From the archives:: How a girl’s stark words got lost in the Polanski spectacle
» UPDATE: March 20, 2017 — The legal team for Polanski — who has been a fugitive from U.S. justice for nearly four decades — has asked a judge to rule that their client has served more than enough time in custody for having had sex with a minor in the spring of 1977.
In the flat light of the grand jury room, a nervous, deeply embarrassed 13-year-old girl sat alone -- no attorney, no mother, no friend -- facing three tiers of middle-aged strangers silently studying her from their leather armchairs.
The questions that day in March 1977 were clinical in tone.
The answers would set off a furor from Hollywood to London and Paris that has yet to subside.
Samantha Gailey -- sandy brown hair, dimpled chin, missing class at her junior high in Woodland Hills -- described her alleged rape by director Roman Polanski two weeks before at Jack Nicholson’s home above Franklin Canyon. She clutched a small heart charm her friend had given her.
“After he kissed you, did he say anything?” asked the prosecutor, Roger Gunson.
“No,” the girl said.
“Did you say anything?”
“No, besides I was just going, ‘No, come on, let’s go home. . . .’ He said, ‘I’ll take you home soon.’ ”
“Then what happened?”
“And then he went down and started performing cuddliness.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means he went down on me, or he placed his mouth on my vagina. . . . I was ready to cry. I was kind of -- I was going, ‘No. Come on. Stop it.’ But I was afraid.”
Samantha’s testimony that day was unequivocal: She had kept trying to get away from him, putting her clothes back on, saying no repeatedly. She had made up a lie about having asthma to get out of a Jacuzzi. He persisted. She was scared. She did not physically fight him off. He began to have sex with her, then, concerned she might get pregnant, switched to anal sex. When he drove her home, he told her not to tell her mom, adding, “You know, when I first met you, I promised myself I wouldn’t do anything like this with you.”
A generation of spectacle would follow: Polanski’s indictment, his plea deal, his flight from the country, allegations of judicial and prosecutorial misconduct, his decades of exile and critical success, his Oscar, a sympathetic HBO documentary last year, his rearrest in Switzerland last month.
Along the way, various people would scrub the core allegations into something more benign -- a probation officer would deem the crime a “spontaneous” act of “poor judgment,” a prison psychiatrist would call it “playful mutual eroticism.”
But Samantha’s stark testimony has never been seriously impugned, in or out of court. When she sued Polanski years later for sexual assault, he pleaded the 5th when asked if he illegally gave her champagne and part of a quaalude pill, then performed oral copulation on her and sodomized her.
An extensive review of several thousand court documents, as well as numerous interviews, shows a basic dynamic defining the entire saga -- one force trying to drive debate away from a young girl’s unshaken allegations, and another trying to reel it back in.
Now with the debate renewed by his arrest, the 32-year legal, media and cultural odyssey may finally be coming to an end.
Samantha met Polanski through her mother, Susan, a television actress who had had small roles in episodes of “Starsky and Hutch” and “Police Woman.” The director said he had an assignment to photograph young girls for a Paris fashion magazine, Vogue Hommes, and had heard about Samantha from a mutual friend.
Polanski went to her home on the afternoon of Feb. 20 and took some pictures in the hills nearby. He picked her up again March 10, stopped at Jacqueline Bisset’s house and, as the light was fading, went to Nicholson’s compound on Mulholland Drive.
Polanski dropped Samantha off at her home a few hours later and went about his business. He met with Robert De Niro that evening to discuss making a movie based on a William Goldman novel, “Magic.”
The next night, a team of seven police investigators and prosecutors pulled up to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
Polanski was meeting friends in the lobby. The boyish, 43-year-old Polish director was as recognizable as any star, known not just for his movies but the extremes of his life -- the death of his mother at Auschwitz, his playboy image, the killing of his wife, Sharon Tate, and their unborn child by the Manson family.
The lead detective, Philip Vannatter, spotted him and strode up, quietly saying he had a warrant for his arrest and needed to search his room.
