This article was published in the Spring 2011 issue of The Baylor Line and written by Lisa Asher.
Haunted by a tragically violent past, Brooks Douglass is using the medium of film to share his story and reclaim his life.
The audience sits in stunned silence as the credits begin to roll across the movie screen and the lights in the theater come up. Brooks Douglass, who has just slipped in through a side door, barely takes notice of the tense atmosphere. After all, it’s a reaction he’s gotten used to after countless screenings of Heaven’s Rain, the movie for which he served as co-writer, producer, and actor.
But now comes the hard part for Brooks—the traditional question-and-answer session with the audience. And he knows what kinds of questions he’s going to get. “Why did you want to relive such a difficult period of your life?” “How is your sister doing now?” “How can you forgive the men who killed your parents?”
It’s been thirty-one years, and still there are no easy answers. “I wanted to tell the story my way and have it out there where people can see it,” says Brooks, a 1985 Baylor graduate who opted to produce and release the movie himself rather than take the chance of a movie studio making changes he didn’t authorize.
A former state senator in Oklahoma, Brooks had no prior experience in the film industry, so the ambitious project was a pretty risky gamble—one that seems to have paid off.
Still, he admits, the process of marketing the movie—which has involved a limited release of the film in smaller venues—has been a difficult one. “It makes me feel good when people say that watching the movie was literally a life-changing experience. That helps. But at the same time, it does drain me,” he says. “I’m hoping there will be a point where I’m able to move on to my next project and put this behind me.”
In cold blood
On the night of October 15,1979, Brooks, then sixteen, and his twelve-year-old sister, Leslie, sped away from their house outside Okarche, Oklahoma, leaving behind a scene of horrific devastation.
Hours earlier, a disheveled man, Glen Ake, had come to the Douglass home, asking to use the phone, and Brooks ushered him inside. Suddenly, a second man, Steven Hatch, broke through the door. Ake pulled out a .357 magnum, and Hatch pointed his double-barreled shotgun at Brooks and his parents, Richard and Sue Douglass, demanding that they lie facedown on the living room floor, while he tied their hands and feet together behind their backs.
Ake collected all the money he could find, a mere $43, and then forced Brooks’s sister down the hall to her bedroom, where he raped her. “My mother was crying, and I was trying to console her and say, ‘Mom, we’re going to be okay. Leslie is going to be okay,’” Brooks remembers. “And [the other man] walked over and put the gun to my head and said, ‘Stop talking, or else I’m going to blow your head off.’ And within a matter of ten or twenty minutes, he went in and also raped Leslie.”
After tying Leslie up in the living room, the two men sat down in the family kitchen and ate the meal that Sue had been preparing. Then Hatch went outside to start the car, while Ake went back to the living room and said, “I don’t want to have to shoot you, but. . . .” He then systematically went to each of the Douglasses and shot them in the back. Without another look, he left the house, got into the waiting car, and drove away.
While Leslie struggled to free herself, Brooks crawled to each of his parents. Richard, the pastor of Putnam County Baptist Church, insisted that his son should look after Sue first. But when he got to where his mother was lying, Brooks says, the light faded from her eyes, and he knew she was dead. When Brooks told his father, Richard never responded. After Leslie wriggled from her bonds, she freed her brother, and, with a last look at their parents, they left the house.
Both Brooks and Leslie were severely injured. Two bullets had torn through Leslie’s back, piercing a lung and a kidney and ripping her intestines. Brooks sustained a severed esophagus, a collapsed lung, and a puncture to the pericardial sac around his heart. It was adrenaline, Brooks now says, that enabled them to make the car ride to a nearby doctor.
Flash forward three decades to a similar living room and an eerily familiar scene. Brooks is once again lying face down on the carpet, his hands and feet tied behind his back. But this time, he has to re-enact the scene over and over, waiting for the lighting to be changed or the camera angles to be readjusted.
And this time, he’s playing his father.
“When I think of him,” says Brooks about his father, “I think of him throwing a football and riding in the car with him or preaching at a service in church. I don’t immediately go to a place where he dies on the living room floor.”
Which is why, Brooks explains, that even though he wrote the screenplay, it didn’t immediately occur to him that he would have to relive the scene of his parents’ death. When an acting coach he was working with warned him how hard that scene would be, Brooks says, “It really just hit me between the eyes that I’m going to have to shoot that.”
The crew ultimately shot the scene in one day, but it took twenty-one hours to complete. There was a stand-in for Brooks in case he needed to take a break or leave the set altogether. But he never left. He had hoped the experience might not be as bad as what he was anticipating. “But it was worse than I thought it was going to be,” he says.
