This thursday evening at 7:00pm, "Die Hard" director John McTiernan's wife Gail Sistrunk McTiernan and Eric Lichtenfeld, an author and action film expert, came to USC for the 25th Anniversary Screening of "Die Hard" and talked about John's incarceration.
Gail dedicated the screening to Michael Hastings, the Buzzfeed reporter who passed away in an automobile crash last June in Los Angeles, because of his great coverage on the case. "What is so great about Michael’s coverage is that he didn’t believe what the media said, because the media often believe what they’re told by the government."
According to you, who is John McTiernan apart from the director of "Die Hard"?
Well, of course I think he’s pretty special. He is very devoted to his children. He is extremely intelligent and has a tremendous sense of humor and very dry wit. The first time we were driving up on the ranch, we got into these harrowing situations of either going into a pond or getting stuck in a mud hole. We were in this very precarious position and he was flooring and spinning all around, I was just holding on like I was going to die. But that was like his personal action film.
His life and his career certainly changed very dramatically when his current situation started with a particular phone call that he received. Can you tell us more about the phone call?
John just got back from a scouting trip in Thailand, which was a 36 hour flight. He had just gotten home and crashed out. After he woke up, the phone rang and someone handed him the phone and said, “I don’t know who it is.” And so he answered the phone thinking it was just another journalist. This stranger asked him if he knew Anthony Pellicano, a high profile private investigator, and had he worked with him on his divorce and about Dennis Wasser, a divorce attorney, and Wasser ’s involvement with Pellicano. John was very honest, he told them the man never did anything illegal, and the conversation ended.
Two weeks later, he got a phone call out of the blue and said “You’re going to need an attorney, you’re going to be indicted.”
“For what?” John asked.
“Remember that phone call two weeks ago? Well, that was actually an FBI agent and we believe you lied.”
Then, the nightmare began.
And so that led to a charge of lying to the investigators and was this just a phone call from someone whose credentials were not verified?
What’s supposed to happen when the FBI comes to see you is they have to show you their commission card so you know to whom you are speaking. There are even rules that when you bring charges against somebody they have to have known who you were, but that didn’t happen in John’s case. He was charged with a single account false statement, and upon advice of counsel, pled guilty.
"There’s no defense against this, you just need to plead guilty, I mean you lied to this guy on the phone," the first lawyer said, "Sometimes when you get in the government’s snare, it’s easier to just do what they say and get out." Well, there is a defense to that, you need to know who it is you are speaking to, and other issues as well. He withdrew the guilty plea, which coincided to when he was trying to inform people that the government was doing bad things. In retaliation, they tripled the charges against John. They said, “You’re guilty of two false statements, and perjury, lying to the court, because obviously you’re lying if now you withdraw your guilty plea and say you are not guilty. ”
And then that same judge was going to preside over these three charges even though she was technically a witness to the perjury charge.
Judges are supposed to be fair, we count on them being non biased and that’s why they are judges. However, she is not exactly fair and especially since she is the witness to a crime so she can’t be the judge of it.
The second act of his story started when he decided to fight it. This has been going on for seven years. Can you give us a sense of how long each steps take to unfold and what has happened to him workwise as he tries to get projects off the ground?
The phone call happened in 2006 and asked him about something that happened in the year 2000. In terms of the process, it drags on and the government has the ability to stall things. I once interviewed a lady who said, “You know, you’re innocent until you’re proven broke.” The government has unlimited resources (i.e. our tax dollars) they can use to prosecute us with, and that’s precisely what they have done in this case. I mean 7 years of legal fees is an excess to a million dollars, probably closer to one to three quarters.
We have a big ranch in Wyoming. It’s not fancy but it’s like from the 1800’s and John likes to “Keep it real.” He doesn’t want to modernize it, loves the period look of some of the buildings, and tries to preserve it as much as possible. There was a mortgage on it and last December the bank decided to add a clause that said, “If you are incarcerated, you will immediately be in default. Your interest rate will go to 11%” That was over tripled what it had been. Two days after he was incarcerated, I got a call from the bank asking me to come in, but I told them I couldn't make it. It was too hard for me to do it, but the bank decided to enact their clause and raise the interest rate to 11% and tomorrow John’s home of 25 years will be sold at a sheriff sale. Unfortunately, for the most part for no reason, I’ll have to declare bankruptcy in the morning so they can’t take his home. I cannot let that happen.
Being a director, you have to get a completion bond and you can’t get a completion bond if it’s hanging over your head that you may be incarcerated anyday. He presented project after project after project and started to work on them but then they would break off at the very end. That’s why people say they haven’t seen a John McTiernan film for so long. Well, ask the prosecutor.