“We don’t want to create a sensation,” the detective said, according to Polanski’s 1984 autobiography. Polanski asked what the charge was.
Polanski led him to the suite, according to Vannatter’s grand jury testimony. As they walked, the detective saw him pull what looked like a tablet out of his coat pocket and lower his cupped hand, as if he were going to drop it on the floor.
Vannatter opened his hand below Polanski’s. “Why don’t you drop it into my hand instead of the floor?” he said. It was a quaalude pill, marked “Rorer 714.”
In the suite, Vannatter and his team collected cameras, lenses, film, slides and negatives, and found a small vial of prescription quaaludes. They arrested Polanski and drove to Nicholson’s house with another search warrant.
Polanski was talking feverishly along the way. “He was nervous as a hen on a hot rock,” Vannatter, who was later a key figure in the O.J. Simpson case, recalled this month.
“He kept asking me if he could have the quaalude back all night because he was so nervous.”
Before the grand jury
While the commotion over Polanski’s arrest raged, the detectives built their case. Vannatter was looking to put him in prison for 15 to 20 years.
The physical evidence was strong, but not perfect. The photos developed from Polanski’s film showed Samantha topless, drinking champagne in a Jacuzzi. The pills matched the one she described. A police criminalist could not find sperm in her underwear, but a chemical test indicated semen. The doctor who examined Samantha found no bruises or tearing, but would explain that this was common when no force was involved.
The district attorney took the case to the grand jury on March 24. As is usual, there would be no cross-examination, no public, no media. The 23-member panel would decide if there was enough evidence to go to trial.
The first witness was Samantha’s mother, Susan Gailey. Deputy Dist. Atty. Gunson inquired about the first photo shoot.
“Did you ask Polanski if you could go?”
“Yes,” Gailey said. “And he said, ‘No, that he would rather be alone with her because she will respond more naturally.’ ”
She said he and Samantha returned at dusk. “He came in for a while,” she said. “He drew some pictures of pirates for her. . . .”
Polanski came back a little over two weeks later, after a trip to New York. Again, he and Samantha drove off in the late afternoon.
“When was the next time that you heard from Samantha?” Gunson asked.
“I had a phone call at about 6 o’clock,” she began, and then paused to backtrack. “Before she went, she had indicated to me that she didn’t like him. . . .”
Gunson cut her off. “May that be stricken from the record?”
“OK,” she continued. “I asked her if she was OK. And she said, ‘Uh-huh.’ . . . . And I said, ‘Do you want me to pick you up?’ And she said, ‘No.’ And then Polanski got on the phone and he said they were at Jack Nicholson’s house, and the sun went down so fast that they didn’t get very many pictures, and there was artificial light there, and a Jacuzzi there, and that they were going to take some pictures there. . . .
“I thought, why a Jacuzzi? But I didn’t say anything. I mean I just didn’t. “
When Samantha returned some time after 8, she rushed to tell her mom something before Polanski walked in.
“She was kind of weird-looking. . . . I said, ‘What’s the matter?’ because I thought something was really wrong. And she said, ‘I told him I had asthma because I didn’t want to get in the Jacuzzi. I just wanted you to know that.’ ”
Her daughter went to her bedroom to change as Polanski walked in.
“What did he say?” Gunson asked.
“Asked me about her asthma. . . . And I said, ‘Yeah it’s really too bad.’ And then he said, ‘What kind of medicine does she take for that?’ And I said, ‘Oh, lot of different kinds,’ just fumbling around. . . .”
Gailey asked to see some of the photos from the previous shoot. Polanski brought a slide viewer from the car.
She, her boyfriend, and her 20-year-old daughter, Kim, gathered around to see.
“We looked at about five or six that were just head shots,” she said. “And then all of the sudden there was a shot of Samantha bare to her waist with just her jeans on. And Kim stepped back. And I stepped back. And the dog peed on the floor, and Kim went for the dog and threw her out. . . . It must have been some kind of energy thing happening because she never does that.
