2011-04-22 / Front Page

Film allows victim advocate to share harrowing true tale

By Carissa Marsh


RELIVING TRAGEDY—Brooks Douglass, right, shares a light moment with the audience during a discussion with Ventura County District Attorney Greg Totten following a screening of the film “Heaven’s Rain” on April 13 at the Reagan Library. 
WENDY PIERRO/Acorn Newspapers RELIVING TRAGEDY—Brooks Douglass, right, shares a light moment with the audience during a discussion with Ventura County District Attorney Greg Totten following a screening of the film “Heaven’s Rain” on April 13 at the Reagan Library. WENDY PIERRO/Acorn Newspapers The date is October 15, 1979. A camera pans over the Douglass family’s modest home in Okarche, Okla. Dusk has fallen and there are just wide-open spaces all around.

When a man knocks at the door asking to use the telephone, a 16-year-old Brooks Douglass opens the door and lets him in. Soon after, Glen Ake and his partner Steven Hatch pull out guns, tie up the Douglass family and repeatedly sexually assault Brooks’ 12-year-old sister, Leslie. Before they go, they shoot all four family members, leaving them for dead.

Brooks’ mother and father die at the scene; he and his sister, though severely wounded, are able to get in the car, drive to the hospital—and survive.

Watching this scene unfold on screen, it is hard to imagine it’s real.

But then one is reminded of the phrase that flashed during the opening credits: A true story.

“It brought me to tears because you do know it’s true,” said Kim Brown, of Lake Elsinore, one of the audience members at the April 13 screening at the Reagan Library.

The screening of the movie, titled “Heaven’s Rain,” was part of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, April 10-16. Established in 1981, the week is a time to honor both crime victims and the advocates who fight for victims’ rights and services.

Local elected officials and chiefs of police attended the event, along with several representatives from the district attorney’s office. Brooks Douglass was there, too.

“We’re here tonight not to just honor the story of one man but the story of victims everywhere,” said John Heubusch, executive director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation.

Heubusch added that the public and the justice system must never look at victims as just statistics on a police blotter. They are friends, neighbors and relatives, he said. They are people like Douglass.

“He is a man of conviction, strength and determination. He didn’t just overcome that tragedy, he dramatically changed the state of the Oklahoma justice system,” Heubusch said. “Brooks survived an unthinkable attack but through faith and forgiveness he found triumph over tragedy.”

The film begins in the early 1990s, when Douglass was a state senator. Elected in 1990 at the age of 27, he was the youngest senator in Oklahoma history. During his 12 years in office, he authored and passed more than a dozen victims’ rights bills.

But the film also tells Douglass’ story through a series of flashbacks— to his childhood and to the night of the attack.

Though the film doesn’t shy away from the hard facts of the tragedy the Douglasses endured, there are moments of tenderness and even humor.

The film, released last September, is also a tribute to Douglass’ parents, Richard, a pastor in the Baptist Church, and Marilyn. The title of the film is taken from the last sermon his father preached, from the book of Matthew.

After the screening, District Attorney Greg Totten sat down to discuss the film with Douglass, now 47, who not only co-authored and co-produced the movie, but also played the role of his father.

Douglass said he was excited at first to have the chance to honor his father’s legacy. That is until he remembered he would have to act out the crime scene.

“My first memory of him isn’t dying on the floor,” Douglass said. “It was one of the hardest things I‘ve ever done.”

At the end of the film, Douglass meets with Ake in prison, to confront the man who killed his parents— he’s the one who pulled the trigger. Ake apologizes to Douglass and at one point wipes tears from his eyes. Seeing his cuffed hands, Douglass puts the key to unlock the restraints on the table.

Though that didn’t happen in real life, Douglass said after the screening that he wished it did.

“When he looked up, what I saw was complete sincerity and at that moment I wished I had the key,” he said.

The result of their meeting wasn’t movie magic though. While Douglass never expected it, he did end the meeting just the way it happens in the film: by forgiving his parents’ killer.

Douglass said it was a lifechanging moment. It helped him let go of the rage that was eating him up inside and allowed him begin to move forward.

“I felt like there had been a clamp on my chest and somebody took it off and I could breathe for the first time in 15 years,” he said.

Several members of the audience said it was the film’s message of forgiveness that moved them most.

“It was a tragedy of course . . . but I think it’s a beautiful story of the power of forgiveness,” said Gayle Hulbert, from Sunland. “He’s turning something tragic into something to help other people.”

Though Douglass said he didn’t get into politics years ago to pursue victims’ rights he couldn’t avoid doing something to balance the system. Just like there are rights for the accused, there need to be rights for the victim, he said.

“When crime like this happens our belief in the system is destroyed. We’re always told police are here to protect you, (the criminal is) going to get caught and they’re going to get punished . . . But then we find out many times and maybe most it doesn’t happen and that collapses our faith in the system,” he said.

It cost $500 for his sister’s rape kit and $115 to get back their impounded car. Today, there are victims’ compensation funds to help with those kinds of costs.

And although Ake and Hatch were tried and convicted and sentenced to death in 1980, those sentences didn’t stick. Nine times Douglass and his sister had to testify. Hatch was eventually executed; Ake is still in prison.

“The criminal justice system needs to do what it says it’s going to do,” he said.

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