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After several tries, U.S. officials finally nab Roman Polanski in 1970s rape case [Updated]

September 27, 2009 |  1:00 pm


Three decades after he fled the United States following his arrest for unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl, Roman Polanski was taken into custody in Zurich this morning and faces extradition to Los Angeles.

Polanski, the famed film director whose career continued to flourish even after fleeing for Europe, was arrested as he arrived in the Swiss city to accept an award at the Zurich Film Festival.

The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office learned last week that Polanski had plans to travel to Zurich this weekend, said Sandi Gibbons, spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office.

Prosecutors sent a provisional arrest warrant to the U.S. Justice Department, which presented it to  Swiss authorities. On at least two previous occasions, the district attorney’s office has received reports that Polanski had travel arrangements to countries with extradition treaties with the U.S. and prepared paperwork for his arrest, Gibbons said.

“But in the end, he apparently found out about it and didn’t go,” she said.

A source familiar with the investigation told The Times that the U.S. Marshals Service had come close to arresting Polanski half a dozen times or so over the past few decades -- though several of those opportunities presented themselves in the last two years.

"For one reason or another, it just didn't work out," said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the case was ongoing. "There are so many variables."

The source said Polanski always was very careful about when and where he traveled. But as new questions arose in recent years about the fairness of his case, the source said Polanski appeared to become more at ease about travel.

Thomas Hession, head of the Marshals Service's  Los Angeles office, would not comment on specifics of the case but said authorities moved quickly on each lead. "Any time information was developed, the L.A. County district attorney's office and the Marshals Service immediately acted on it."

Asked if prosecutors would ask that Polanski be sentenced to time behind bars if he were returned to the U.S., Gibbons said, “We’ve always maintained this is a matter between Polanski and the court. … We initially recommended prison time for him, but I can’t see into the future.”

An attorney for Polanski, Chad Hummel, declined to comment. “Right now, we’re not in a position to say anything,” he said.

[Updated 1:00 p.m. : In a statement, three Los Angeles attorneys representing Polanski  indicated the arrest came as a surprise. The lawyers have been representing him in an ongoing attempt to have the case against Polanski dismissed on the grounds of prosecutorial and judicial misconduct.

"We were unaware of any extradition being sought and separate counsel will be retained for those proceedings,” wrote attorneys Douglas Dalton, Chad Hummel and Bart Dalton. Their request to have the 1977 charges against Polanski dismissed is currently pending before the state Court of Appeal.

The organizers of the Zurich Film Festival expressed “great consternation and shock” over Polanski’s arrest and said the program honoring his films would go on in his absence.

 A spokeswoman for the event, Nikki Parker, wrote in an e-mail that neither Polanski nor the organizers considered his legal status in the U.S. an issue in attending the festival because he often traveled to Switzerland and even owned a home there.

“There was no concern whatsoever,” Parker wrote.]

Polanski, now 76 and a married father of two, asked the court to throw out the entire case based on new allegations of prosecutorial and judicial misconduct detailed in an HBO documentary last year. The L.A. district attorney’s office argued that he could not make such a request while a fugitive, and an L.A. judge earlier this year agreed. A 1997 attempt at settling the case also failed.

Polanski was arrested 31 years ago at a Beverly Hills hotel after a 13-year-old girl accused him of sexually assaulting her during a photo shoot at actor Jack Nicholson's house.

A 1978 arrest warrant, issued after he failed to appear at his sentencing on the statutory-rape conviction, is still in effect, and he would be taken into custody upon arrival on U.S. soil. The director of "Chinatown" and "Rosemary's Baby" has not returned to the U.S. since then but continues to work as a director, winning an Oscar for "The Pianist."

Polanski’s stay in Switzerland could be brief if he opts to return to Los Angeles.

“If he agrees with an extradition, he could be sent to the U.S. in the next days,” said Guido Ballmer, a spokesman for the Swiss Federal Department of Justice and Police.

But if Polanski declines to come back without a fight -- perhaps a more likely scenario given his three decades as a fugitive -- the court process could be quite lengthy, Ballmer told The Times.

The appeals process has several layers and could last months, if not longer. 

-- Harriet Ryan and Andrew Blankstein

Photo credit: A Polanski fan waits for Zurich's Filmfestival. Polanski would have been awarded tonight with the "Golden Eye Award" for his lifework. Ennio Leanza / EPA

More coverage:

Roman Polanski photo gallery

Roman Polanski's attorneys stunned by arrest

Samantha Geimer on being the victim of Polanski and the media

Polanski's extradition to L.A. could take months