What a strange combination of talents. Michael does them all, and he does them maybe too well! Have you ever heard of an writer that creates a work of fiction, and gets subpoenaed, not once, but three times to appear in court to testify about a death row situation? Well meet Michael Mehas!

What started as a mild curiosity, turned into a life changing situation for Michael. Stolen Boy is a work of fiction, but it is based on the Jessie James Hollywood case. Jessie faces the real potential of being executed by lethal injection, Michael Mehas had no involvement in the crime, he did not even know of Jessie James Hollywood, yet, he may well have the most onerous task that can be put on a human being. What he chooses to say may well make the difference between life and death for this young man.

Stolen Boy was written after Michael’s collaboration with Nick Cassavetes on the movie Alpha Dog, which is also based on the Jessie James Hollywood story.

I had the opportunity to talk with this interesting man, the interview is long, but I guarantee it is worth reading.

Michael, thank you for taking time to do this interview. It is greatly appreciated.

Thank you for taking the time to try to find out what’s going on here. I appreciate that.

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I was the poor Greek kid who grew up amongst the stars in the Hollywood Hills. After graduating from Hollywood High School, I attended Pepperdine University in the 80s. I was a starving actor and an aspiring writer at the time, and I was blessed with the opportunity to work for a man who would ultimately become my mentor and one of my biggest influences in life––independent film legend John Cassavetes––who gave me the best advice I’d ever received.

“Go get experience in life to write from,” he told me. And so I did. In 1988, I received my Juris Doctorate from Pepperdine University School of Law. And the following year I graduated from the Academy of Justice School of Advocacy, where I learned all aspects of criminal trial preparation, management, and resolution. I followed this with a brief stint with the Public Defender’s office and private practice where I researched, prepared, and tried felony criminal matters, including a death penalty case in only my third trial. As a side-note, we won that case. My client didn’t get the death penalty. We ended up getting him life in prison without parole. And in that case, trust me—that was a victory.

In the 90s, I divided my energies between practicing family law, screenwriting, and freelance journalism, where a lot of my work was published internationally. In 2003, I co-founded an international news and feature Internet magazine called The Inquisitor. Later that year, I again teamed up with my best friend, writer/director Nick Cassavetes, as the associate producer on Alpha Dog, a major motion picture from Universal, starring Justin Timberlake, Bruce Willis, Sharon Stone, Emile Hirsch, Anton Yelchin, and Ben Foster. Based on my unprecedented research, access to confidential case files, and crucial interviews with key participants to one of the most sensational crimes in California history, I penned the psychological thriller, Stolen Boy, which just came out this past July.

Stolen Boy is powerful stuff. And you are without doubt one of the people, if not the person most familiar with the real case that Stolen Boy parallels in fiction. How did you get interested in it?

One day in April of 2003, while I was tending to my dying dog, Sadie, I got a call from an old buddy, Nick Cassavetes, who said he wanted to make a film about Jesse James Hollywood, the youngest man ever on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. Since I lived so close to Santa Barbara, where the crime took place, I had read all these articles about this amazing crime involving all these young kids. Kids accused of committing crimes against kids. It was an unbelievable story. One I wanted to know more about.

For anyone who doesn’t know what it’s like to work on a Cassavetes film, it’s one of those rare opportunities in life that you just don’t want to turn down. Making a Cassavetes movie is not so much about fame or fortune as it is about experiencing a piece of life. And that was one piece of life that I just didn’t want to miss. So about a week later, after Sadie had moved on, I asked Nick where I could sign up. He set up a meeting with the Santa Barbara District Attorney, and the rest is just sort of history, as they say. The whole thing took on this life of its own—taking all these unbelievably crazy turns before becoming the movie (Alpha Dog), my book, and then the craziness of my legal involvement with the death penalty case.

It certainly is unusual for a ‘casual’ outside observer to become part of a trial, yet you have been subpoenaed twice to appear in court. What are your thoughts?

Actually, I’ve been subpoenaed three times in Jesse Hollywood’s case. So far, I’ve testified twice and suffered the misfortune of having the court order me to turn over all the notes and tapes from my interviews. Early on in the process, I twice faced the very real prospect of going to jail for not complying with the subpoenas, which at first I had seriously considered doing.

In the beginning, after Hollywood got captured in Brazil—after one of the greatest global manhunts in history—my life got turned totally upside down. I met with Hollywood’s famed trial attorney, James Blatt, several times, and he asked me to testify in the case. He wanted me to help him save his client’s life.