“And then I just sat there and thought, ‘Well, but I don’t want to make a scene. . . . So I am going to . . . be calm for minute. . . .’ I decided not to say anything so that Samantha would not feel like she did an awful thing and cause a big scene. I thought I would wait and get him out of the house. . . .
“He made a phone call, and then he gave Kim a lecture about how she shouldn’t have disciplined the dog like that. And then he left.”
Kim testified that later that night Samantha’s boyfriend Steve came over and she heard the two of them talking about what had happened. Kim told her mother, who called the police.
Telling of topless photos
Gunson called his key witness to the stand after lunch.
He guided Samantha through the events between meeting Polanski and being photographed by him in the chaparral above her home.
“What did Mr. Polanski say with respect to posing without anything on your top?” he asked.
“He said, ‘Here, take off your top now.’ And I thought they were for the shots that you got so you don’t see anything on your shoulders.”
“When you returned home, did you tell your mother that he had taken photographs of you without a top?
“No. . . . I was just going to say I don’t want to get any more pictures taken again.”
From the three tiers, the grand jurors studied her closely, assessing her credibility, her morality.
In the front row, Jean Biegenzahn, then 48, thought she looked like a normal young girl, much like her own 15-year-old daughter. “She was so scared, and here are 23 old fogies watching her,” she recalled this month.
Biegenzahn believed her.
Joanne Smallwood, the youngest juror at 39, did too. She also thought Samantha was “fast” for her age.
Samantha would later describe herself at 13 as a girl speeding out of a tomboy childhood. She wanted to be a movie star. “I had a 17-year-old boyfriend who drove a Camaro, but my room was knee-deep in clothes,” she told People magazine in 1997. “I had a Spider-Man poster on the wall, and I kept pet rats.”
Next the prosecutor came to March 10. Samantha described Polanski taking more topless shots, pouring them champagne, then later offering her part of a quaalude, marked Rorer 714.
“Why did you take it?” Gunson asked.
“I don’t know. I must have been pretty drunk or else I wouldn’t have,” she said.
Jurors questioned her behavior. Not only did she not physically resist Polanski, she had to admit she’d had sex before -- twice, she said -- had been drunk before, and had tried part of a quaalude before.
She continued: He wanted to take pictures in the Jacuzzi. No one else was in the house. She got in. He told her to take off her underwear. She did. He took a few pictures, then went into the bathroom and came back naked. He got into the deep part of the hot tub.
“He goes, ‘Come on down here.’ And I said, ‘No, no, I got to get out.’ And he goes, ‘No, come down here.’ And then I said that I had asthma and that I couldn’t. . . . And he said, ‘Just come down here a second.’ So I finally went down. . . . And he goes, ‘Doesn’t it feel better down here?’
“And he was like holding me up because it is almost over my head. And I went, ‘Yeah, but I better get out.’”
She said she wrapped a towel around her, and Polanski jumped in the pool.
“I walked over and he goes, ‘Get in here.’ ”
She resisted again. He coaxed her.
She said she swam the length of the pool, got out, went to the bathroom, put on her underwear and started drying off.
“I said I wanted to go home because I needed to take my medicine. . . . He said, ‘Yeah, I’ll take you home soon.’
“I was going, ‘No, I think I better go home,’ because I was afraid. So I just went and I sat down on the couch’ ” in an adjoining bedroom.
She said he started kissing her and then pulled off her panties. Gunson asked her if she felt “under the influence” at the time, and why.
“Yes. . . . I can barely remember anything that happened,” she said.
“Is there any other reason?”
“No, I was just kind of dizzy, you know, like things were kind of blurry sometimes. I was having trouble with my coordination, like walking and stuff.”
She said he started performing oral sex on her and then moved to intercourse.
“He goes, ‘Are you on the pill?’ And I went, ‘No.’ And he goes, ‘When did you last have your period?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know. . . . He goes, ‘Would you want me to go in through your back?’ And I went, ‘No.’ ”
She said a woman -- later identified as Nicholson’s then-girlfriend, Anjelica Huston -- came home and Polanski stopped briefly to talk to her through a crack in the door. “I got up and put my underwear on and started walking toward the door. . . . He sat me back down again. . . . Then he started to have intercourse with me again and then he just stopped.”
