By Mike LaBella
---- — If you saw the recent Lifetime movie “Left to Die’’ and thought you recognized a few names, it’s no surprise.
Produced by Haverhill native Tammi Chase-Wright, this original Lifetime movie is based on the real-life story of her struggle to get her mother, Sandra Chase released from an Ecuadorian prison, where she was held on fabricated charges of drug smuggling.
”Some places and things changed for story-telling purposes, but it’s pretty darn close to our reality,” Chase-Wright said of the movie.
In a question-and-answer segment on the the Lifetime website about the movie, Chase-Wright said that during her mother’s incarceration she paid bribes to supposed attorneys. Those people promised they had her mother’s court file and could move it to the top of the pile so she could come before a judge quickly, Chase-Wright said.
”After going through my savings, I went through hers (her mother’s) and then was forced to pack up her life and sell her home,” Chase-Wright said in the Q&A. “Initially I wanted to sell this story so I could give back to my mother some of what she lost. At some point during this 14-year journey ... (we’ve been at four studios) it became more than that. Maybe I just got older and wiser, but what happened to my mother was not okay and I wanted to tell the world, ‘This could happen to you or your mom.’”
The daughter of Robert Chase and Sandra (Edgerly) Chase, Chase-Wright grew up at the top of 16th Avenue, attended nearby Walnut Square Elementary School and went on to graduate from St. James High School. She moved to Los Angeles in 1990, where she got her first job in the movie industry working for an executive with Warner Brothers.
Five years later, her mother’s life took an unexpected and nightmarish turn, and Chase-Wright crossed into a world where she did whatever she could to save her mother.
Chase-Wright’s days were spent working for a talent agency and all other available time was spent trying to get people to believe her mother was innocent and to find a way to bring her home.
”I went to Congress members in California, to senators, to teachers and professors ... anyone who knew any way of helping and it went on for two years,” she said.
Her family’s ordeal began in 1995 when Sandra Chase, formerly of Haverhill and living in Florida, accompanied her neighbor on a trip to Ecuador to see religious sites. But their return trip home turned terribly wrong when, at an airport in Quito, Ecuador, they were confronted by authorities who tore Chase’s luggage apart and claimed they found a large quantity of cocaine. There were no drugs and there was no evidence, her daughter said.
Sandra Chase and her male friend were sent to prison without a trial. He was locked up men’s prison and she was taken to a women’s prison, where she was held for nearly two years. He was held several years longer. Sandra Chase’s ordeal ended about two years after her arrest. With the assistance of U.S. Rep. Corinne Brown, D-Jacksonville, and the attention brought to the case through a “60 Minutes’’ TV episode with Mike Wallace that was filmed in the prison in Ecuador, Sandra Chase was freed on humanitarian grounds.
Those fighting for Chase’s rights confronted officials inside the prison and went before the nation’s congress to introduce a due-process bill, which was passed within 24 hours, Chase-Wright said. Her mother was then released.
Had she been in prison much longer, her health would surely have failed and she might have even died, Chase-Wright said.
”I’d kept a journal for two years and began meeting with writers to work on a script,” she said. “I had to find a way to take care of my mom’’ by telling her story and raising money to help rebuild her life.
At the time, Chase-Wright was a talent manager developing movies for TV and film. She knew she had a great story to tell.
”There was nothing I had to make up or change,” she said about the script. “For me, it wasn’t about telling the story for the benefit of others. It was about finding a way to take care of my mom so she could buy a house again.
”In my case, I sold the story four times off of a pitch,” she said. “I’d go into a room and give them a one-hour version of a two year experience.”
Three movie companies were interested in making Chase-Wright’s movie, but it didn’t come to fruition until she brought it to the Lifetime channel for consideration.
”The fourth time was a charm,” she said. “It was 14 years of sticking with it and trying.”
Along the way, Chase-Wright’s father died and she met her future husband, Michael Wright, president of TNT, TBS and Turner Classic Movies.
”By telling the story, it was a big weight off my shoulders and it was a way to help my mom,” she said.
Filming of the movie took place last summer in Columbia.
”When I arrived there, it reminded me of when I was there in 1997,” Chase-Wright said of when she was in South America fighting for her mother’s release. “And to see actors play out something that happened to you was really devastating.”
When the movie was shown last November, Chase-Wright’s mother was with her.
”When it aired on the Lifetime channel, we watched it together and it was very emotional for her,” Chase-Wright said. “There are moments in the movie where we couldn’t help but turn away or cry together.”
She said her mother wants to write a book about the experience, only from a different perspective — one that didn’t make it into the movie.
”I think she’d like to write more of a Christian-based book as she’d kept a Bible with her in prison,” Chase-Wright said. “Every day she’d close her eyes, open a page and point down and wherever her finger landed would be her message of the day and it helped get her through the day. It made her feel that she wasn’t alone.
”At one point, she had an epiphany after being tossed into a dungeon for five days without food or water, thus the title of the movie,” Chase-Wright said. “She prays to God and asks him to take her. But when she comes out, she’s a different woman. I don’t know how she hung on.”
Producing “Left to Die” was a learning experience for Chase-Wright. She said she has other movie projects being developed with her business partner Lizzie Friedman.
”We recently optioned a book and are about to pitch it to the networks as a TV series,” Chase-Wright said, adding she is also working on a non-scripted competition reality show for television.
”We are always reading and researching new material,” she said, “something that we are passionate about and something we feel we have a good chance to sell. Other than that ... I’m a mom to a beautiful little boy and a wife to an amazing man.’’
You can go to YouTube for a sample scene of the ending to “Left to Die” by searching for “Left to Die Sandra Chase.”
The movie, which stars Barbara Hershey and Rachael Leigh Cook, is available on DVD and Blu-ray.