Travolta's Blackmail Trial Spurs Autism Debate

John Travolta's testimony in extortion case has won him support and criticism.

Sept. 29, 2009— -- John Travolta is expected back in the Bahamas this week to testify in an extortion case against two people accused of trying to blackmail the actor for $25 million following the tragic death of his teenage son in January.

Travolta recounted in last week's testimony how he tried to revive Jett, 16, who had fallen after a seizure in a family vacation home on Grand Bahama island.

The actor also publicly acknowledged -- for what is believed to be the first time -- that Jett had autism. News of the testimony sparked an ambivalent reaction from the autism community.

"I ran downstairs with my wife to help my son," Travolta said Sept. 24, according to The Associated Press. In his testimony, he said he and his wife Kelly Preston were awakened by a nanny around 10:15 a.m. Jan. 2, 2009, the day of Jett's death. Travolta said when he went downstairs, another caretaker was doing chest compressions and he began administering breathing help.

The actor testified that his son Jett was autistic and suffered seizures every five to 10 days. He said the seizures would last 45 seconds to a minute and Jett typically slept for 12 hours after each one. "He was autistic. He suffered from a seizure disorder," Travolta told the jury when asked about his son's condition.

"It didn't really come as a surprise for people," said Wendy Fournier, president of the National Autism Association, who said she and many others who work in autism awareness saw signs of the disorder in news footage of Jett.

"But I've read some things that really bother me -- basically that they should have come forward sooner, said Fournier. "Everybody handles autism in the best way that they can and for whatever personal reasons they had, they chose not to make it public."

"Just because you have a child with autism and you're a celebrity, it does not automatically mandate you to be a spokesperson for the disorder," she said. "I feel bad for them, I really truly do."

Still, on blogs and in formal press releases, other activists and parents of children with autism felt abandoned by a family with so much celebrity power.

"John Travolta finally admitted to what everyone else in the world already knew!! Jett had autism!! WOW!! Thank You!! That was like pulling teeth!!" wrote a blogging family on the nonprofit Autism One Web site.

"Why did Mr. Travolta admit to it now?? To increase autism awareness? No, I don't think so," the author of the Robert and Sandy Waters blog continued.

In the past, Preston had said Jett suffered from Kawasaki disease, a rare condition in children that involves inflammation of the blood vessels.

While some parents begrudged the Travoltas for the delayed public announcement of Jett's autism, many more felt the news of Jett's seizures had struck a chord.

"The Travoltas are suffering right now from a tragedy that could affect anyone," said Rebecca Estepp, national manager for Talk About Curing Autism (TACA).

"It's very frightening with kids with autism -- when they're hitting puberty and they're having a terrible time with seizures," said Estepp. "We've heard of several children passing away with seizures lately."

Risk of Seizures With Autism

Some studies suggest up to 25 percent of children with autism also have a seizure disorder, according to Dr. Marcie Hall, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

"In neurologically-normal children with epilepsy, the risk of death is actually no different than for children without seizures," said Dr. Shlomo Shinnar, director of the Comprehensive Epilepsy Management Center at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. Seizures statistically become more deadly when combined with neurological conditions such as autism, cerebral palsy or mental retardation.

Travolta testified at the trial that began Sept. 21 for the two defendants - a paramedic and former Bahamas senator - who allegedly tried to blackmail Travolta with private information following the death of his chronically ill son, Jett.

The actor is among the 14-person list of potential witnesses in the case before the New Providence Supreme Court where a nine-member jury was empanelled Monday.

The actor's last minutes with his son were described by Tarino Lightbourne, the paramedic who drove them to the hospital and was later accused in the extortion plot.

"It was me, him and Jett," Lightbourne told ABC's "Good Morning America" on Jan. 5. "I'll never forget this day. I saw him lean over and hug his son and kiss his son and tell him he loved him and I did everything I could. I saw love in his eyes, I saw love. [Travolta] hugged him, put his arm around him, kissed him on the forehead and the cheek and told him he loved him. He then turned to me and gave me a hug and said, 'You guys did a wonderful job.'"

Within weeks, authorities arrested the man who provided that touching description. Lightbourne was charged with attempted extortion and conspiracy to extort.

Bahamas Sen. Pleasant Bridgewater was also arrested and charged with conspiracy to extort.

Each has pleaded not guilty and is free on bail. Bridgewater later resigned from her office.

The extortion charges involve the pair's alleged plan to release a document if Travolta and his wife, actress Kelly Preston, did not pay them $25 million.

The paperwork they allegedly threatened to release is a "refusal to transport," which someone would sign when refusing emergency medical services, thereby releasing first responders from liability.

But police said no such document was ever signed in this case.

Will John Travolta Testify?

A police officer testified Tuesday that Travolta signed the release because he initially wanted his son taken to the airport instead of the hospital.

Outside the courthouse on Monday, Bridgewater's attorney told APTV that without Travolta, there is no case.

"He has to be here, he has to come and give evidence," said Murrio Ducille. "Without him, the prosecution cannot get off the ground, because he is the complainant."

Lighthourne's defense attorneys have asked the court to order the prosecution to turn over documents, including the autopsy report, the statement from Travolta's nanny and phone records, which they say they have not yet received, despite repeated written requests.

Defense counsel Carlson Shurland had already expressed his concerns about the fairness of his client's trial, earlier in the year.

"Our anxiety has to do with all of the adverse publicity that this case has been getting," said Shurland in a February interview with The Freeport News. "In light of all of that publicity we doubt seriously that we will be able to find an impartial jury in The Bahamas simply because everybody has an opinion."

The Travoltas Keep a Low Profile

One party that has shied away from all publicity until recently is the Travolta family.

John Travolta did not join his co-stars over the summer in promoting "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3." Actor Denzel Washington told "Good Morning America" in June that his co-star was still in a "tough situation."

Travolta posted a message to his colleagues on his Web site at the time: "Their unselfish efforts have allowed my family the additional time to reconcile our loss."

And last month, Preston decided to pull out of the October women's conference hosted by California first lady Maria Shriver, where she was to host a session on grief and resilience.

In a statement to People magazine, Preston explained her withdrawal: "I am sorry, but I truly believed that I could do it. Otherwise I never would have said that I could. But I am still deeply in the process of healing, and it's just too soon."

The family's first public appearance was only two weeks ago when the couple and daughter Ella attended Disney's D23 Expo to promote their upcoming film "Old Dogs."

Travolta and Preston are not the first celebrity targets of alleged extortion plots. Rob Lowe, Bill Cosby, Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis, Steven Seagal, basketball great Michael Jordan, model Elle Macpherson, singer Celine Dion's husband Rene Angelil and the late Michael Jackson have all been the target of alleged schemes to extract thousands or millions of dollars, though none of these cases involved the death of a child.

The Bahamas courthouse where the trial is scheduled is no stranger to high-profile cases. Almost three years ago, it was the scene for the official inquest after the death of Daniel Smith, the son of the late Anna Nicole Smith.The Associated Press contributed to this report.