On the drive home, Samantha said he told her “something like, ‘This is our little secret.’ ”
The grand jury deliberated just 23 minutes. The panel returned with an indictment of Polanski on six counts: furnishing a controlled substance to a minor, lewd and lascivious act upon child under 14, perversion, sodomy, unlawful sexual intercourse, rape by use of drugs.
‘Lack of coercion’
Polanski pleaded not guilty April 15, and the case was transferred to the Santa Monica courtroom of Judge Laurence J. Rittenband.
In a pretrial hearing, Polanski’s attorney, Douglas Dalton, indicated that he would delve into Samantha’s sex history and seek a psychiatric evaluation of her. “The facts indicate that before the alleged act in this case, this girl had engaged in sexual activity,” Dalton told the media. “We want to know about it, we want to know who was involved, when. We want to know why these other people were not prosecuted. And this is a thing we want to fully develop.”
The European media wanted to develop this too. They went to Samantha’s school and house, talked to her friends, trying to learn more about the girl whose allegations threatened to bring down a veritable cult figure in Europe, where Polanski was not-so-secretly dating a 15-year-old girl, Nastassja Kinski, with no public outcry, no arrest. Samantha was cast as the temptress.
Her attorney told the court that Samantha did not want to go through a trial.
Things were looking bleak for Polanski as well. Vogue Hommes denied that he had any assignment, according to his autobiography. Anjelica Huston, who could put him in the bedroom with the girl, agreed to testify against him in exchange for a cocaine possession charge against her being dropped (from the search of Nicholson’s home).
The day before trial was to begin in August, the attorneys announced Polanski would plead guilty to “unlawful intercourse with a minor” in return for dropping of the more serious charges.
Samantha’s attorney, Lawrence Silver, wrote the judge urging him to accept the plea deal. He said his client’s goal was not to seek “the incarceration of the defendant, but rather, the admission by him of wrongdoing. . . .”
“Whatever harm has come to her as a victim would be exacerbated in the extreme if this case went to trial,” he wrote. “A member of the media last Friday in anticipation said this case “promised to be one of the most sensational ‘Hollywood’ trials. . . . This is not the place for a recovering young girl.”
Rittenband accepted the plea deal. Vannatter was furious that Polanski was avoiding a long sentence.
Dist. Atty. John Van de Kamp said in a statement that the plea achieved “substantial justice” without destroying the girl’s privacy.
The plea was the first step in scrubbing Samantha’s original allegations clean. The crime was beginning to sound like something consensual, “making love,” as Polanski would describe it in his book. Now he had to deal only with the public relations fallout of something he didn’t even view as a crime.
But Polanski’s legal problems were not over. Rittenband could sentence him to up to 50 years in prison, although no one expected that. The sentence would likely depend on what the probation officer, Irwin Gold, recommended.
The probation report scrubbed the allegations even more.
A psychiatrist, Dr. Alvin Davis, who analyzed Polanski for the report, concluded there was “transient poor judgment and loss of normal inhibitions in circumstances of intimacy and collaboration in creative work, with some coincidental alcohol and drug intoxication.” He described the “physical maturity and willingness and provocativeness of victim, and the lack of coercion by defendant and his solicitude concerning pregnancy.”
“Incarceration,” he wrote, “would impose an unusual degree of stress and hardship because of his highly sensitive personality. . . .”
Gold ignored the most damaging parts of Samantha’s testimony and focused on the few quotes about her hazy memory. He was clearly impressed by the tragedies Polanski had overcome. “The defendant has not only survived, he has prevailed . . . and has become one of the leading creative forces of the last two decades.”
In a highly unusual passage, he gushed about Hollywood.
“Possibly not since Renaissance Italy has there been such a gathering of creative minds in one locale as there has been in Los Angeles County during the past half century. . . . While enriching the community with their presence, they have brought with them the manners and mores of their native lands which in rare instances have been at variance with those of their adoptive land.”
