The Blind Side of the story Hollywood screen writers left out of the movie Brian Banks

Author: Bill Clutter

Freddie Parish III and his wife, Sylvia, with Brian Banks. Photo provided by Freddie Parish.

The star of the movie Brian Banks is a lawyer, Justin Brooks, played by actor Greg Kinnear. Brooks, 54, co-founded and directs the California Innocence Project, based at Case Western Law School in San Diego. Since starting the project in 1999, Brooks and his project have exonerated 26 people who were wrongfully convicted, making his project one of the most successful in the country.

Greg Kinnear (left) with Justin Brooks 

But, as in many cases, the unsung hero behind the scenes, often out-of-sight from the media limelight, is the private investigator whose work made the outcome of the case possible.

The story that didn’t make the big screen is how two best friends, Brian Banks and Freddie L. Parish IV, high school football teammates who dreamed of becoming NFL stars, reconnected after Banks returned home after serving six years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

Freddie Parish, son of a private investigator, Freddie Parish III, became best friends with Banks after Freddie transferred to Long Beach Polytechnic High School at the end of his sophomore year. 

The same school Snoop Dogg and Cameron Diaz attended, known for having one of the best academic and sports programs in the country. listed Brian Banks among “Juniors to Watch,” an elite class of high school players.

“Banks has great size and speed, you don’t find many linebackers with Brian’s 6-4 height and his 4.5 speed [running the 40-yard dash],” said the scouting report. He received letters from college coaches all over the country, from Illinois, Nebraska, USC, Cal, Oregon, Oklahoma, Utah and Ohio State, inviting him to play for their programs.

Freddie and Brian were both juniors when they played varsity football for the Jackrabbits, on the team that won the state championship. Freddie made a key defensive stop playing nickelback, forcing a fumble that helped seal their victory against Edison High School.

“We were like special team heroes,” said Freddie. Their ability to stop a run was fearless.

They were looking forward to playing their senior year together on a team that was ranked one of the best high school football teams in the country, having five of the top 100 players in the nation on the same team. But it all ended the summer between their junior and senior years.

On July 8, 2002, Brian Banks was arrested by the Long Beach Police Department on forcible rape charges. He had been accused by Wanetta Gibson, a sophomore going into her junior year, of forcing her into a school stairwell and sexually assaulting her.

The false allegation started with a note Gibson handed to a classmate, Sharell Washington.

“Sharell I went to the bathroom in the 700 building and Brian Banks was in there and he is so big he picked me up and put me in the elevator and he took me downstairs and he pulled my pants down and he raped me and he didn’t have a condom on and I was a virgin and now I’m not. Don’t tell anyone.”

The school principal heard about the allegation and alerted authorities. When Gibson was interviewed by a school nurse, she added that he anally raped her, after she was vaginally penetrated.

“He did it in the front, then in the back,” she said. She described a gooey substance that was “white and sticky” dripping from her “private parts.”

Brian and Freddie were walking past the practice fields on their way to take their senior pictures when Brian learned police were at his house looking for his brother. A short time later, Banks found out it was him police were looking for.

It was a Monday when Gibson said she was raped by Banks. They were attending summer school. According to Brian, he left class at 11:15 a.m. with a hall pass, telling his teacher he needed to excuse himself to call a film producer who was doing a documentary on the football team. In the hallway, he saw Wanetta coming out of the girl’s bathroom. She agreed to follow him into the elevator, downstairs to another floor and into the stairwell known by students as the “make-out” area. He said they began to kiss, and he admitted kissing her breasts as she caressed his penis. They planned to “mess around,” but he denied having intercourse.

After being interviewed by detectives, Banks was handcuffed, and taken to jail. He was expelled from high school. He missed his senior year of varsity football. Although he was still a juvenile, just 16 years old, Banks was charged as an adult. His dream of getting a scholarship to USC, to play for the Trojans and coach Pete Carroll, came to an end before it began. Instead of hearing sounds of joy, graduating with his high school class of 2003, he heard the clank of prison bars ringing in his ears.

