Tim Tate on the making of the Franklin Scandal documentary Conspiracy of Silence
Many thanks to Tim Tate for contributing this piece about the making of his documentary about the Franklin Scandal, Conspiracy of Silence. Although the film was never shown on television, a rough edit is available on YouTube. If you have any questions for Tim, please leave them in the comments and he will try to answer them.
It took many weeks to find Troy Boner. For almost 20 years I have asked myself whether he would still be alive if I hadn’t.
At the start of 1993 I was a producer in Yorkshire Television’s documentaries department. That office was a remarkable place: it was filled with some of the most talented factual film directors and producers Britain has ever produced. It had been responsible for ground-breaking documentaries which led, ultimately, to the release of the Guildford 4, the exposure of asbetos-related mesolthelioma, and a true understanding of the Mai Lai massacre in Vietnam.
It was a quiet place, that office: serious and informed by two overriding principles – is this a film which should be made and, just as importantly, will I put those who help make it at any risk ?
I was then just finishing the first full-length documentary investigating the Chinese government’s appalling “Laogai” network of prison-slave Gulags. For the record, I had been an investigative journalist and producer for more than a decade but the head of YTV’s documentaries department saw – rightly – that I had much to learn about the art of film-making: I was hired as a producer, and set to work with truly talented documentaries directors.
At the time, Yorkshire Television made a network ITV series called “First Tuesday”: 12 1 hour films every year., guaranteeing enough money to invest in serious journalism and documentaries. Simply put, this was the best place, anywhere in the world, to make documentaries: First Tuesday films put the BBC and the rest of ITV to shame. I had been a latecomer to the department, having previously worked with Roger Cook on radio and on ITV’s The Cook Report, as well as working as an independent producer.
The Laogai film was one of the last First Tuesday documentaries ITV would broadcast (despite it winning – as had countless other First Tuesday films – a major international award, and being sold around the world.) ITV was changing its very structure and First Tuesday was replaced by a new monthly documentary strand, not ring-fenced to Yorkshire Television.
Yorkshire reacted well to the loss: it signed a deal with the Discovery Channel which essentially transferred the ‘brand’ to Discovery’s American and European networks. “First Tuesday On Discovery” was born. The contract called for 13 films – each of one hour – in 1994, with others to follow in the years after.
The commissioning editor for Discovery was a sharp and highly-focussed woman called Tomi Landis. She met with the team at Yorkshire TV’s Leeds studios in mid-1993: each of us was to pitch her an idea which would be good for the new strand. I pitched Conspiracy of Silence.
I had been alerted to the story by a freelance journalist in Los Angeles who I had met on an independent documentary I had previously made (for Channel 4) about the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. Andy Boehm had done some work on that story and we had struck up a friendship during the Kennedy filming. He had also written about the abuse and prostitution of children in – and from – Boys Town in Nebraska all the way to the steps of the Capitol in Washington DC. One key fact stood out: a young woman, Alisha Owens, had recently been sentenced to a jail terms of between 9 and 27 years for naming her alleged abuser in court. Andy thought it merited further investigation: so did I.
Tomi Landis’ reaction to my pitch was electric and immediate. “it’s got everything – it’s got politics, it’s got pedophilia – it’s just perfect.” The film was commissioned immediately – the only one to be given the green-light in that first meeting.
In the summer of 1993, Andy Boehm (hired as a researcher), YTV director Nick Gray and I arrived in Lincoln, Nebraska. We spent weeks tracking down and talking to all those with knowledge of the story. Lawyer John De Camp was the first and key port of call; abuse victim (also De Camp’s client) Paul Bonacci was vital. But the vital missing piece of the jigsaw was Troy Boner.
We need – for those who don’t know the story – to back track a moment.
Boys Town – situated in the heart of Nebraska, itself the heart of the United States – has been America’s favourite (Catholic) charity since it was immortalised in a Hollywood movie starring Spencer Tracy. The oft-played pop hit “He Ain’t Heavy” owes its title to a statue in the centre of Boys Town: it shows a boy carrying another on his shoulders with the carved legend “He ain’t heavy, Father, he’s m’brother”. It’s not just a home for deprived or at risk youth, but an incorporated town and indeed a diocese in its own right.
In the late 1980s young boys and girls in Boys Town tried to disclose that they were being sexually abused and prostituted by one of Nebraska’s most prominent figures. Larry King was, in fact, the rising black star in the Republic Party nationwide. Ostensibly the manager of a relatively small credit union in Omaha, Nebraska, he was the Republicans’ answer to the (then) perceived Democratic threat of black politicians like Andrew Jackson. King was handed the high-profile slot singing the National Anthem at the Republican National Convention in 1988.
