US government 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 film is made, the government will receive a cut of the profits.
Some of the big names behind the Hollywood project include megachurch pastor Joel Osteen, who said he had no idea about the script’s unsavoury back-story.
“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 Mr Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas.
The script was already being handled by a legitimate production company when Mr 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% stake in future profits of 'Mary, Mother Of Christ', which is due to begin production this year and includes Mr Osteen as an executive producer.
The script was written by the same person behind 'The Passion Of The Christ', which became a worldwide hit and earned more than €473m.
Aloe Entertainment, the Los Angeles-based production company that paid more than €700,000 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. “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 after it foreclosed on a loan to Mr Fitzgerald, said Richard Rosenthal, a lawyer 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 €719,000 for the script, believing it was held by a San Antonio property mogul.
Before the company issued a payment, Aloe executives hired an entertainment copyright lawyer 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.
If the movie becomes a reality, it will probably be “the first time that a major motion picture was made in which 10% of the profits went to the American taxpayers”, Mr Rosenthal said. “It would be an incredibly unique story.”
The case was first reported by the San Antonio Express-News.
Prosecutors said Vazquez and others laundered millions of dollars in drug proceeds by funnelling the money through various currency exchanges, bank accounts and property ventures in the US and Mexico.
Vazquez was arrested in late 2010 in Chicago.
Mr Osteen’s Lakewood Church signed on to the project last year.
“It’s a beautiful script,” Mr Iloff said. “I’m so saddened that it was tainted this way. I hope that it doesn’t slow it down.”