Exactly one year later, on July 8, 2003, Brian Banks pled “no contest.” At his sentencing hearing, his attorney explained to the judge, “Mr. Banks is honest when he tells the court he did not want to run the risk of facing life in prison.” The year he spent at the Los Padrinos Juvenile Detention Center awaiting trial convinced him—he didn’t want to die in prison.

District Attorney Lesley Klein questioned the teenager about his decision to plead guilty.

“At your trial, you have the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses, the right to present a defense and to testify in your own defense, the right to use the subpoena power of the court . . . Do you understand all of the rights that I have just explained to you?”

“Yes, sir,” he replied, nervously calling her the wrong gender.

“Do you give up each of those rights?” Klein asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” he replied.

“Now, the maximum sentence that you could have received on this case is 41 years to life. Do you understand that?”

Banks politely replied, “Yes, ma’am.”

“But you want to plead in exchange for the sentence that I indicated on the record, is that correct?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Klein went on, “You will be required to register as a sex offender for the rest of your life. Do you understand that?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Judge Mark C. Kim accepted his plea of guilty and sentenced him to serve six years in the Department of Corrections. He faced a maximum eight-year sentence on the single count of forcible rape that he pled guilty to, in exchange for the dismissal of the other counts that carried aggravated penalties.

“It was Banks’s word against Gibson’s. Banks was faced with an impossible decision at the time—either fight the charges and risk spending the rest of his life in prison, or enter a plea of no contest,” said the petition that was later filed by the California Innocence Project. He “chose the lesser of two evils when he pleaded no contest.” He had never been in trouble with the law before this happened.

His dream of playing in the NFL was shackled by a criminal justice system that too often sends innocent people to prison.

“Yes, sir,” he replied, nervously calling her the wrong gender.

“Do you give up each of those rights?” Klein asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” he replied.

“Now, the maximum sentence that you could have received on this case is 41 years to life. Do you understand that?”

Banks politely replied, “Yes, ma’am.”

“But you want to plead in exchange for the sentence that I indicated on the record, is that correct?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Klein went on, “You will be required to register as a sex offender for the rest of your life. Do you understand that?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Judge Mark C. Kim accepted his plea of guilty and sentenced him to serve six years in the Department of Corrections. He faced a maximum eight-year sentence on the single count of forcible rape that he pled guilty to, in exchange for the dismissal of the other counts that carried aggravated penalties.

“It was Banks’s word against Gibson’s. Banks was faced with an impossible decision at the time—either fight the charges and risk spending the rest of his life in prison, or enter a plea of no contest,” said the petition that was later filed by the California Innocence Project. He “chose the lesser of two evils when he pleaded no contest.” He had never been in trouble with the law before this happened.

His dream of playing in the NFL was shackled by a criminal justice system that too often sends innocent people to prison.

While in prison, Banks discovered, through the civil lawyers in the lawsuit filed by Wanetta Gibson against the school district, that DNA testing of the rape kit and of the underwear that police collected as evidence had contradicted Gibson’s preliminary hearing testimony that landed Brian in prison. He was upset that his attorney didn’t use “CSI” to clear his name sooner. The results of the DNA test proved he didn’t rape Wanetta Gibson like she claimed. The report from the crime lab concluded not a single sperm could be found on the vaginal and anal swabs, and none on her underwear.

Brian wrote a letter to the California Innocence Project.

“They told me they couldn’t help me,” said Brian. They wrote back and said because the DNA report was available to his attorney at the time he pled guilty, it wasn’t considered new evidence. To overturn a conviction, one needed new evidence. The only way to reopen the case, they told him, was to get the victim to recant her testimony.

“I knew that wasn’t going to happen,” said Brian.

He tried filing a habeas petition on his own, pro se, to reverse his plea of guilty, alleging that his first attorney was ineffective, but the judge denied his claim of innocence.

Freddie and the team quarterback, Leon Jackson, were the only team members that kept in touch with Brian, sending him letters, and hope, while he was in prison. Freddie visited his friend in prison while others shunned him.