His conclusion: “It is believed that incalculable emotional damage could result from incarcerating the defendant whose own life has been a seemingly unending series of punishments.”
Judge Rittenband ordered Polanski to undergo a 90-day psychiatric study at the state prison in Chino. Both Gunson and Dalton understood that this would be Polanski’s punishment, according to declarations they signed recently.
Polanski reported to Chino on Dec. 16. He was released after 42 days.
The psychiatric report, made public in a recent appellate court filing, echoed the probation report.
“There was no evidence that the offense was in any way characterized by destructive or insensitive attitude toward the victim,” wrote Philip S. Wagner, Chino’s chief psychiatrist. “Polanski’s attitude was undoubtedly seductive, but considerate. The relationship with his victim developed from an attitude of professionalism, to playful mutual eroticism. . . . Polanski seems to have been unaware at the time that he was involving himself in a criminal offense, an isolated instance of naivete, unusual in a mature, sophisticated man.”
Rittenband called the report a “whitewash.”
He met in chambers with Gunson and Dalton on Jan. 30 to discuss the sentencing two days later. He told them he wanted Polanski to do more time in prison -- and then leave the country, according to the attorneys’ declarations. Rittenband said he would send him back to Chino for 48 days to complete the 90-day stint, then release him, if Polanski agreed to voluntary deportation. If not, he would face a longer prison term.
Dalton relayed that to his client. Polanski left the lawyer’s office, drove to LAX and bought the last seat on the next British Airways flight to London.
The banner headline in The Times the next day: “Polanski Flees!”
Attorney decries judge
Rittenband called a news conference in his chambers. “The crime to which Mr. Polanski pleaded guilty was a crime of moral turpitude, and that makes him subject to deportation,” he said. “I feel he does not belong in this country.”
On Valentine’s Day, Dalton filed a motion that the judge should be disqualified for prejudice against Polanski. He argued that Rittenband improperly used the psychiatric study to incarcerate Polanski, that he had no authority to compel his deportation, that his public statements violated the California Rules of Judicial Conduct, and that he was letting critical media coverage, angry letters and advice from friends influence him.
Dalton told the media that day that “there is a good possibility Roman would come back if another judge is assigned to the case.”
Rittenband “categorically” denied any misconduct, but removed himself from the case “to avoid needless delays” and to encourage Polanski to return.
Polanski opted to stay in France.
Six years into his exile, in his autobiography, “Roman, by Polanski,” he laid out his version of the night at Nicholson’s. “We dried ourselves and each other. She said she was feeling better. Then, very gently, I began to kiss and caress her. After this had gone on for some time, I led her over to the couch. There was no doubt about the girl’s experience and lack of inhibition.”
Polanski said he was surprised to learn later that Samantha had lied about having asthma. “Why she did so baffles me to this day.”
A settlement is reached
On a quiet court day just before New Year’s Eve 1988, an oddly named lawsuit landed at the Santa Monica courthouse: Jane Doe vs. R. Rpolanski.
Samantha Gailey, then 25 and living in Kauai, was suing the director for sexual assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress and false imprisonment. The court allowed the lawsuit to stand under the false name, Rpolanski, effectively hiding it from the public.
Many of the documents are now missing, and much of the case was handled outside of court by a private judge. But when a panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal weighed in on the case in February 1993, the judges referenced some interesting points.
In a footnote, they said Gailey had asked Polanski for admissions that he gave her champagne and quaaludes, had oral sex with her and sodomized her. Polanski asserted his 5th Amendment right not to answer on the grounds that the answers “may tend to be incriminating.”
The panel also said the trial judge in the civil case “found substantial evidence of oppressive conduct by Polanski and a strong likelihood that a jury would find despicable conduct on the part of Polanski.”
Polanski settled with Gailey on Oct. 12, 1993.
Handwritten on a record of that day’s court proceedings were circled notations: “250,000 + 500,000 + maybe 500,000,” and the words “Settled” and “Confidential.”
