" was being followed. They spoke again on the Monday before the show was to air, with Allison telling him that if she did not hear back from McDonagh the next morning, she would call QRZ Media herself.
She didn't have to, she says. Shapiro called her, apparently at McDonagh's behest. Allison says that when she told Shapiro that the family opposed broadcasting the segment, Shapiro, after checking on its status, said it would air anyway.
Shapiro complained that it was "unfair to get calls at the last minute," Allison recalls. Allison's friend, Ric Fields, says Shapiro told him that too when he reached her the day before the scheduled airing and relayed the family's request that the segment be aborted.
Allison said Shapiro promised her that Michael would not be recognizable. "And I said that's not the point, is it? The point is the action of them being there, that we were going in to pack up my brother's things--his loving mementos, his property--and then knowing when I walked in that [the camera crew] had touched things, that they had been there other than on official business. What right did they have? I had to get a notarized letter from my parents to get my brother's wallet and my brother's ring at the coroner's office. I couldn't get them, and I'm his sister. But they could get to go in and film and audiotape my parents being told their son had died."
The Segment Is Shown--and Seen
The day the segment was to be shown, letters from the Marichs repeating their opposition were delivered by messenger to executives of QRZ Media.
It aired anyway, although blurring his face and not using his name.
That evening, Marietta Marich was in the same room where less than four months earlier she had taken the call from Officer Eric Jackson about Michael's death.
Marietta was creating an assignment for her eighth-grade students, with the TV on without sound. "I was writing, and the first thing I remember was glancing at it, and thinking it looked familiar, and then writing some more. Then I looked up and saw the curtain hanging askew. That's what looked familiar, because I had been in Michael's apartment just a little bit before that and told him, 'Michael, you've got to fix up this place if you're going to stay here.' And I saw this shot, this shot that looked like Michael. And I thought, 'No, it's not.' His body was bruised. It looked like someone had beaten him up. But he didn't have on a shirt, and Michael never went without a shirt. I found out later that the medics had taken off his shirt and that the bruises were post-mortem lividity because he had been there for so long. And then I saw this thing, this toy dinosaur, and Michael loved dinosaurs."
Bob Marich: "She started screaming, I mean really yelling. And I woke up and came flying in. She was lying on the floor. And I grabbed her and said, 'What's the matter?' And all she could do is point to the TV and scream. And I looked at it and said, 'Those sons of bitches, those bastards,' and I turned it off."
Production Company Gives Its Side
All three Marichs say they had no idea "Life on the Beat" aired outside Los Angeles. Yet they appear media-literate and sophisticated. How could they not have known?
"When they said, 'LAPD: Life on the Beat,' I figured it was a local show," Bob said. "When you say 'Cops' and 'Highway Patrol,' that's generic. We never watch those damned things anyway."
After all of this, why did QRZ Media not cancel the segment, and why didn't the show seek permission to air it from the family?
On advice of legal counsel, QRZ's Shapiro replied, "All I can say to you is that I strongly disagree with how [the Marichs and their friends] are portraying the facts."
When asked if she would want her own brother or son shown on TV this way, she didn't respond.
The day after the program with Michael aired, the Marichs say they were informed by Shapiro that they had to make a request in writing if they chose not to have the segment included in the show's rerun cycle. Bob sent the letter.
By then, say the Marichs, the damage had already been done.
But doesn't the public's right to know supersede the wishes of the Marichs?
"In what sense is there a right to know--for the public to see grief or the dead bodies related to these terrible things?" asks Michael Josephson, president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Los Angeles. "Of course we need to be sensitive that a journalist's job is to keep the public informed about things they need to know and should know to be good citizens. But most of this stuff is just voyeuristic trivia."
Channeling Anger Into Activism
Even should the Marichs ultimately lose in the courts, would that absolve "Life on the Beat" from moral responsibility for displaying Michael's body?
"To paraphrase the late Justice Potter Stewart," says Josephson, "one of the important things for anybody in power is to distinguish between what you have the right to do and what is right to do." He adds: "The moment that any profession, including the press, truly insists that something is proper simply because it's legal, they lose all moral authority. And with that, they will lose credibility."
The Marichs have channeled some of their anger into activism. Marietta flew to Sacramento and spoke on behalf of a bill that Gov. Pete Wilson recently signed into law giving celebrities, crime victims and others grounds for lawsuits when they believe their privacy has been invaded by photographers or reporters. Allison worked for that cause too.
But bitterness lingers. "When Michael died, we wanted to have a closed coffin because we wanted to remember him the way he was," Bob says. "And along comes this thing that is permanently etched in our memory. I see that picture of him all the time, and I wanna get those sons of bitches. If I ever see that woman, Shapiro, in a courtroom, I'm afraid of what I might do."
Allison was in a department store recently when she saw a man in a T-shirt with "Cops" across the front. She asked him if he worked for the show, and when he said yes, she told him she thought what he did was disgusting.
"He gave me the most smarmy grin," she says. "And all he could say about the job he does for a living was, 'We make a whole lot of money.' "