But according to teenagers in Boys Town (where he was a frequent visitor) King was also a sexual predator who abused and pimped them at parties to which they were taken. More troubling still (as if that wasn’t enough) some of these boys and girls had reported being flown to Washington DC and prostituted at parties held in King’s house on the city’s exclusive ‘Embassy Row’. They had claimed that politicians from both parties had been present.
By the time we arrived Nebraska several years had passed since those first disclosures. An official State government enquiry had been launched and the young people had given recorded video interviews to the investigator retained by the State and given sworn testimony to a Grand Jury. But they had all disappeared: despite wearing out shoe leather all over Nebraska and beyond I simply could not find them.
However, three new – and subsequent – young people had also given video-recorded testimony to the investigator: each were vulnerable youth from Nebraska and each described not just the perverting of under-age children in Boys Town, but the abuse of Boys Town youth and themselves by rich and powerful people at parties generally hosted by Larry King. Their names were Alisha Owens, Paul Bonacci – and Troy Boner.
Bonacci talked fluently and extensively. Owens was on bail, awaiting an appeal (ultimately unsuccessful) against her sentence for naming in court the man she claimed had been her principle abuser: as such she could not speak on the record. Boner, though, was the key.
Troy Boner was then around 20; his story – as told to the Nebraska State investigator and in Grand Jury testimony – was that he had been sexually abused at parties hosted by Larry King and others. Crucially, he corroborated the testimony of Alisha Owens and Paul Bonacci. But Tory was also a chronic drug addict – heroin and crack cocaine (both of which he claimed to have been introduced to at the sex parties) controlled his life. And at some point in 1991 – or thereabouts – he had been picked up by the FBI and, he said threatened with a lengthy jail spell if he didn’t recant his testimony. He duly did.
I have worked child abuse cases – in the US, the UK and elsewhere – for many years. I have made films, written books, and interviewed victims and perpetrators alike: in almost every case I have heard claims that some branch of law enforcement has leant on an alleged witness to ‘forget’ what they claim to have been or heard. And so I viewed Boner’s reported claim with some suspicion.
However, I was also given transcripts of all the Grand Jury testimony (which are meant to be secret and never revealed) and – most importantly an audio tape recording of Troy Boner, made by the FBI (the agent identified himself) in which he telephoned Alisha Owens and plainly attempted to entrap her into recanting her testimony. It made finding him even more essential.
When I did finally run him to ground, Troy Boner was scared. No: he was terrified. He was also strung out. It took only a few minutes before he volunteered that he had originally told the truth about the abuse, but that he had been co-erced into retracting this by the FBI. He wanted to know if I could keep him safe if he came clean and re-canted his recantation.
It’s a question I have been asked many times. And the short, honest answer is “no”. The longer answer is – as I explained to Troy – that once a film is broadcast there is very little sense in anyone targeting or persecuting someone who has given testimony in it: the best safety lies in being visible.
It would take many more weeks of meetings – with Troy, his mother and his siblings (who clearly worshipped him) – before he agreed to be filmed. His interview was lucid and brutally honest about his abuse, his drug use, his involvement with the FBI and his own responsibility for being part of the abuse of others.
We left Nebraska before autumn came, knowing that we would have to return within a few months. At my prompting, Troy had agreed to give a sworn statement to John DeCamp and to appear as a witness at Alisha Owens’ appeal hearing the following February.
In those days we shot everything on 16mm film (Yorkshire Television was one of the last of the big production companies to do so): I had to get dozens of cans of film back to the safety of England for processing: along with them I had half a room full of Grand Jury documents. I needed to work through each and every page in the quiet of my office – and being caught with them in the US would ensure a mandatory arrest and inescapable conviction (Grand Jury testimony is secret and it is a federal offence to reveal it). I agreed to keep in touch will all the interviewees – including Troy and Paul Bonacci – in the months we would be away.
We went back in February 1994. I had spent the intervening months immersed in the Grand Jury documents. All of the testimony confirmed everything said on film by our witnesses. Troy, though, had disappeared: I had several phone calls with his worried mother before we arrived: she spoke of his debilitating fear of the FBI and his increasing problems with drugs.
The Owens appeal was set down for hearing in the courthouse in Wahoo, Nebraska, 30 miles south of Omaha. In the days leading up to it DeCamp was frantically trying to get hold of Troy: the young man was his star witness whose testimony should have stopped Alisha being returned to jail. When the two finally spoke, Troy promised to be at the hearing.
There was a snowstorm on the day of the hearing. Our film captured DeCamp in the middle of a complete white-out trying to reach Troy on his cellphone. He failed. There was no sign of Troy Boner and the hearing was adjourned.
