ZURICH/LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Director Roman Polanski, whose work on films like “Chinatown” has often been overshadowed by his tumultuous life, was arrested in Zurich on a 1978 U.S. warrant for having sex with a 13-year-old girl.
Polanski, 76, was taken into custody after arriving in Switzerland where he was to receive a prize at the Zurich Film Festival on Sunday. His arrest sets up what could be a battle over his extradition to California where he faces sentencing in the 30-year-old case for which he has already pleaded guilty.
But after his plea, Polanski fled the United States because he believed a judge might overrule his agreement and put him in jail for years. And in a 2008 film documentary, new questions about the case arose that may shed new light on it.
Polanski is a French citizen and for years avoided traveling to countries that have U.S. extradition treaties. He has never returned to California or Los Angeles, where in 1969 his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by followers of the notorious Charles Manson.
French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand was “stunned” to hear about the arrest, his office said, adding that President Nicolas Sarkozy was following the case and hoped it could be resolved to allow Polanski to return to his family.
“We are going to try to lift the arrest warrant in Zurich ... the (extradition) convention between Switzerland and the United States is not very clear,” Polanski’s lawyer, Georges Kiejman, told France Info radio.
Zurich Cantonal Police spokesman Stefan Oberlin said the arrest was carried out on instruction from the Federal Justice Department in Berne. A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County District Attorney said their office learned last week that Polanski would be in Zurich and prosecutors sent a provisional arrest warrant to Swiss authorities.
Polanski was initially arrested in the United States in 1977 and charged with giving drugs and alcohol to a 13-year-old girl and having unlawful sex with her at actor Jack Nicholson’s Hollywood home. Nicholson was not in the house at the time.
Polanski maintained the girl was sexually experienced and had consented. He spent 42 days in prison undergoing psychiatric tests and eventually agreed to plead guilty and receive a sentence of time served.
The case was the subject of a 2008 film documentary “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired,” which included interviews with the victim, Samantha Geimer, who now lives in Hawaii, and lawyers for both sides. The film argues, in part, that Polanski was the victim of prosecutorial and judicial misconduct.
Based on what they said was new evidence in the film, Polanski’s lawyers tried to have the case dismissed in 2008, but were denied by a Los Angeles judge in part because Polanski would not return for the proceeding because he faced arrest.
Prosecutors and the directors’ lawyers now face battles over whether he will be extradited to California and whether to continue the case if it returns to Los Angeles.
“Both the extradition arrest warrant and any extradition decision can be challenged in the Federal Penal Court,” the Swiss Federal Justice Department said, adding these decisions could also be taken to Switzerland’s Federal Court of Justice.
L.A. District Attorney spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons could not say when an extradition might take place or whether prosecutors would seek jail. She said it will “be up to the court to determine what will happen to Mr. Polanski.”
Los Angeles criminal defense specialist Steve Cron, who is not affiliated with the case, said Polanski’s attorneys might agree to extradition in the belief that he could return and see the charges dropped.
“There is an excellent chance that once he comes back, the guilty plea in its entirety will be set aside,” Cron said. “He finally gets the cloud off of his head and is a free man.”
When promoting the documentary in 2008, Geimer told Reuters Polanski should not face any more jail time.
Born to Polish-Jewish parents in 1933, Polanski lived as a child in Paris before his family returned to Poland. In World War Two he escaped the Holocaust when his father told him to run from Nazis. His mother died in an Auschwitz gas chamber.
He turned to film as an adult and saw his first full-length feature, “Knife in the Water,” win a number of awards.
His reputation grew with “Repulsion,” a study of a woman terrified by sex who becomes a psychotic murderer, and then with the absurdist masterpiece “Cul de Sac.”
Polanski’s horror thriller “Rosemary’s Baby” became a huge hit in the United States, but was soon followed by Tate’s real-life murder and tragedy began to overshadow his career.
In 1974, Polanski directed “Chinatown,” a stylish thriller starring Nicholson that was nominated for 11 Academy Awards. “Tess” (1979) also earned Polanski an Oscar nomination.
He won his only best director Oscar for 2002 film “The Pianist,” the story of a Jewish-Polish musician who sees his world collapse with the outbreak of World War Two.
Polanski is married to French actress Emmanuelle Seigner, with whom he has two children.