MESA, Ariz. — They might not have been promised paradise, but Jesus definitely “spoke” from the cross to at least four modern criminals.
Contrary to critics who warned The Passion of the Christ would spur anti-Semitic crimes, the opposite seems to be taking place. Not only has the film led Christian viewers to an improved attitude toward their Jewish brothers and sisters, but it has also provoked criminals to turn themselves in. So far the film has prompted a murderer, two thieves and a neo-Nazi to confess to their crimes.
Dan Leach of Rosenberg, Texas, was the first criminal to turn himself in. In early March, Leach walked into the Fort Bend County Sheriff's Office in Richmond, Texas, with his parents and asked to see a detective.
Fort Bend County authorities first believed Ashley Nichole Wilson had committed suicide. Wilson's body was found Jan. 19 by her mother in her apartment in Richmond.
Leach said he wanted to seek redemption after seeing The Passion of the Christ. He confessed to strangling Wilson because he believed she was pregnant and did not want to raise their unborn child or be involved with her anymore. He told investigators he made her death look like a suicide. The coroner ruled that Wilson was not pregnant. The police released Leach while they investigated his claim.
A grand jury indicted Leach and he was arrested two days later. He is currently being held on $100,000 bond and is awaiting arraignment.
“He cited the film as one of the reasons for turning himself in,” said Jeannie Gage, public information officer for the Fort Bend County Sheriff's Office. She said having someone turn himself in was “pretty rare.”
Just seven days later, 53-year-old James Anderson became the second criminal to fess up after seeing the film. Anderson walked into the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office lobby wearing shorts and a polo shirt and confessed to a robbery he had committed more than two years earlier.
On Dec. 4, 2001, Anderson had robbed the First Union Bank in Palm Beach Gardens, reportedly grabbing a female employee, putting his right hand into his pocket and forcing tellers to hand over $25,000. While Anderson spent the money, his guilt remained.
“I was in the lobby when he came in,” said Commander Diane Carhart, media spokeswoman for the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office. “A sergeant came over and told me, ‘You're not going to believe this. He's turning himself in because of that movie.’”
Anderson told detective Gary Martin that he had seen the film a couple of times and felt compelled to come clean. According to Car-hart, he also told the detective to see the movie.
Because the crime was committed in Palm Beach Gardens, Anderson was turned over to the Palm Beach Gardens Police Department, where he remains in jail.
There, Anderson told Sgt. Richard Geist that he was broke and in need of medical attention.
“He's looking for medical attention he doesn't have to pay for,” Geist told the Palm Beach Post. “That and he's probably tired of living out on the streets.”
“We don't care what the venue is,” Carhart told the Register. “We always hope that criminals will feel guilt for their crime.”
On March 30, a second thief confessed to several break-ins in Mesa, Ariz. Turner Lee Bingham approached police shortly after breaking into a Mesa store and apologized for stealing $80 from the cash register. He also confessed to five or six other burglaries.
“He had made some mention that after watching the Mel Gibson movie … that was his motive for turning himself in,” Mesa police detective Ruben Quesada told the Phoenix East Valley Tribune.
“It is a first,” Quesada told the paper.
A Nazi No Longer
The Passion of the Christ has had similar effects on foreign viewers. On March 27, notorious convicted killer and neo-Nazi Johnny Olsen walked into the Norwegian newspaper offices of Dagbladet and confessed to two bombings of Oslo's Blitz House, a youth group headquarters for anti-fascist and anti-racist activists.
In Oslo district court on March 29, Olsen confessed to the 1994 and 1995 bombings. Entering the courtroom for his detention hearing, Olsen told reporters that “Jesus lives” and that he was distancing himself from his past neo-Nazism.
His attorney, Fridtjof Feydt, told newspapers he was stunned by his client's confession, describing it as a “bolt of lightning” after Olsen saw the film.
“The film made him realize that he had to show his hand,” Feydt said. “He has been preoccupied with Christianity, guilt, punishment, atonement, suffering and conversion during the 10 years I have known him, but the Jesus film made the difference. Now he shows true regret and is ready to make amends.”
Olsen had previously been sentenced to 18 years in prison after the double murder of two youths in Hadeland, Norway, in 1981. He was released on probation after serving 12 years. Police suspected Olsen of the Blitz bombings but had never managed to connect him with the crimes.
Such stories have also prompted a forthcoming television documentary. The producers of “Changed Lives: Miracles of the Passion” have interviewed many viewers who say they have been changed by the film, and are currently in negotiations with two television stations.
“We've had everything from former drug addicts to atheists who have become believers as a result of the film,” said Anne Sharp, associate producer. “The movie has led to a change of heart. Hundreds of thousands of people have been touched to the point of writing their story down. There is a work of God there.”
The documentary, which will also feature Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, was set to air on Easter weekend.
Catholic psychologist Paul Vitz described the news reports as “flabbergasting.”
“It makes people better to see this movie,” said Vitz, who serves as senior scholar with the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for the Psychological Sciences and as a professor with New York University.
He explained how the film could work to make people more repentant.
“Jesus' death without guilt enhances a feeling of guilt in others who may feel guilty for what they might have done,” Vitz said. “It makes their guilt that much larger and therefore they needed to confront it and relieve it by confession.”
“We hope people see a movie or feel compelled to confess and turn themselves in,” Carhart of the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office said. “There are always victims out there.”
Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.
- April 11-17, 2004