SAN ANTONIO (AP) — The American taxpayer may be getting into the movie business.
In a real-life case of drugs and extortion that could itself make a pretty good screenplay, prosecutors have forced a Mexican drug trafficker to turn over his stake in a planned prequel to Mel Gibson’s 2004 blockbuster “The Passion of the Christ.”
Some of the big names behind the Hollywood project include megachurch pastor Joel Osteen, who had no idea about the script’s unsavory backstory.
“When you get a script, you just don’t think to say ‘Hey, was this script ever tied to a Mexican cartel?’” said Donald Iloff, a spokesman for Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston. The script was already being handled by a legitimate production company when Osteen got involved.
Jorge Vazquez Sanchez pleaded guilty this week in federal court to extortion and money laundering in a deal that required him to give up a 10 percent stake in future profits of “Mary, Mother of Christ,” which is scheduled to begin production this year and includes Osteen as an executive producer.
The script was written by the same person behind “The Passion of the Christ”, which became a worldwide smash and earned more than $611 million.
Aloe Entertainment, the Los Angeles-based production company that paid nearly more than $900,000 for the script, said it knew nothing about Vazquez, who was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Had Vazquez kept his stake, “we don’t know what would have happened,” the company said in a statement. “We have assembled an amazing team to bring it to the big screen. Now the American taxpayers can be part of this incredible project.”
Vazquez, a Mexican citizen identified in court documents as a drug trafficker who laundered money, acquired the screenplay in 2008. He and one of his co-defendants extorted a San Antonio businessman named Arturo Madrigal, even kidnapping his brother in Guadalajara, Mexico, to wrest control of the script from Madrigal’s company, Macri Inc., according to court documents.
Earlier in 2008, Macri had foreclosed on a loan made to Benedict Fitzgerald, writer of the “The Last Passion of the Christ.” The foreclosure gave the company control of the prequel, said Richard Rosenthal, attorney for Aloe Entertainment.
Richard Ross, an attorney for Fitzgerald, confirmed that his client wrote the screenplay. He said Macri had invested in the project.
Aloe, known then as Proud Mary Entertainment, had paid one of Vazquez’s co-defendants $925,000 for the script, believing the company was run by a San Antonio real estate mogul.
Aloe executives hired an entertainment copyright attorney who spent more than three months researching the screenplay’s origins before the company paid for it. Federal prosecutors contacted them last year seeking documents for the transaction.
When prosecutors moved to seize Vazquez’s assets, the stake he had retained in the film’s profits was included. Vazquez’s lawyer, Donald Flanary, said his client did not contest the forfeiture.
The plea deal is probably “the first time that a major motion picture was made in which 10 percent of the profits went to the American taxpayers,” Rosenthal said. “It would be an incredibly unique story.”
The case was first reported by the San Antonio Express-News.
Prosecutors alleged that Vazquez and others laundered millions of dollars in drug proceeds from the U.S. to Mexico by channeling the money through various currency exchanges, bank accounts and real estate ventures. Vazquez was arrested in late 2010 in Chicago.
Osteen’s Lakewood Church signed onto the project last year.
“It’s a beautiful script,” Iloff said. “I’m so saddened that it was tainted this way. I hope that it doesn’t slow it down.”
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