“Not too many others, to be honest with you,” said Freddie, kept in contact with Brian.

Brian was finally able to return home after completing his six-year sentence, but was still on parole. His father was homeless, according to the elder Freddie, and his mother had problems she was going through. Brian confided to his best friend that his home life was not good.

“I knew the shit he was going through at his house,” said Freddie. He declined to elaborate.

Brian was spending a lot of time with Freddie and his family. One night, Freddie went upstairs and left Brian at the kitchen table with his parents. When he came back down, he found his mother and father deep in conversation with Brian. They announced to their son that Brian would be moving in with them. Condemned in the eyes of the law and society as a sex offender, Freddie’s family opened up their hearts and home to Brian.

“I didn’t know Mr. Banks at all. He was just released from prison, and he didn’t have a place to stay, so my wife, Sylvia, and I invited him to stay at our house,” said the elder Parish. He didn’t have a car when he started living with them, so Sylvia loaned Brian hers. She believed in him. She would sometimes walk to work because she had given her car to Brian. For about a year, Brian Banks was a member of the Parish family.

The younger Freddie recalled the time he invited Brian to go to the park with him and his little kids. Brian said he couldn’t be around children. The elder Parish said they couldn’t have children come to their home on Halloween because Brian was a registered sex offender.

Months after he was released from prison, on February 28, 2011, Brian received a friend request on Facebook from his accuser, Wanetta Gibson. She sent him a message telling him she was sorry. “Let bygones be bygones.”

He didn’t intend to respond. Brian showed the message to his friend, Freddie.

“Naw, fuck her!” Freddie responded.

“I said, ‘I feel you, but now’s your opportunity,’” said Freddie. “I told him, this is chess, not checkers. Get her to tell the truth. I knew my Dad was a private investigator, and his office, like, any time you walked into his office, it’s being filmed and recorded. I told Brian, if only you could get her there.”

Brian sent Gibson a message asking if she would meet with his private investigator. She agreed.

Freddie Parish III got his start as a private investigator working for Huntington Beach private investigator John A. Demarr.

“I started off doing skip tracing,” said Freddie. “John DeMarr did a lot of high-celebrity surveillance.” It wasn’t long before his boss asked Parish to join his surveillance team.

One of his first assignments reads like a Hollywood comedy. Parish was part of a team conducting surveillance at a marina, and their target was aboard a luxury yacht that was docked. They forgot some equipment, so Parish walked back to the car to retrieve it. Walking back, distracted—Parish’s mind was focused on the case—he stepped into the night, one foot in front of the other.

“I walked right into the ocean,” said Parish. “I fell off the dock.”

Although embarrassed, it didn’t blow his cover, and within 15 minutes, Parish captured video images of their target.

“I was able to successfully resolve the case,” he said. “We still laugh about that today.”

After 36 months working for DeMarr, Parish obtained his PI license and started his own business, Vantage Point Investigations. He rented an office suite on Orange Boulevard in Signal Hill. His wife Sylvia helped run the business, working as an executive assistant. Not long after that, his son came to him for help. The private investigator took on the case of Brian Banks pro bono.

“I charged him nothing,” said Parish.

Wanetta Gibson came to the private investigator’s office and admitted she fabricated her story.

“No, he didn’t rape me,” said Gibson. They planned to have consensual sex in the stairwell, she said, but she had her period. She later saw Banks with two of his sophomore friends laughing as she walked by. She thought they were making a joke about the smell of her menstrual cycle.

“She assumed they were laughing at her because of the odor,” said Parish.

After Wanetta Gibson left his office, Freddie Parish thought he had the evidence to “blow the doors off” the case, but got a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach when he checked the video monitor and discovered an investigator’s worst nightmare.

“We had total electronic failure,” said Parish. “Everything failed. The equipment was junk!”

Parish ordered new cameras, the best equipment he could find, an out-of-pocket expense of $5,800. He paid extra for overnight shipping. He instructed Banks to invite Gibson back to his office.

