Douglass’ ‘Heaven’s Rain’: Horrific crime leads to victim rights laws

April 29, 2011
Santa Paula News

A man who survived a horrific crime, became a legislator to better the treatment of victims, and surprised even himself by forgiving the killer of his parents was the focus of a special screening of “Heaven’s Rain,” held April 13 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

The appearance of Brooks Douglass, now a Malibu based filmmaker, and the screening of the film he co-wrote and produced, was a component of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, sponsored by Ventura County District Attorney Greg Totten. Earlier in the day Douglass shared his story with fellow crime survivors at the Ventura County Government Center, followed by a March for Victims Rights.

Supervisor Peter Foy, County Clerk/Recorder Mark Lunn and Ventura Deputy Mayor Mike Tracy - the city’s former police chief - as well as Santa Paula Police Chief Steve MacKinnon and Ventura Police Chief Ken Corney were among those who attended the screening, which was followed by an interview of Douglass by Totten and an audience question and answer session.

Actor Mike Vogel stars in the autobiographical “Heaven’s Rain” as Brooks Douglass. Douglass, in an unusual and poignant twist, plays his own father who was slain with his mother in 1979 by two intruders at their Oklahoma farm. Then 16 years old, Douglass and his 12-year-old sister, who was also raped by the men, were shot and left for dead.

It was their experience as victims of violent crime that led to Douglass’ becoming the youngest state senator in the history of Oklahoma.

Rural farm life followed years of living in the Brazilian rain forest as Dr. Richard Douglass, a missionary, spread the word of God. Brooks’ mother Marilyn Douglass was an accomplished singer, and his sister Leslie a reigning pre-teen pageant queen.

It was an idyllic life until a pair of drifters came to his Oklahoma home, one asking to use the phone, then the second bursting in armed with a rifle. Glen Ake and Steven Hatch hog-tied Douglass and his parents, raped his 12-year-old sister, and ate the family’s dinner before Ake shot the entire family.

The two men took some small items and left, thinking the entire family was dead. But Brooks Douglass and his sister survived, although as depicted in the film even survival was a constant struggle of depression, alcohol abuse and emotional problems, in spite of outward adjustment and accomplishments.

As a state senator Douglass became an advocate for victims’ rights, successfully introducing legislation to provide basic services and considerations for those thrust into a criminal justice system that seemed to step over the body of the victim to ensure the rights of the suspect. As a three-term Republican senator in Oklahoma, Douglass also sponsored a law that gave relatives of victims the option of viewing the killer’s execution.

He and his sister were the first to take advantage of the execution law when Hatch was put to death in 1996, 17 years after the crime. Brooks saw Ake under different circumstances: Ake had been condemned to death, but on appeal received two life sentences instead.

As shown in “Heaven’s Rain” Douglass arranged to meet with Ake and was surprised when the tearful convict apologized. What was more surprising said Douglass was he forgave him.

“He came right out and said ‘I’m sorry’ and I saw complete sincerity” as Ake cried. And although “I never dreamed I would forgive him,” Douglass said, when he did so, “I collapsed into the chair; it was like a clamp that had been across my chest for 15 years was released.” That clamp had been the rage and anger that had been unchecked, “poison that eats us up inside.”

Offhand it would be hard to name an actor who took the role of their real father, but Douglass is probably is first who portrayed not only his own father but reenacted his violent death and also relived his mother’s last breath.

Totten asked Douglass how difficult the role was. “I was really excited to play Dad, but I never thought about the crime scene, other things yes, but not this.” Douglass said reliving the final moments of his father’s life, to his last breath showing love while trying to comfort his shattered family, “was one of the hardest things I ever did.”

As it was for Mike Vogel who plays Brooks Douglass in “Heaven’s Rain,”

who said it was a role he wanted as soon as he read the script. “Several things made it a very unique experience... I was touched and felt I had to do it. Then I met the man and Brooks and I became friends,” bringing the filmmaking to an even different level.

Vogel said the crime scene relied on a certain amount of emotionally charged improvisation: “And later that night Brooks told me it was exactly what I did” that as teenage boy in 1979 Brooks himself did as his parents lay dying. Said Vogel, “We had a strong connection even in the beginning,” and as the actor playing the son of the father played by his own son, it prompted a level of self-expectation to his actions both on and off screen.

“Heaven’s Rain” shows glimpses of the guilt suffered by the victims, the “What if?” syndrome that Douglass and his sister - now a mother and an acclaimed educator - experienced.

You can forgive others, but what still lingers is reexamining circumstances, weighing words and actions and applying them to determine if things had been just slightly different it could have prevented the tragedy that struck the Douglass family. Such guilt, Douglass noted, “has lessened over time, but it’s still there... it probably will always be there.”

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