While Hollywood had been on the lam, the Santa Barbara County District Attorney, and other law enforcement agencies, had totally demonized him through the media. They had basically tried and convicted him in absentia. As a result, the public sentiment was seriously against Hollywood. People wanted to see him die a violent death for a crime he hadn’t even yet appeared in court for. The prosecutor wanted to put him to death. The victim’s family sought a ten-eyes-for-two kind of justice. I truly believed Mr. Blatt’s client stood very little chance of getting a fair trial. I think, at the time, any jury would have handed down a swift conviction followed by an even swifter justice—that being the death sentence.

I’m a criminal defense attorney by heart and by trade. I’m also a humanist. And I sincerely believe that all living things have this inherent right to life. It’s not our job to make the ultimate decision about each other. I’m not a fan of government-sanctioned murder. So I wanted to do whatever I could to help save Mr. Blatt’s client.

Besides, I knew Jesse Hollywood’s family. Jesse had a little brother that he was very protective of. He had parents who loved their son. They didn’t want him to die. And neither did I. But the problem with Mr. Blatt’s request was that if I ended up testifying, my testimony could be used as the cornerstone for criminal prosecution against Ron Zonen, the prosecutor on the case—and also his office—for potential illegal misconduct in their dealings with me. I got a lot of information from the prosecutor. A lot of it—he probably shouldn’t have given to me. It wasn’t until the California Attorney General decided not to prosecute him or his office that I finally agreed to testify. And then when I did, the court ordered me to turn over my notes. If I didn’t’ comply, I’d go to jail. So, ultimately, I complied. I wasn’t really that interested in staying at the Gray Bar Hotel. I had a life to live. I had a book to finish. So I turned the notes and tapes over. But I wasn’t really happy about the way the situation had materialized at all.

Maybe I have it wrong, but when I compare your writings about the fictional Mickey with those of Jesse James Hollywood I see a divergence. Mickey is the devil incarnate, yet I get a real sense that your feelings for Jesse are something else. Am I right?

The real Jesse James Hollywood is far from the devil incarnate. He’s actually a very smart kid. When you think about it, he was very successful at what he did. But Jesse wasn’t evil. He was an arrogant hothead, maybe. And he was scared, definitely. He was living in some pretty rough company at the time. But through all this, Jesse James Hollywood—in spite of the reputation his name assumes—is a human being. And at the time he did whatever it was that he really did do, he was just a kid. He was a twenty-year-old kid trying to play the big man’s game, and it got away from him. But he, just like his co-defendants, doesn’t deserve to die as a result of it. If he does get the death penalty, and if we, as the state of California, agree to put him to death, what does that make us? People who kill to avenge a killing? Is that really what being a member of the human race is all about? Taking justice into our own hands? I know that’s not what I’m about. I believe in life, and I try not to put my energies toward creating death. So I will do whatever I can to help someone who’s in serious trouble. To help raise the consciousness of anyone who cares. To try to change the world around us by dedicating our collective-consciousness to life-enhancing measures, not death.

Are you still involved with the case? You clearly have formed a bond with Jesse’s father.

These are two very different issues. First of all, yes, I am still involved in the case in that I suspect the prosecutor and defense attorney are not finished with my services yet. The new prosecutor on the case has tried to subpoena me. From what I understand, he’s a really nice guy. But he wants to get more information from me, and I think that’s totally uncool. What could I possibly know or have at this point that he could possibly need? He’s trying to kill Jesse Hollywood. And I’m not going to help him do it, even if it does put me at risk of going to jail. It’s that simple. That’s why I sent my lawyer into court this past June, and the mouthpieces argued about the subpoena. The judge, in his wisdom, told the prosecutor and my attorney that he wouldn’t decide the issue of the validity of the subpoena until the case came back down from the California Supreme Court.

The Supremes are set to decide a very important issue in this case. As I understand it, they are dealing with how prosecutors should or should not be able to cozy up to the media while trying high-profile cases. It’s similar to the whole debacle with the Duke lacrosse team. The District Attorney on that case basically tried and convicted those poor kids through the media before they ever had a chance to defend themselves. The same thing happened here. The prosecutor wants Jesse James Hollywood on death row. I’m going to do what I can to help make sure that doesn’t happen. We have to change things around here. I believe that if we put our energies into life-enhancing measures we will all benefit as a whole. We are all related, you know. We all benefit when the rest of us do well. We need to stop killing our brothers. And it’s certainly not the job of our government to do that for us.