This time, Parish arrived at 6 a.m. and set up a total of eight surveillance cameras throughout the room where the meeting would be held. If one failed, there would be plenty of back-up. Gibson was scheduled to arrive at 10 a.m. He tested and retested the equipment. Everything was working perfectly.

“We started to get nervous when she didn’t show up,” said Parish.

She finally arrived at 11:15 a.m. His wife Sylvia was working at the reception desk when Gibson walked in. Sylvia led her into the room where Brian Banks was seated. Banks was still on probation and was restricted by a court order to remain more than 100 feet away from the Gibson, but she agreed on her own to meet face-to-face with Banks. Parish watched from a monitor in his office, then decided to introduce himself and took control of the interview.

Parish started off the interview with some light-hearted questions. After he got Gibson laughing, he asked about the first time she had sex and lost her virginity. It was not Brian Banks, she said, and the date she lost her virginity happened well after Brian Banks was in prison. Parish asked when was the first time she had anal sex? She answered, “Never.”

That admission blew the doors off the case.

Wanetta Gibson had the dilemma of living with a lie that sent an innocent man to prison. She explained to Parish how she tried to undo the lie she told police and to prosecutors. She had reservations about getting in front of a jury and lying again under oath. She wanted to take it back, before Banks went to prison. But her mother, who filed a lawsuit against the Long Beach Unified School District, alleging there was inadequate security at the school, convinced Wanetta to stick with her story. Citing the transcript of Parish’s interview, the petition later filed by the California Innocence Project stated, “When she voiced her concern, her civil attorney said, ‘Don’t say nothing.’”

It wasn’t until much later that the truth finally spilled out.

The school district, like Banks, mitigated the severity of a civil jury verdict, and agreed to pay a $1.5 million structured settlement in reaching a plea agreement. The school district paid half the money up-front, with the other half promised at some date in the future.

According to Parish, the attorneys took 60 percent as their fee, while Gibson’s mother split the remaining 40 percent with her daughter.

“All that money they gave us, I mean gave me, I don’t want to have to pay it back,” she told Parish.

Justin Brooks of the California Innocence Project acknowledges that without the videotape, they had no evidence to work with. And the fact that Banks pled guilty was another obstacle.

“We would rarely look a plea bargain case to start with, so we rejected it. In fact, we rejected it twice,” said Brooks. But after seeing the video of Wanetta Gibson admitting she fabricated the rape allegation, Brooks felt there was enough evidence to finally accept the case.

The California Innocence Project, like other projects around the country, depends so much on fact investigation, explained Justin Brooks.

“Ninety-eight percent of what we do is investigation, and only two percent involves litigation,” he said.

Banks with his legal team awaiting Judge Kim’s decision 

The California Innocence Project filed a motion to clear Brian’s name. Long Beach Superior Court Judge Mark C. Kim ordered the State of California to vacate the conviction of 26-year-old Brian Banks. He was officially exonerated.

“I’m here today and I remain unbroken,” Banks declared after the hearing. “No matter what you’re going through, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

Later that night, Freddie Parish IV and his best friend, Brian Banks, sat on the back patio of his parents’ home, on a hillside overlooking the city lights of Long Beach, a spectacular view of the harbor, and the twinkling of stars above the Pacific Ocean. They reflected on what had happened. Brian broke down crying, and this time, it was “tears of joy,” said Freddie.

As time passed, the two friends lost touch with each other.

Banks playing for the Atlanta Falcons.
Photo courtesy of the California Innocence Project. 

“People grow apart,” said Freddie. “I still love him like a brother.” Brian developed new, celebrity friends, said Freddie’s father.

Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll invited Brian to attend a preseason minicamp, but he didn’t make the team. On April 3, 2012, the Atlanta Falcons offered him a contract to play in the National Football League. He made his first appearance in a preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals and made two tackles. 

After the game ended, Banks told reporters, “It was definitely the best day of my life.”

But the years he spent in prison not playing football were a detriment to his dream. Brian was cut from the team.

Three years later, on June 17, 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown authorized a payment of $142,200 from the court of claims to compensate Banks for the nearly six years he spent behind bars.