Several years ago, John began researching how the story he was embroiled in was being replicated all over the country and produced a small documentary called, “Project Save Justice.” Can you tell us more about that?
We stood in the courtroom and listened to the judge rule contrary to law, and I thought she was the only one, but then we started doing research and we found a lot of cases of judges don’t act as they should and the overzealous prosecutors. You may be familiar with a terrible case earlier this year, the case of Aaron Swartz. He helped formed Reddit. He was a computer prodigy and he tried to get a lot of private information like government information and the government wasn’t pleased with that. He was pursued by overzealous prosecuters charging him with numerous things for which he was no way guilty and threatening him with 50 years of imprisonment and $1 million in fines. They took his fortune away and he committed suicide. He was only 27 years old.
Sometimes I can’t help but think about the irony because in so many of his movies there is this understated optimism with regard to certain American Institution and the American Character, and to now be so ensnared into the darker underbelly of it is just so sad.
A trememdous irony was when the government called, they wanted information on an attorney called Dennis Wasser. They were trying to have this big case about all the Hollywood producers, directors and lawyers who worked with Anthony Pellicano. They didn’t have anything at all and had been mocked in the press saying, “This is your case? This is nothing!” A week later, they called John and that was the first “Hollywood Name” they had in their big case so their case didn’t look bad. The irony was they wanted John to lie about Dennis Wasser and he refused so they charged him with lying, and then perjury.
Dennis Wasser was a divorce attorney with a lot of high profile clients like Hollywood directors and producers. Jo hn had hired Dennis Wasser and Wasser h ad hired Pellicano. They thought they could squeeze John to give information about Wasser and then Boom! They'd have Wasser!
Did the jury help John at all during the trails?
When his charges were tripled, we wanted to go to trial because we truly believed that the jury of our peers would say, “You can’t go to prison because somebody calls you on the phone. That’s not grounds to go to prison. What country is this?” But during the process of getting prepared for trial, there are things that they do called “Jury Instructions” that determine how a trial will proceed. They didn’t allow John to bring up expert witnesses and he wasn’t able to provide a defense so he was automatically found guilty based on the jury instructions they made. John’s actions didn’t violate any of the statutes for it to be considered perjury, so he was imprisoned for something that didn’t violate a law.
What are they saying specifically that he did to be charged with perjury?
You have to be under oath to be considered perjury. If in two instances you say different things under oath, that’s a lie, that’s perjury, but you can’t have one thing you say under oath and another you tell your friends. They both need to be under oath.
In John’s case, they said that what he said under oath contradicted something he had written. Well, the thing in writing wasn’t under oath. The law was very clear that the elements must be under oath, therefore he did not violate the law. They cut and pasted what John had written in his declaration and used it as evidence against him. He was literally imprisoned for perjury when first, it didn’t happen and second, no statute was violated.
Tell us about the appeal that’s going on.
The law says if the government has a case against you, they are supposed to show you the evidence but to this day, even thought they say they have evidence, our attorneys have never seen one shred of evidence. They refuse to turn it over. I thnk with the appeal, they would have to turn over the evidence but I have a feeling the evidence is simply not there and they’d be embarrassed if that’s the case. The prosecutor told our lawyer, “If you are successful with that appeal, we’ll come after you again, and this time we’ll charge you with 4 things and we’ll ask for 32 years.” Do you know what a 32-year-sentence is to a man who’s 62?
And now he is in Yankton, South Dakota serving that sentence but at the same time continuing to fight. How is he doing?
I get to see him every three weeks and I would wake up at 5am and fly to South Dakota to see the best thing in South Dakota.
When I walked in the first time, there were rows and rows of chairs. It was very institutional. I sat there and didn’t know if all the inmates came in a group or one at a time. A gentleman came in and I looked at the gentleman and then I kind of looked away. Then, I thought to myself, you have to make sure to look at everyone that comes in with kindness and dignity. I looked up at the gentleman and I saw his eyes and I realized it was my husband. I didn’t know who he was before. What was shocking was he looked like a cadaver.
I think as time goes on he is more balanced and doing better. He’s been very creative and he’s written a treatment for a new project. I can’t tell you anything about it because he said I couldn’t.
Can you tell us if it’s about his experience in prison?
No no no, it’s not about Yankton. That might come later as a mini series of garbage, but no. This project is so much fun! It’s joy, you laugh, you’re happy, and you want to be in it, because that is what my husband does, not a prison movie.
The Q&A was followed by the screening of the movie. John McTiernan's fans and students of USC were not able to ask Gail any questions but they were still pleased and honored to be a part of the 25th Anniversary of "Die Hard."
You can write to John at this address, but no autograph requests will be permitted.
John McTiernan, Reg No 43029-112
Federal Prison Camp
PO Box 700
Yankton, SD 57078