As far as Jesse’s father, Jack, is concerned. I could totally empathize with the guy. Here’s a man who felt terrible about his involvement in raising his son. His son was looking to be put to death, and this guy somehow felt responsible for that. Jack told me a story about the time law enforcement agencies raided his house and served a search warrant on him not long after Jesse disappeared. One of the law officers, a supervisor from the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department, told Jack that he hoped to be the one to find Jesse, because he wanted to be the one to shoot and kill him. Can you imagine someone telling you that about your kid? Jack was devastated. He didn’t want his son to be murdered by a member of the Sheriff’s department. At the time, I think all he really wanted was to be able to hold his son in his arms and know that he was going to be all right.

Usually the sequence of events is book first, movie later. In this case you reversed the order. Looking at both works, which is your favorite, and what are your thoughts about this sequence?

I loved the movie. I thought Nick (Cassavetes) did an exceptional job with it. It was raw. Some of the performances were raw. It was a truly unusual blend of pure, hot-looking energy that told a very compelling story, an important story, one that needed to be told. The book tells roughly the same story, but in a completely different way. And I’ll tell you why.

Back in October of 2003, Nick had a reading of the project that influenced me tremendously when it came to which version of the story to tell through the book. There was so much to this story. So much information. There were so many people involved. It was difficult to decide exactly which storylines to follow. When we started out on the project, we wanted to tell as truthful a version of the story as we possibly could. That’s why Nick hired me. He knew I’d figure out a way to get the information that we needed. So Cassavetes had this reading with many of Hollywood’s top young talent. Great young actors and actresses. This was back with the first draft of Nick’s screenplay, when Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey McGuire were set to produce it. Tobey read Hollywood’s part while Leo read the part of his chief antagonist, the victim’s brother. As the reading progressed deep into the screenplay, you could feel the excitement building. The room filled with tension. And as we neared the climax, you could literally feel the anxiety intensify within the actors. It was like—No way, this isn’t going to happen. They’re really not going to do this. There’s no way these guys are going to hurt this kid. And then, all of a sudden, the room went dead silent. This huge collective gasp escaped. It was like a huge ball had burst. Everybody fell back, totally deflated. They couldn’t believe it could happen like that. It was like—There’s no way these guys, who had spent all this time partying with this kid, would… And then suddenly they commit the worst act you could possibly imagine. The actors were devastated. And I knew that’s how my story had to end.

Making a movie, and writing a book involve a different set of dynamics. Having done both, do you have a favorite?

I love them both. There is something incredibly magical about making movies. There’s something even more special about making a Cassavetes film. It’s like making history while you’re working. There’s something that’s so incredible about the collaborative process—that is what filmmaking is all about. No one person makes a movie. It takes many people of diverse talents getting together and sharing in that creative experience, to make good movies. Alpha Dog was a remarkable experience when you look at all the wonderful talent that went into making that film. You start with the unprecedented research conducted by Nick and myself. The work we put into the screenplay. Then the energies created by the likes of Justin Timberlake—who really is a superstar in the making, if he’s not one already—and Sharon Stone and Bruce Willis. Then you add the wonderful talents of Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Anton Yelchin, and Lukas Haas, who were terrific complements to the big-name stars. It truly was an exciting experience.

But there are so many things that can go wrong when it comes to making films. You have to get the financing. And that can be a problem. Especially when your subject matter is as controversial as it was for this film. And then you have problems like when the person who the story is about gets captured. It changes the ending of the story, and then you have to rewrite it and re shoot it. But before you can do that, you have to raise more money to pay everyone to rewrite and re shoot the new ending. It can be a real hassle. And in our instance, it really was. Then, things got delayed even further when Hollywood’s attorney filed an injunction with the federal courts to try to block the movie’s release. That’s why I enjoy the book writing process so much.

Sure, novel writing has it’s own set of dynamics, but it can be such a personally rewarding experience when it’s done right. Where films are made from images, novels are primarily developed around characters’ internal machinations. That’s why I love to read novels. It allows me, the reader, to escape my own problems for a while, and delve into someone else’s. It enables me to ride their rollercoaster of a life. I can watch them experience a situation, then figure out how to move on from there. If the novel is written well, then I can also experience growth through the character—a sort of personal evolution. And if the story is about a universal experience, I should be able to learn something from the character’s development that I can apply to my own life. That, to me, is what makes novel writing such an incredible experience, and probably my preferred medium of participation.