After Parish’s video came to light, the Long Beach Unified School District filed a lawsuit against Wanetta Gibson on April 12, 2013, to recover the $750,000 it had paid out on the $1.5 million structured settlement. The school district refused to pay the remaining balance of $750,000. It was reported that Gibson went into hiding and dodged efforts to serve her with papers.

When the story broke, Freddie Parish was given credit for his work that helped exonerate his son’s best friend. The NBC affiliate in Los Angeles led with the headline, “How a Private Investigator Elicited the Confession That Helped Exonerate Brian Banks.” The New York Daily News the next day had the headline, “Brian Banks Investigator had One Shot at Accuser’s Confession.”

The media doesn’t always get the story right. In fact, Freddie had two bites at the apple.

Brian wrote a book about his story called What Set Me Free, which became the basis for the movie Brian Banks.

The private investigator was flooded with phone calls and had more work than he could handle. He picked up a new corporate client that paid him $10,000 a week to conduct surveillance on a CEO who was suspected of impropriety. He followed the CEO into a spa, a place where men have sex with men, anonymously. Parish concealed a small camera, attaching it below his scrotum, and hid it with a towel. He captured the CEO harnessed in a sex swing, with men lining up to have unprotected anal sex. As Parish crept up in the darkened room, several men groped him.

“I was afraid they would touch the camera,” said Parish. The CEO was fired by the board. After the man’s wife saw the video, she filed for divorce. The newspaper reported she received a settlement of several hundred million dollars. It was far less than Parish had made, but on that one case, Parish made more money than most PIs dream of.

Freddie Parish with Jay Leno
during a taping of the Tonight Show,
which featured Brian Banks making
a guest appearance.
Photo Provided by Freddie Parish.  

One would think this story ended well for Parish. I expected to hear how Brian Banks was eternally grateful for the many uncompensated hours Parish put into his case, and the money he spent out-of-pocket. But as Banks walked out of courthouse, finally exonerated, he told his PI to “Fuck off! You’re just using me.” Parish and his wife were heartbroken.

Justin Brooks, director of the California Innocence Project, explained why Banks may have felt that way.

“The problem with the new evidence is the way it was obtained,” said Brooks. “California has very strict rules on non-consensual recordings.” Since California law requires two-party consent to record conversations, Brooks was concerned that the judge would throw out the evidence as being illegally obtained.

“The investigator had signs posted in his office that they were being monitored, but she never was told that she was being recorded,” said Brooks. “So, I was worried that the judge wasn’t going to let it in. And, as I predicted, she recanted her recantation once she found out she would have to pay the school back.”

Francie Koehler, past President of the California Association of Licensed Investigators (CALI), explains the obligation of a private investigator is to comply with the laws that govern attorneys, as well as private investigators.

“That’s the value of joining an association of private investigators, like CALI, because you have training,” said Koehler. The fact that he had signs posted in his office disclosing that invitees to the business were being monitored “saved him” from any repercussions, said Koehler. According to Koehler, only when there is an expectation of privacy that two-party consent is required in California.

“There is no expectation of privacy in a public place, like a restaurant or hotel lobby,” said Koehler. No criminal charges were filed against Parish, and no adverse action was taken against his license.

As a rule of thumb, investigators should be consulting with attorneys before embarking on investigations, especially one this sensitive. The right move would have been for Parish to offer his services pro bono to the California Innocence Project and work as a part of the legal team, taking his cues from a lawyer.

“So, you have to remember, the Innocence Project that took over his case turned him down. They wouldn’t even touch his case,” said Parish. “They wouldn’t talk to him. They said if you get something really outstanding, that would blow the doors off, maybe then we can do something. Then I get the tape, and suddenly, everybody wants to talk to him.”

The case was resolved without an evidentiary hearing, so there was no court challenge to the methods the PI used to obtain Wanetta Gibson’s recantation. Brooks used his charm, something his colleagues have seen before, to persuade the prosecutor to meet with Brian Banks, to get his side of the story.

“That’s the beauty of representing a client who is already out of prison,” said Brooks.

