Roman Polanski’s decision to attend Zurich’s film festival this weekend was a major win for a minor event, but it turned into a bigger coup for Los Angeles County authorities who seized the opportunity to arrange the arrest -- three decades in the making -- of a Hollywood fugitive.
When the 76-year-old Academy Award-winning director of films such as “Chinatown,” “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Pianist” arrived at the Zurich, Switzerland, airport Saturday night for a well-publicized appearance, Swiss officials armed with a U.S. arrest warrant took him into custody. The arrest touches off extradition proceedings that could return the filmmaker to the United States to face the child sex case he fled in 1978.
The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, which prosecuted Polanski 32 years ago for the sexual assault of a 13-year-old girl and has battled the director in the last year over his attempts to have the controversial case dismissed, initiated the arrest last week when it learned of his travel plans to Zurich.
“It wasn’t any secret. It was on the Internet. They were selling tickets to it,” said Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office. She said prosecutors prepared a provisional warrant and sent it to U.S. Justice Department officials, who presented it to Swiss authorities.
The arrest stunned Polanski, who has long lived in Paris where his French citizenship protects him from extradition. His attorneys in the U.S. and France said that despite his fugitive status in the United States, the director routinely travels throughout Europe. He owns a chalet in the Swiss ski resort of Gstaad, and festival organizers said they never considered his U.S. legal problems when recruiting him to headline their event by accepting a lifetime achievement award.
“There were no concerns whatsoever,” festival spokeswoman Nikki Parker said.
The length and outcome of Polanski’s stay in Switzerland remained uncertain Sunday.
“If he agrees with an extradition, he could be sent to the U.S. in the next days,” said Guido Ballmer, a spokesman for the Swiss Federal Department of Justice and Police.
But statements by his French attorney suggested there was little chance that Polanski would return without a fight. Herve Temime told the French newspaper Le Figaro that he planned to fly to Switzerland with Polanski’s wife, actress Emmanuelle Seigner, to seek the director’s release.
“We are going to argue a defense based on the extradition procedure,” he said.
The U.S. Justice Department has 60 days to file a written request for Polanski’s transfer to Los Angeles. If Polanski opposes extradition, the Swiss legal process can be lengthy because multiple levels of appeals are available, Ballmer said.
Polanski’s detention was condemned by officials in France and Poland, where he spent part of his childhood. Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski told the Polish news agency PAP that the countries would make a joint appeal to Switzerland and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to release the filmmaker.
In Paris, Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand said he was “dumbfounded” by the arrest and had talked with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The arrest is the latest twist in a legal saga that has captivated and outraged the public since Jimmy Carter was president. In 1977, Polanski -- a household name both for his movies and for the Manson family murder of his then-wife, Sharon Tate -- was arrested at a Beverly Hills hotel and charged with raping and sodomizing a 13-year-old aspiring model. The girl told police the director had plied her with champagne and a piece of a quaalude during a photo shoot at actor Jack Nicholson’s Mulholland Drive home. He then forced himself on her as she begged him to stop.
Polanski reached a deal with prosecutors in which he pleaded guilty to a count of unlawful sex with a minor and prosecutors agreed not to pursue rape, sodomy and other charges. A judge ordered Polanski to spend 42 days in state prison for pre-sentencing “diagnostic testing.” Polanski served the time and was released. But on the eve of his sentencing in 1978, he boarded a plane for Europe, never to return to the U.S.
The court issued an arrest warrant that has remained in effect since.
From his home in Paris, Polanski settled a civil suit by the victim, Samantha Geimer, for an unspecified amount, and she publicly forgave him. He continued to direct films in Europe and married Seigner, with whom he has two children.
In 1997, Polanski tried to work out a deal with the district attorney’s office to return to L.A.: Authorities would arrest him at the airport and bring him straight to court, where he would be sentenced to time served and immediately released.
That deal fell apart, with Polanski’s side saying that he objected to television coverage in the courtroom.
For the next decade, Polanski made no public attempts to resolve the case. He won the Academy Award for best director for 2002’s “The Pianist,” but was not at the ceremony despite Geimer’s call for authorities to permit him to attend.
But after the broadcast last year of the HBO documentary “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired,” the director showed renewed interest in his case. The documentary portrayed the original handling of the matter as corrupted by a double-talking, media-hungry judge who had had inappropriate conversations with a prosecutor.
Polanski fled the United States, according to interviews in the documentary, because Superior Court Judge Lawrence Rittenband, now deceased, reneged on a promise to sentence the director to no additional prison time after having a backroom chat with a deputy district attorney who was not assigned to the case.
Polanski did not participate in the documentary. But after it aired, his attorneys filed a request for a dismissal of the entire 1977 case based on revelations in the film. The district attorney’s office vigorously fought the motion, filing hundreds of pages of grand jury testimony that described the assault allegations in detail and calling Polanski, in the words of one prosecutor, a man who “drugged and raped a 13-year-old child” and was now asking for help “from the comforts of France.”
Geimer filed papers on behalf of Polanski, saying that she wanted the case dropped and blamed the prosecution for reviving the ugly details of her assault.
In February a judge handling the dismissal request found that “there was substantial . . . misconduct that occurred” during the original case. But he said Polanski had to return to the United States before the court could consider dismissing the charges. An appeal by Polanski’s attorneys is pending before the state appellate court.
As the legal wrangling played out, the filmmaker traveled widely in continental Europe, according to news reports. He filmed a political thriller in Germany this year, attended the opening night of a musical in Vienna on Wednesday, and was expected to pick up an award in Cologne, Germany, next week.
Polanski’s lawyers complained Sunday that the arrest was out of line with decades of disinterest by U.S. authorities in apprehending the director. A Los Angeles lawyer for Polanski, Chad Hummel, said that in a conversation last year, a deputy district attorney told him “he was not aware of any efforts by his office to enforce the warrant.”
Gibbons, the district attorney’s office spokeswoman, declined to respond to Hummel’s comments. But she said there had been at least two prior occasions when authorities learned that Polanski planned to visit a country with an extradition treaty and began arranging for his arrest.
“But in the end, he apparently found out about it and didn’t go,” she said.
Another Los Angeles source familiar with the case but not authorized to talk about the ongoing investigation said there were at least half a dozen “near misses” over the decades, with the majority in the last two years.
In Zurich, film festival organizers said the arrest left them with “great consternation and shock.”
Polanski was to walk a red carpet Sunday night and pick up his award. The tribute went forward without the guest of honor.
Contributing to this report were Times staff writers Andrew Blankstein, Henry Chu, Scott Glover and special correspondent Devorah Lauter.