Haleigh Breest was the first woman to accuse Paul Haggis of sexual assault, in a civil lawsuit filed in a New York state court in 2017. Nearly six years later – and with four more women having since come forward with similar accusations – the former events publicist still has no trial date.
The court’s massive backlog is mostly to blame for the delay. Lawyers for both Haggis and Breest told that the case is active and ready for trial, but is awaiting a calendar assignment. One lawyer working the case told that the case has been bogged down by both COVID delays and an already swamped New York Supreme Court, where the case will be tried.
Haggis filed a request for a speedy trial last year, with the plaintiff’s consent, but a judge denied the skip-the-line request normally reserved for the elderly and terminally ill. The matter was recently reassigned to a new judge, Sabrina Krau, after the first justice was promoted, which may also be holding things up; a clerk for Krau told she is scheduling a pretrial conference and anticipates a possible September start.
Whatever the reasons, the protracted process holds more weight now that Haggis, a two-time Oscar winner for writing and producing the 2004 drama “Crash,” has become a five-times accused sexual predator who had yet to face any legal consequences – until this month.
Early Sunday morning, an unidentified 30-year-old British woman was found in an Italian airport, where she said Haggis dropped her off after raping her “for days” in the hotel room where he was staying to give a master class at the Allora Film Festival in the coastal town of Otsuni.
Police told local media that the woman’s story is consistent with her movements and injuries, which included sexual battery so violent that she “could no longer have sex” and sought medical attention. Haggis vehemently denied the claims through his U.S. attorney, and has suggested that as a reformed Scientologist who’s since criticized the religion, he’s become a target of the church’s infamous “attack the attacker” tactics.
Haggis is being held at his hotel room on house arrest. A hearing was scheduled for Thursday in an Italian court where a judge can determine whether he can go free while the investigation proceeds.
However it plays out, the fact remains that if Haggis’ New York case had gone to court by now, and ended in anything but his total exoneration, it’s unlikely he would have ever been invited to the boot of Italy for the Allora Film Festival – whose motto is “Celebrating the Best of Us” – in the first place.
The Lawsuit That Brought 3 More Accusers to Light
Breest said she was raped on New Year’s Eve 2013, when she was 26 and Haggis was about 60. They met at the premiere of Steven Soderbergh’s “Side Effects” on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, an event he attended as a celebrity guest. They joined a group of colleagues for drinks afterward, and he offered her a ride home.
Haggis pressured her to come up to his SoHo apartment, where a sexual attack began immediately, Breest said in her complaint. She described him as forceful, violent, menacing and threatening, and at one point he even asked her, “You’re scared of me, aren’t you?” The suit added that Haggis “took pleasure in the fear and pain he caused her,” and that she was trapped in his SoHo flat because she didn’t know how to call the elevator.
Breest said she lost consciousness and woke up sore, bleeding and confused, and upon leaving the apartment immediately confiding in friends and testing for STDs at a Planned Parenthood clinic. But she didn’t go to authorities out of shame and fear, she said, and only decided to file her lawsuit after disclosing the assault to a therapist. (She did not file a police report at the time, and New York State had no statute of limitations that would have prevented her doing so even at the time of her 2017 lawsuit.)
Haggis called her version “fiction,” saying the two engaged in consensual oral sex only. He also labeled her case an extortion plot, saying that she privately sought $9 million to pre-empt her from filing her suit.
At first, Breet was Haggis’ lone accuser, a seemingly out-of-left-field development for the filmmaker respected by colleagues and known for uplifting underdogs. A few months later, an amended complaint was filed, adding three more accusers – one who said she was forcibly raped, and two others who said they narrowly escaped Haggis’ physically aggressive sexual advances. All were professional acquaintances or aspiring industryites seeking connections. There are common threads in their claims: being lured into one-on-one situations with Haggis, who then became sexually aggressive and pursued then as they fought or fled – and took a certain relish in creating terror.
“Breest was not the first woman Mr. Haggis raped and she was not the last he attacked,” her amended lawsuit states. “The experiences of these additional women and Ms. Breest make clear that Paul Haggis is a serial predator who has preyed upon women for years.”
Scientology Scapegoat Theory
After the three Jane Does stepped forward to join Breest’s lawsuit, some of Haggis’ friends and former collaborators came to his defense, underlining his theory that the whole thing is a smear campaign cooked up by the Church of Scientology. Haggis was a Scientologist for 35 years, but left in 2009 and became one of the group’s most vocal detractors, including his highly critical 2015 documentary “Going Clear.”
Leah Remini and Mike Rinder, former Scientologists who host the “Scientology and the Aftermath” podcast, in 2018 called Haggis a “gentleman” who was likely the target of the church’s “tactics.” They also suggested that the accusations probably came from coercive Scientology “auditing sessions.”
“Those who accuse without going to law enforcement, those who seek hush money to keep their stories secret, those who make accusations to the media anonymously – they are suspect,” Remini and Rinder wrote in an open letter. “And when the target of these tactics is someone who is a prominent critic of Scientology, it is very suspect.”
Church officials at the time called Haggis’ claims “a reprehensible smokescreen to turn horrific sexual assault and rape allegations made against Haggis by four women into a bigoted attack about their former religion.”
Still, Scientology is notoriously vigorous in its self-defense tactics, reflecting a formal policy set forth in 1966 by L. Ron Hubbard called “attack the attacker” in response to government probes. The procedure he set forth includes language like: “Start investigating [enemies] promptly for felonies or worse … Start feeding lurid, blood, sex, crime actual evidence on the attackers to the press. … Make it rough, rough on attackers all the way. … attackers are simply an anti-Scientology propaganda agency so far as we are concerned … Use their blood, sex, crime to get headlines. … There has never yet been an attacker who was not reeking with crime.”
Documented incidents of this policy in action include the experience of John Sweeney, a BBC reporter who made the documentary “Scientology and Me” in 2007. He said he was spied on, denounced as a “bigot” by prominent Scientologists, chased in the streets of Los Angeles and subjected to a midnight invasion of his hotel room by “Nazi-style” interrogators.
Reps for Scientology did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story.
What Happens Next?
When Haggis filed for a “speedy trial” last year, he noted that he was struggling to pay his legal fees due to the fact that he said could no longer get meaningful work in the industry after the lawsuit had become public knowledge.
He did manage to co-direct a 2019 AIDS documentary, “5B,” and IMDb lists him as co-writer and director of the action film “Ranger’s Apprentice” that is still in development, along with a sci-fi project he co-wrote called “The Juliet.” Studios involved with those projects did not respond to messages seeking to confirm his involvement.
Breest is seeking unspecified damages for herself and the Jane Does. But she may never get her chance to collect anytime soon.
If Haggis is detained for any length of time in Italy, the anticipated September start for Breest’s trial would certainly be in jeopardy, as civil cases don’t carry a possibility for extradition. And if Haggis is convicted and sentenced in Italy, her case may not see its day in court for years – if at all.