A group of friends charged with kidnapping a teenage girl, tying her up, and staging her mock burial say they were just trying to make a Blair Witch Project -style horror flick.
But prosecutors say the videotaped incident on March 6 was all too real for the victim, who didn't know about the prank until later.
"We are burying you alive," one of the alleged kidnappers said on the tape. "You are going to die."
The accused are a group of young people who hang out together in Flint: Jonathon H. Cockerill, 20, Travis A. Payea, 20, Christina Lumm, 19, James Carwile, 19, and Derek Faxlinger, 18. One member of the group — Cockerill — is studying filmmaking at a community college.
Just a Prank?
The friends claim the incident was simply a prank that they planned to turn into a movie. But now each is awaiting trial on kidnapping and assault charges, and could face anywhere from seven to nine years to life in prison under Michigan law. Faxlinger is out on bail, but the four others are being held in jail on $500,000 bond.
Lapeer County Prosecutor Byron J. Konschuh said the victim, 19-year-old Taco Bell waitress Danielle Taylor, did not know that the whole thing was staged until the end. The group allegedly forced Taylor to sit in a grave they had dug, then started shovelling snow and dirt on her, before helping her out and telling her the whole thing was a joke.
"The prank was intended by the ... participants, but the last party — the victim — was not in on the prank," Konschuh said on ABCNEWS' Good Morning America.
Carwile's attorney, Dan Ambrose, said the tape shows that the woman knew it was a movie. Taylor never begs the group not to kill her, and does not ask them to stop.
"She pretends to play dead for about a minute," Ambrose said. If Taylor truly thought she was going to be buried alive, she would have struggled, he contends.
'You'll Never Feel a Thing'
The videotape, shot by Payea, opens in a house with Taylor saying "hi" to the camera and smiling. But shortly thereafter, Carwile and Cockerill wrestle her to the ground and proceed to bind her with tape.
On the tape, Payea and the others are heard making numerous threats. At one point, Taylor says, "It hurts." An off-camera male voice responds, "Hey, it hurts, right? Well, think about it. Half an hour from now, you'll never feel another thing."
Then the person, not visible on the tape, adds: "Enjoy that pain, that's the last thing you'll ever feel."
At times on the tape, Taylor seems impassive, but at other times, she appears genuinely upset and frightened as she struggles and is unable to get up from beneath the two men. The prosecutor said she acted calm because she was in fear for her life, and that is a common response.
While still on the floor, Taylor says, "You guys are f---ing psycho."
A man's voice says: "You realized just in time. This is your film debut."
Taken to Shallow Grave
Eventually, the group takes Taylor on a car ride to a shallow grave they had dug in the snow and dirt earlier. The alleged kidnappers say that if she says one more word it will be her last, and that they are burying her alive.
"You are going to die," one of them says on the tape.
The group makes her sit in the 4-foot-deep grave, blindfolded with her head bowed, as they shovel snow and earth over her. Then, suddenly, the incident seems to peter out and is over. The alleged kidnappers remove the blindfold.
Next, the alleged kidnappers shoot "credits" in which they include Taylor as "The Victim." A few minutes later, Taylor complains that she is cold and her arms are sore.
Two days later, Taylor went back to the house where the incident began and retrieved the tape. When she brought it to the police, they charged the group with kidnapping and assault.