US taxpayers getting cut of ‘Passion’ prequel

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) - The American taxpayer may be getting into the movie business.

In a real-life case of drugs and extortion that could itself make a pretty good screenplay, federal prosecutors have forced a Mexican drug trafficker to turn over his stake in a planned prequel to Mel Gibson’s 2004 blockbuster “The Passion of the Christ.”

If the movie gets made, the U.S. government will receive a cut of the profits.

Some of the big names behind the Hollywood project include megachurch pastor Joel Osteen, who had no idea about the script’s unsavory backstory.

“When you get a script, you just don’t think to say `Hey, was this script ever tied to a Mexican cartel?’” said Donald Iloff, a spokesman for Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston. The script was already being handled by a legitimate production company when Osteen got involved.

Jorge Vazquez Sanchez pleaded guilty this week in federal court to extortion and money laundering in a deal that required him to give up a 10 percent stake in future profits of “Mary, Mother of Christ,” which is scheduled to begin production this year and includes Osteen as an executive producer.

The script was written by the same person behind “The Passion of the Christ,” which became a worldwide smash and earned more than $611 million.

Aloe Entertainment, the Los Angeles-based production company that paid more than $900,000 for the script, said it knew nothing about Vazquez, who was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Had Vazquez kept his stake, “we don’t know what would have happened,” the company said in a statement. “We have assembled an amazing team to bring it to the big screen. Now the American taxpayers can be part of this incredible project.”

The screenwriter, Benedict Fitzgerald, had to give control of the script to a company called Macri Inc. after it foreclosed on a loan to Fitzgerald, said Richard Rosenthal, attorney for Aloe.

Then Vazquez and one of his co-defendants extorted Macri’s owner, a San Antonio businessman named Arturo Madrigal, to wrest the script away. At one point, the conspirators even kidnapped Madrigal’s brother in Guadalajara, Mexico, according to court documents.

Vazquez, a Mexican citizen identified in court documents as a drug trafficker who laundered money, acquired the screenplay in 2008.

Aloe, known at the time as Proud Mary Entertainment, then paid one of Vazquez’s co-defendants $925,000 for the script, believing it was held by a San Antonio real estate mogul.

Before the company issued a payment, Aloe executives hired an entertainment copyright attorney who spent more than three months researching the screenplay’s origins. Federal prosecutors contacted them last year seeking documents for the transaction.

When prosecutors moved to seize Vazquez’s assets, the stake he had retained in the film’s profits was included. Vazquez’s lawyer, Donald Flanary, said his client did not contest the forfeiture.

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