We filmed new interviews with all the participants and arranged to take deCamp and Bonacci to Washington DC. The young man wanted to show us where he had been taken for Larry King’s sex parties. But before then, Troy called and asked if I could arrange for him to take a lie-detector test. He wanted, he said, to prove that he was telling the truth about the abuse he had suffered.
I was, I admit, uneasy. Polygraphs aren’t admissible in the UK (though they can be in the US) – not least because they can be unreliable and depend heavily on the subject’s state of mind. Reluctantly I agreed: I arranged for Troy and all of the film crew to fly to Chicago, where one of America’s most respected polygraph experts was based.
In the 24 hours before we flew, we made the last of many attempts to get the identified abusers and the FBI to give us interviews. None agreed. It became plain that during the course of the day we were being followed – and not terribly subtly. The same (unmarked cars) were with us wherever we drove that day.
In Chicago, the polygraph turned out much as I had feared. Troy neither passed nor failed outright: the best the examiner could tell us was that the outcome was “inconclusive” – the result, he suspected of Troy’s chronic drug dependency. I put the young man back on the plane and we headed on to Washington DC.
Bonacci and DeCamp met us there: Paul took us – unprompted by any of the crew – to Embassy Row and pointed out (accurately) Larry King;s house. He described in painful detail what had happened there. He also identified by name the call-boy ring with which he claimed King was associated. Across town we met and filmed a DC political journalist who had broken the story of exactly this ring of paedophile abusers: strangely the records – seized by the FBI – which showed the names of clients had been sealed by court order. What had emerged was that several of the clients were politicians – just as Bonacci, Owens and Boner had alleged.
By the time we got back to Leeds we had miles of film and a treasure trove of documents. We began a three-month post-production – or editing – process. Since everything was on 16mm film, the process was laborious and involved physically cutting strips of celluloid. After 8 weeks we had a rough cut: we transferred it to VHS (the standard viewing format in those days) and sent it to Yorkshire Television’s external lawyers, Goodman Derrick.
As producer it was my job to clear the film legally. I spent hours with the lawyers working through each allegation and each sequence in the rough cut. Eventually Goodman Derrick issued a formal legal clearance.
British libel law is probably the strictest in the free world – certainly much more repressive than its US counterpart. Nonetheless, because Yorkshire TV’s contract with Discovery placed the burden of legal clearance with us, I repeated the process with a highly-respected firm of New York libel lawyers. It, too, cleared the film for transmission.
We also sent the rough-cut to Discovery and, pending their thoughts, progressed to the next – fine cut – stage of polishing the sequences and bringing in archive footage. I was in the edit suite when the director, Nick Gray (an award-winning film-maker) walked in and told me Discovery was pulling the programme. He was furious.
The only explanation we ever got from Discovery was that – and I quote – “we seem to have gotten into an investigative area inconsistent with the Discovery mission statement”. No mention of the initial enthusiasm for the film (It’s got politics, it’s got pedophilia …”).
A deal was cut with Yorkshire Television by which Discovery picked up the tab for the film – approximately $250,000 – and handed the rights to it back to Yorkshire on the strict proviso that no mention was ever to be made of Discovery’s previous involvement. Since the film had been in Discovery’s published schedule, this seemed absurd.
I tried immediately to get in touch with everyone in the film. The only person I couldn’t reach was Troy Boner. I never managed to speak with him.
To tie up loose ends. Yorkshire Television never sold the rights to the film to any other broadcaster – hardly surprising given its entirely US-centric content. It continued to have a relationship with Discovery and I made a subsequent film for First Tuesday on Discovery which went on to win the network a coveted award.
John DeCamp continued to represent Alisha Owen and Paul Bonacci. The former went back to prison; the latter won – albeit briefly – legal compensation for what he had endured. Larry King – the alleged mastermind of the child sex abuse ring – was jailed for embezzling the credit union funds. No other named and identified alleged abusers were, to my knowledge, brought to court.
And Troy Boner? He disappeared. My promise to him that the broadcast would protect him had plainly failed to materialise. Ten years later he died in largely unexplained circumstances in New Mexico. And if you want the truth, I blame myself.
Did Troy die from his addiction or – as he predicted – at someone else’s hand ? I can’t tell you. His wasn’t the only unexplained death: Nebraska State Investigator Gary Caradori had died, along with his young son, in a puzzling light aircraft accident. Co-incidence ? I simply don’t know. Just as I don’t know what happened to the original Boys Town complainants who had disappeared by the time I arrived in Nebraska.
What I do know is that secrecy and concealment lets down those who have been abused. Throughout this story much -too much – was sealed, concealed or dispersed. The losers are those who were abused as children. The winners ? I leave that to you.