It’s hard for outsiders to understand why Brooks would spend nearly a year writing about the worst moments of his life, let alone replaying them on film. “It’s been a very, very long forgiving process for him,” says Mark Bashrum, a 1986 Baylor graduate who roomed with Brooks when both were at Baylor and maintains a close friendship with him today. “Brooks has done a lot of great things in his life. But I told him this film is his biggest achievement because he initiated and developed it himself and saw it through after years and years.”
For all those years, people in the movie business have approached Brooks about filming his story, and he has turned them all down. “Almost without exception, I didn’t like the path they were taking to tell the story,” he says. The typical Hollywood treatment would be to focus on the salacious parts of the story, but Brooks says that’s not the narrative he wanted to tell in Heaven’s Rain, which derives its name from a passage in the last sermon Richard Douglass preached before his murder. “The crime and the execution are obviously very important. But they need to be in the context of the whole story,” he says.
That context includes the fact that it was not Ake, the triggerman, who was ultimately executed for his crimes. In 1986, Ake was retried on the grounds of insufficient psychiatric help in his previous insanity defense. As a result, his original death penalty sentence was overturned, and he was given life in prison.
Hatch was also sentenced to death, and it was his execution that Brooks and Leslie viewed just after midnight on August 9, 1996. “Everything about it was frustrating,” Brooks says of the long series of trials, retrials, and clemency hearings. “And it was frustrating that all of that happened over a period of seventeen years.”
Those were difficult years for the brother and sister, who went their separate ways soon after being released from the hospital. Leslie went to live with her mother’s cousins in Lindsay, Oklahoma, where she tried to settle into as normal a routine as possible, becoming a cheerleader, drum majorette, and homecoming queen.
Brooks lived with friends in Okarche until graduating from high school and then enrolled at Oklahoma Baptist University, but dropped out after eight weeks. He bounced around from Colorado to Alabama and then Tennessee, where he attended the University of Tennessee before transferring to Baylor.
“The first time I drove into Waco was a couple of days before classes started,” Brooks remembers. “I didn’t know where I was going to stay, and I didn’t have much money. I had everything I owned in the trunk and back seat of my car.” Baylor’s housing office gave him a list of available apartments, and he started making phone calls, eventually finding a garage apartment adjacent to an old stone house in Cameron Park.
In retrospect, Brooks says, it was the worst place he could have chosen. “It was frankly just depressing. I would just hide in my garage apartment sometimes for days. I wouldn’t leave,” he says. “I’d be in there reading and listening to music, but I didn’t go to class. I’d fall behind and then was playing catch-up, and was in and out of grade trouble.”
Even after he moved closer to campus with some roommates, Brooks continued having trouble focusing. Part of the problem, he says, is that he was going back and forth to Oklahoma to testify at hearings and trials for Ake and Hatch. “You can see those semesters very clearly just by looking at my transcripts, just the effect it had on my grades, my life, my whole world,” Brooks says.
Mark Bashrum, who lived with Brooks at the time, remembers that in the aftermath of one of the trials, reporters from all the major news networks hounded Brooks for days. “We both stayed home from class because the phone was ringing off the wall, and I was screening the calls,” he says. Bashrum says that Brooks would often stay up all night because he says he could remember his father doing that when he had problems to wrestle with. “When in doubt, he mirrored his father,” Bashrum says. “But the turmoil was so great that he wasn’t productive during those times.”
In fact, Brooks was suspended from Baylor for a semester, and Bashrum says he talked to Brooks’s professors to explain the situation since Brooks himself didn’t often mention his past. With a newfound resolve to bring his grades up, Brooks was allowed to return to Baylor the following semester and graduated in 1985 with a degree in accounting and finance.
Brooks returned to Oklahoma and enrolled in Oklahoma City University Law School, but he was struggling financially. So when people approached him about running as a Republican in the District 40 Senate race, Brooks decided to give it a try. In November 1990—one month before graduating from law school—he won, making him, at just twenty-seven, the state’s youngest senator. He quickly became an advocate for victims’ rights, writing legislation that allowed the family members of murder victims to witness the convicted person’s execution and paving the way for him and his sister to witness Hatch’s execution.
In 1995, while touring the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Brooks asked if he could meet with Ake, who was incarcerated there. During an hour-and-a-half discussion, Ake said he was sorry and that the killings were senseless and should never have happened.
According to Bashrum, that meeting cleansed Brooks, who says that he forgave Ake during the visit. Despite Hatch’s refusal to admit his role in the crime or take any blame, Brooks says that he was able to forgive him as well. But Bashrum—who, at Brooks’s request, witnessed Hatch’s execution—says that his college friend had a hard time reconciling the execution. “He told me, ‘I don’t want him to die. I didn’t want my parents to die. I don’t want anyone to die,”‘ Bashrum recounts.