And when the prosecutor and Brooks met together with the alleged “victim,” her story fell apart.

“She said she never contacted him on Facebook,” Brooks recalled. He asked Gibson how did she know where to go for the meeting if that wasn’t her communicating with Banks on Facebook?

She didn’t have a good answer to that question. The prosecutor agreed to join the motion to vacate the conviction, and Banks had his name cleared.

A few years later, in 2012, the Illinois Supreme Court declared the state’s eavesdropping statute unconstitutional. That case involved a private citizen, Annabel Melongo, who spent 20 months locked up in the Cook County jail for recording phone conversations without the consent of the other party, which she hoped to use in court.

The Chicago Tribune reported, “She was charged under the law—one of the strictest in the country—that makes audio recording comments made by any person, even in public, illegal unless their consent was obtained first.”

The justices pointed out that, in an age of widespread cell phone use, innocent citizens were in violation of the law every day when they record conversations, and cited possible abuse by prosecutors by charging citizens who record the misconduct of police officers.

It’s hard to fault Freddie Parish. When he asked if she would sign a declaration attesting to what she had told him, Gibson refused.

“She said she did not want to sign anything,” said Sylvia Parish, in an affidavit that was filed in support of Bank’s motion to vacate his conviction.

What if Wanetta Gibson was told up-front that the interview was being video and audio recorded? What if she refused to cooperate? If that had happened, there would be no happy ending, no movie, and Brian Banks would still have the stigma of being a convicted sex offender.

“The most important thing about the movie for people to realize is that 96 percent of cases end in pleas,” said Brooks. “And if the investigation isn’t done, then witnesses are never questioned, that’s the end. So, in most cases, they end in a plea bargain, and no one will ever know the real truth of what happened.”

Freddie Parish was disappointed in Brian Banks, both the movie and the person. There was no one cast in the movie to play the role of Freddie Parish, either son or father, who teamed up to clear his name. He and his wife closed the doors to Vantage Point Investigations. While his PI license remains active, in August of 2018, he was offered a position as Branch Manager of Paramount Residential Mortgage Company in San Pedro, California.

 “My family took him in and gave him a home when no one else would,” said Parish.

The movie Brian Banks, with actor Aldis Hodge playing the title role, premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in September 2018. Parish and his wife and son didn’t attend the premiere. The film was released on August 9, 2019, in theaters. The movie had a short run in Louisville, where I live, and it was gone before I could see it.

Freddie Parish said the movie hasn’t become a blockbuster hit, like The Blind Side, the sports drama about an African American teenager, Michael Oher, who like Brian Banks was taken in by a kind-hearted family after his father was murdered in prison, and his mother, addicted to drugs, was unable to care for her son. The Blind Side was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Sandra Bullock’s portrayal of Leigh Ann Tuohy, the woman who invited Michael Oher into her home to live as a member of her family, won Bullock an Academy Award for Best Actress. The offensive tackle became a USA Today High School All-American, was recruited to play college football for the Ole Miss Rebels, and was drafted in the first round by the Baltimore Ravens, helping them win the 2012 Superbowl. It’s the humanity of the human heart that made the story of The Blind Side so endearing to critics and moviegoers.

Brian Banks begins his autobiography by saying, “I have chosen in writing my book to name only the heroes.” The name Freddie Parish never appears in the book. The man who made it possible to clear Brian’s name is generically referred to as “the private investigator.”

Despite what happened, Parish remains committed to donating his professional time to those in prison who are innocent.

“I try to take one [pro bono] case a year. I get joy out of helping people,” said Parish. He helped to free another innocent man from prison, who spent over a dozen years, deprived of freedom. He never charged the man a dime.

“I’m batting a thousand,” said Parish.

Freeing the innocent is rarely accomplished by a star player alone. From the investigators, who doggedly pursue new evidence, to the attorneys and law students who draft the pleadings, to the lead counsel who interacts with the prosecutor and judge, the outcome of a case is a team effort. They are all heroes.

“Republished with permission of PI Magazine.”

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