I talk with many authors, and I hear the same story of trials and tribulations. It is hard to break into the book business, writing it is the easy bit! Editors, agents, publishers, each offers their own unique set of challenges. What has your experiences been?

Truthfully, the book writing business has been very different than what I first believed it to be. If I had it all to do over again, I would probably have done a few things differently. My biggest problem was that I still wanted to be relevant when my book came out. I had been in the news quite a bit up to that point regarding my involvement with the case, and I needed to keep that momentum going. Plus, I felt that my story needed to be out there in the public light so that a more balanced version of what really happened regarding Jesse’s involvement could be made to the public. That’s why I needed to get my book out there as fast as I could. My story drew a very different picture than the one portrayed by the media.

Jesse Hollywood had been demonized so badly by law enforcement officials that there was no way he could have gotten a fair trial. None. Practically everyone who had ever heard about the case had already formed an opinion, and that opinion generally centered around guilt. They wanted him to die because they had read about what a monster he was; what a monstrous act he had committed. The press and law enforcement officials had basically painted the picture that Hollywood had the victim murdered as revenge for a drug debt. But I knew differently. I had all the trial transcripts and police reports. I had interviewed the key witnesses. I knew this was not the truth. The motivations behind what really happened were very different than what had been portrayed through the media.

Besides, while the legal proceedings went on and Hollywood’s four co-defendants were prosecuted, a void was being created where Hollywood’s voice should have been. There was no one available who could speak on his behalf. So, everyone took advantage of this void and basically blamed him for everything. When he was finally captured, I was of the belief that everyone was basically convinced of his guilt. That they believed he had the kid killed as a result of the drug debt, and they’d convict him and sentence him to death as a result thereof. I didn’t believe any jury would give his version of events any serious consideration since they had read the papers and watched the TV news and believed they knew what had happened.

This was a highly sensational crime. It had received global media coverage from the time the fifteen-year-old victim’s body was discovered in a shallow grave in the foothills overlooking Santa Barbara. But the coverage had been wrong regarding Hollywood’s participation. That’s why I needed to get my book out there. I understood the usual turnaround for publishers to be around 18 months. That was too long for my circumstance. The case had been appealed to the California Supreme Court. My concern was that they would hand down their decision and the case would go to trial, and Hollywood would be convicted and receive the death sentence without his version of events ever receiving the light of day. So I had to get my book out ASAP. My version of the motivations of what happened is pretty accurate. My story needed to get out. So I basically had to find someone who could publish my book, and get it out to the market before Hollywood’s case went to trial. That’s why I bypassed the normal publishing process, pursued a publisher without representation of an agent, and raced to get my book out as quickly as possible.

Now, as we sit here, the California Supreme Court still hasn’t ruled on the case, and no trial date has been set. But the book’s out, it’s a critical success, and there is now more balance within the public eye as to what really caused this insane mess to start with.

Have you been pleased with the feedback you are getting about Stolen Boy?

The feedback regarding Stolen Boy has been phenomenal. I’m excited to say that I’ve written a critically successful book. It’s a hard story to read, no question about it. It’s a very heavy story. It’s about kids kidnapping and hurting kids. And to my knowledge, there has never been a book quite like it. Where the story comes out in a book, and it’s based in part on confidential law enforcement records, before the defendant, who inspired the book, ever gets his day in court.

Stolen Boy is a psychological thriller that delves into the minds of these kids, fifteen to twenty years old, as the pressure ratchets up over the three-day period of this kidnapping. As the vice tightens, we hear and see and feel the pressure building up for these kids. We see their interactions with each other, with their parents. We experience what they were feeling as they made critical life and death decisions. It’s a very intense ride for some.

What can we expect next from Michael Mehas?

I’m dying to adapt into a novel a screenplay I penned several years ago called Twice Sacrificed. It’s a deliciously intense story of family and sacrifice. Where a young man, who’s spent more than half his life in prison—for a murder he swears he never committed—gets out and has the chance to investigate who really killed his stunning fifteen-year-old girlfriend eighteen years earlier, only to discover the dark secrets of his family’s past. Secrets that could now cost him not only his newfound freedom, but his life.

Michael, thank you for taking time out to talk to us. And you can bet that I will be looking for Twice Sacrificed.

Simon Barrett

http://zzsimonb.blogspot.com

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