Patrick Forbes’ latest documentary, The Phantom, a film about how the State of Texas knowingly sent an innocent man to his death and left a serial killer at large, is now streaming on Netflix. His career began as a very junior researcher on a BBC series, when he was arrested after discovering Britain had a (secret) spy satellite. At that moment, it was clear that documentaries offered a lot more excitement and interest than his previous career as an economist. He’s gone on to become one of Britain’s best documentary directors – winning the Best Director BAFTA for his Channel 4 series The Force, Best Series BAFTA for The National Trust (BBC), and having his documentary feature about Julian Assange, Wikileaks; Secrets & Lies, premiere at SXSW, before being seen around the world.
“Tell the Truth.” That is what everyone’s mother and father asks. Normally after you have done something terrible to your sister, brother, or family pet.
I had Aunt Anne on my case as well. She assured me that if I did not tell the truth, the Devil would have my soul. Aged six I was not entirely sure what my soul was. But I did not want Satan to have it.
As I grew up, I discovered that outside the Forbes family there were people who were not terrified of Beelzebub’s embrace, that they “lied.” So began a life-long obsession with sorting truth from fiction, of trying to work out what was/is really happening.
It meant two career options: detective or documentary maker. I was not tough enough for the first. You had to smoke that many cigarettes, hit those hard men? The die was cast. Documentaries it was.
The quest for truth, which underpins my current movie The Phantom, has given me an amazing career in which I have gone round the world, met presidents and crooks, heroes and villains, been locked up, shot at, denounced and praised, been very cold (Russia), very hot (Haiti), very frightened (Haiti again) and very bored (waiting for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to make his mind up).
I wouldn’t want to do anything else. People are endlessly fascinating, particularly to somebody as curious as me. And finding out what happened in the past, can – sometimes – change the future for the better.
There is no better example of that than in the case of The Phantom. The truth of what happened in Corpus Christi, Texas, one terrible night in February 1983 has lain hidden for decades, under a web of lies, mistakes, and endemic racial prejudice.
Wanda Lopez, a young gas station clerk, was hacked to death by a crazed psychopath as she served him at the cash desk. Six years later, Carlos DeLuna, a 27-year-old Hispanic man, was executed for the crime. But had Texas got the right guy?
DeLuna had gone to his death protesting that another man, also called Carlos, had killed Wanda. At his trial, the prosecution derided his claim, saying that Carlos Hernandez was a “phantom.” This was the lie for which DeLuna should be found guilty.
So what? Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court judge, made a bold statement a few years ago: “There has not been a single case – not one – in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred … the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops.” Was this the case that proved the Honorable Judge Scalia wrong?
Ironically, my involvement started while I was filming another self-proclaimed truth seeker. I was interviewing Julian Assange for my movie WikiLeaks: Secrets & Lies. Assange had just fallen out with documentarian Alex Gibney (the Oscar-winning director of Taxi to the Dark Side and Citizen K) because, as Assange put it, “Gibney didn’t show me enough respect.”
Julian liked me, or so he said, because I had nearly been jailed for breaking a big story. Years previously, I had been a researcher on a documentary that revealed Britain had a hugely expensive spy satellite. A satellite that the British government had neglected to tell parliament about. Cue uproar, police raids, etc., etc.
However, when Julian actually saw my WikiLeaks movie, he decided that perhaps I was a bit like Alex Gibney. The film said that a good cause – free speech – had been undone by a bad man: J. Assange. The apostle of openness then spent the next year trying (and failing) to shut the film down, from its premiere at SXSW, to its broadcast around the world.
During this slightly vexing time, my brilliant producer Tilly Cowan drew my attention to an article about Jim Liebman, a distinguished Columbia University law professor, in which Liebman raised serious questions about whether Carlos DeLuna had killed Wanda Lopez.
It turned out that the other Carlos, Carlos Hernandez was, in fact, no phantom. Moreover, the all-too-real Hernandez had a horrendous record of violence against women, attacks all carried out with a knife identical to the one that killed Wanda Lopez.
Interest piqued, we set off to make a film.
Early on, I established two principles: Firstly, we were going to try and talk to everyone involved: defense, prosecution, cops, the victim’s associates, the killer’s family. This could not be a partisan documentary. Nobody would believe it if we just spoke to one side of the argument.
Secondly, we were going to film it like a drama. Everyone would be interviewed where the events took place – in the courtroom, at the murder scene, in the barrio. We were going to shoot it handheld, with no blazing lights. I wanted the people we interviewed to be comfortable and tell it like it was.
Cue one extraordinary night in Corpus Christi. We are on Franklin Drive, the street where Carlos DeLuna was arrested. Former officer Tom Mylett is crawling toward me, telling me how he pulled DeLuna out from under a truck: “Freeze. Don’t move. City Police.” Cop lights are flashing, a gentle rain is falling – just like on February 4, 1983.
One of a crowd of onlookers taps my producer on his shoulder: “I was there that night. I saw both men running.” Raymond Nunez is the first eye witness to confirm that there were indeed two men fleeing the murder at the gas station, just like DeLuna said.
Raymond has lived in the same house on Franklin Drive for over 40 years. He says the police teams that went house to house never talked to him. We check his story out, again and again. One detail clinches it. He said he was watching Jaws that night. We get the TV schedules for February 4. ABC was indeed showing Jaws.
But it does not stop there. Another neighbor insists that we have to talk to his son, a former police officer. In 1983, Bruno Mejia was a rookie cop, just graduated from police academy. He was at the scene, relaying witness reports to dispatcher Jesse Escochea. As he did, he began to think that he was describing two very different people, wearing different clothing: white shirt vs grey top, clean shaven vs. unshaven, and with very different hairstyles.
Bruno, like Raymond, has never talked. But when we get in touch, it is hard to stop him. The uncertainty about that night, and what really happened, has tormented his conscience, his soul, even.
So, I would argue that there were two men running from the gas station that night, just as Carlos DeLuna always said. And Carlos was innocent; innocent of the crime that another man committed.
Carlos DeLuna should not have been executed. And just as Justice Scalia instructed us, his name should be shouted from the rooftops.
It is the truth.
Featured image shows prosecutor Steve Schiwetz and Patrick Forbes visiting the scene of the murder of Wanda Lopez for The Phantom. Photo by Leticia Meruvia, courtesy Patrick Forbes.