Polanski would apparently fail to live up to the agreement, because in late 1995 Gailey’s attorney was back in court trying to collect money. He wrote that the confidential settlement required Polanski to pay her $500,000 by Oct. 11, 1995. With interest, he now owed her $601,583.87.
Polanski’s attorney in the civil case, David Finkle, says the matter was ultimately resolved, but would not specify how.
The next year Samantha publicly forgave Polanski. Using her married name, Geimer, she went on the TV show “Inside Edition” in 1997 and described what happened to her. Geimer repeated what she told the grand jury, saying she was crying and begging him to stop, but added that he “wasn’t forceful or mean or anything like that.”
“It wasn’t rape,” she said.
The same year Polanski’s attorney met with Gunson, the prosecutor, in the chambers of Superior Court Judge Larry Fidler to discuss how the criminal case could be resolved. Geimer wrote Fidler, urging leniency for Polanski and saying it was her opinion “that the 42 days he has already served is excessive.”
But the negotiations fell apart.
The latest chapter of the saga -- the one that would lead to the arrest -- began last year with the HBO documentary, “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired,” directed by Marina Zenovich. The film looked like the ultimate boon for the fugitive director, focusing on the allegations of misconduct against Rittenband, who died in 1993, and raising questions about what happened in the meetings with Fidler.
Dalton told the filmmaker that Fidler was ready to hold a hearing and let Polanski go without more time in custody, but wanted the hearing televised -- a condition Polanski wouldn’t accept. A court spokesman, Alan Parachini, called this a “complete fabrication.”
This dispute would become another sideshow to overshadow the events of March 10, 1977.
Much like the probation report, the documentary sanitized the core allegations, presenting selected bits of Samantha’s grand jury testimony interspersed with Polanski’s description of what happened.
Samantha: “He reached over and kissed me and I was telling him, ‘No, you know. . . . Keep away.”
Polanski: “She wasn’t unresponsive. There was no doubt about her experience and lack of inhibition.”
Samantha: “I was kind of dizzy, you know, like things were kind of blurry. I can barely remember anything that happened.”
The film delved into the allegations against Rittenband. Dalton and Gunson recalled private meetings in which the judge told them what to argue at the sentencing hearing, even as his decision was already made. Another prosecutor, David Wells, said he was constantly in the judge’s ear about the case and planted the idea of the psychiatric study at Chino.
Polanski’s attorneys jumped on Wells’ statements as the key basis for a full-throttle push to have the case thrown out -- their first public move in 30 years.
They had now cleared every obstacle they could. They had the victim on their side. They had Wells. They had Gunson saying the judge acted in bad faith. They even had a transcript of the filmmaker’s interview with Richard Doyle, one of current Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley’s bureau directors, saying he believed Rittenband abused his authority. (Doyle also said he thought Polanski’s crime was “extremely calculated. . . . I don’t think he had any intention of doing a photo spread of the girl.”)
They filed a motion for dismissal on Dec. 8.
Judge Peter Espinoza said in February that Polanski needed to appear in court before he would hear the evidence. He hinted the director might have a case. “There was substantial, it seems to me, misconduct that occurred during the pendency of this case,” Espinoza said.
Polanski’s attorneys went to the appeals court in July with a petition to order the lower court to dismiss the prosecution.
“Despite feigning offense at Mr. Polanski’s absence from California, the district attorney has never sought extradition or other relief, knowing, of course, that such relief would require litigation of the misconduct in this petition,” they wrote.
On Sept. 22, Cooley drafted a warrant for his arrest. Polanski, now 76, was arrested four days later while getting off the airplane in Zurich.
Four days after that, Wells told the media he made up the stories in the documentary about Rittenband. “I’d like to speak of it as an inept statement but the reality is that it was a lie.”
Polanski remains in custody fighting his extradition. His attorneys said he will go bankrupt if he is held much longer. On Tuesday, Switzerland’s top criminal court rejected Polanski’s appeal to be released on bail.
He may soon be back in Los Angeles to answer what a nervous young girl said 32 years ago.
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