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JESUP, Ga. – A year after a freight train plowed into crew members for a movie about singer Gregg Allman, killing a young camera assistant, the film's director was sentenced to two years in jail Monday as part of a plea deal.
In a rare case of a filmmaker being prosecuted for a death on a movie set, "Midnight Rider" director Randall Miller pleaded guilty to charges of involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespassing as part of the last-minute deal in southeast Georgia.
Prosecutors agreed to drop charges against Miller's wife and business partner, Jody Savin. The movie's executive producer, Jay Sedrish, also pleaded guilty and got 10 years on probation.
All three were to stand trial for the Feb. 20, 2014, train collision that killed 27-year-old camera assistant Sarah Jones of Atlanta and injured six other crew members on a railroad bridge in rural southeast Georgia. Her death galvanized behind-the-scenes film workers nationwide to push for improved safety standards on sets.
"We hope the sacrifice of our daughter's life will continue to change the film industry," Jones' father, Richard Jones, told reporters outside the courthouse. "I believe it sends a message, frankly, that if you do not respect those you're in charge of, you may end up behind bars."
Prosecutors said all three defendants knew that CSX Transportation, which owned the trestle spanning the Altamaha River, had denied them permission in writing to film on its tracks.
Assistant District Attorney John B. Johnson said Miller and the other filmmakers even attempted to rewrite the script to drop the scene they planned to shoot with actor William Hurt, in the role of Allman, in a hospital bed placed on the tracks.
Miller decided to shoot the scene anyway, Johnson said, after the owner of the property surrounding the tracks said the movie crew could access its land. He said Miller and his crew went onto the railroad bridge after mistakenly thinking no more trains would pass that day.
A train traveling at 55 mph smashed into a metal-framed bed on the tracks, sending shrapnel flying as crew members scrambled for safety and clung to the bridge's metal railing high above the Altamaha River.
"Sarah Jones was hit by the edge of the fuel tank and was run over by the train," Johnson told the judge. "She died instantly."
After his plea was accepted, Miller followed a sheriff's deputy from the courtroom to begin his two-year sentence at the Wayne County jail. He also agreed to serve an additional eight years on probation and pay a $20,000 fine.
Miller's attorney, Ed Garland, said he expects the director could be released from jail within a year. He said Miller accepted the plea deal to prevent prosecution of his wife, who left the courthouse in tears. Garland said the filmmaker never intended to put his crew at risk.
"Randall Miller at the time this happened believed there were not any more trains that would come down that track," Garland said. "But he accepts responsibility."
Sedrish's attorney, John Ossick, declined to comment as he left the courthouse.
The last high-profile prosecution of a filmmaker in an on-set death occurred after a helicopter crash killed actor Victor Morrow and two children during filming of the "Twilight Zone" movie in 1982. Five years later, director John Landis and four others stood trial on manslaughter charges. A jury acquitted them all.
Charges are still pending against a fourth "Midnight Rider" defendant, assistant director Hillary Schwartz. Prosecutors planned to try her after the other three.
The "Midnight Rider" movie has been in limbo since the crash. Allman sued Miller to prevent the director from reviving the film. They settled out of court last year, and terms were not disclosed.