Today, Brooks tells a different story “I forgive,” he says, “but it doesn’t mean that they still don’t deserve it. I do believe that they deserve to die for what they did.”
Eye of the storm
After twelve years in the Oklahoma Senate, Brooks grew tired of political life and opted not to run for a fourth term. He earned a master of public administration degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, served in the National Guard, and practiced law. But once again, he seemed to be struggling at a crossroads—both professionally and personally.
Brooks was twice married and twice divorced, first to Dana McLendon, a fellow Baylor graduate, and then to Mallory Roberts, an attorney. Bashrum says he knew and liked both women, but that neither had the temperament or the patience to deal with the drama surrounding Brooks. “His life has been like a hurricane,” Bashrum says. “He’s in the eye of the hurricane, seemingly unscathed, but everything swirling around him devastates other people.”
Brooks is now married to his third wife, Julea, and they have a three-year-old son, Brody, and a one-year-old daughter, Cali. According to Bashrum, Julea is a calming influence on Brooks and understands his search for closure and his need for a fresh start.
Three years ago, Brooks, along with his family, followed a long-held dream and moved to Malibu, Cali-fornia, where he enrolled in a screenwriting class taught by Paul Brown, a screenwriter whose credits include The X-Files. Brown told Brooks that his story should be told and that it needed to be told by Brooks himself. But Brooks wasn’t convinced.. “I told him, ‘I don’t think I can write this because I’m too close to it,” Brooks says. “And he told me, ‘Actually, where I come from, that’s exactly why you should write it.'”
Brown agreed to act as co-writer, and the two men spent nine months writing the script, a process that Brooks likens to a marathon. “It was just sheer determination to finish this thing,” he says. “It would have been so easy to stop and say, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore. I need to take a break from this.'”
Looking back, Brooks is surprised by how emotional he got during the writing process. “So much of the time, I wouldn’t realize how angry I was getting or why I was getting that way,” he says. “I think an out-sider would point out that I was dealing with the worst days of my life.”
If crafting the screenplay was a marathon, Brooks says, then filming the movie, which took six weeks to shoot, was more like a sprint. He and Brown, who served as director, scouted out locations in Oklahoma and hired the cast, including Mike Vogel, whose credits include Blue Valentine and Sisterhood of the Traveling- Pants, to play Brooks and, as Leslie, Taryn Manning, who has appeared in Hustle and Flow and Cold Mountain. As the producer of the film, Brooks was tasked with raising up to $2 million in financing, a job he compares with financing an election campaign. “I would literally be shooting a scene and then would go meet with an investor,” he says. “It was at times painful, but it was a quick-moving process.”
The film premiered in Los Angeles in September 2010. With a small marketing budget, Brooks and Brown initially promoted the film only in Oklahoma and Texas, hoping they would eventually be able to show the movie in other states. But those plans changed dramatically after a producer from NBC’s Dateline read a newspaper article about the movie and contacted Brooks about shooting a documentary-style telling of his story.
After the two-hour episode ran on January 7, Brooks says they were flooded with nearly a thousand requests from groups across the country who were interested in financing the costs of showing the movie and bringing Brooks in for a Q&A session. “It’s really changed how we’re doing things, and in a way that no-body’s really done before,” he says. Each group that requests a viewing will eventually have a screening in a local venue—such as a theater, church, or school—and in that way, Brooks says, the movie will be seen nationally.
Brooks can’t attend all the screenings. “If I did, it would stretch out over the next three years,” he says with a laugh. But he is going to as many viewings as he can. Still, a part of him is anxious for the day when he can act in, write, or produce something not based on his own life. “It’s out there where people can see it, and in my world I can shut the box and tie a bow around it,” he says. “I can tell people, `If you want to know, go see the movie,’ and then I have to talk less about it.”
But Brooks knows that he will never be able to fully get away from his past. “It’s not that it won’t affect everything that I’ve done and probably everything I do for the rest of my life in some small way,” he says. “But I’ve got to go on and live the kind of life that I got up off that floor to live—the kind of life our mom and dad would have wanted us to live. I made a choice then, and it wasn’t to be defeated or bitter or unhappy. It was to be able to go on and have a great life.”
For more information about the movie and how to re-quest a screening, go to heavensrainmovie.com.
Lisa Asher ’89, MA ’99, is associate editor of the Baylor Line and teaches writing as an adjunct professor in the Department of English at Baylor University. She joined the magazine’s staff in 1996.