Benjamin Svetkey
October 02, 1992 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The charge was murder one, but in January 1991 Christian Brando copped to manslaughter. Ever since, Marlon Brando, once the world’s greatest actor, has lived in the shadow of his eldest son’s guilt, shielding an unstable daughter from further legal probes, using all his wealth and wiles to stop the damage.

It was an offer Marlon Brando couldn’t refuse: $5 million for 10 minutes of screen time. Never mind that the movie was Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, the flotsam of this summer’s releases, or that his costume as Torquemada, the grand inquisitor, made the 68-year-old, two-time Oscar winner look like a float from the Columbus Day parade. Brando needed the money — and he was willing to sail the ocean blue to get it.

To put it mildly, the world’s greatest actor has been living what must be a nightmare. Although it has been almost two years since his son Christian, 34, pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the shooting death of Dag Drollet, his half-sister Cheyenne’s boyfriend, the curtain still hasn’t closed on the Brando family scandal. On the contrary, this modern-day Shakespearean tragedy, filled with familial intrigue and shocking acts of hubris, continues to take dramatic turns on stages around the globe, from courtrooms in Tahiti to a psychiatric clinic in Paris to lavish homes in Los Angeles. As with everything in Brando’s orbit, it has become a huge and bloated production, with a budget even Columbus‘ deep-pocketed producers might envy.

The most recent expense: A $900,000 house in Sherman Oaks, Calif. (previously owned by actress Kristy McNichol), which Brando purchased in May for his daughter, Cheyenne, 22, who quietly returned to the U.S. on Aug. 1 for the first time in more than two years. Brando, who once labored mightily to build a Pacific paradise on his private atoll in Tahiti, has now created a veritable witness-protection colony in Sherman Oaks for his troubled daughter.

An Ophelia-like figure with a long history of emotional problems, Cheyenne has been at the heart of the Brando scandal from the start — and continues to play a starring role. Pregnant with Drollet’s child, she was inside Brando’s Mulholland Drive home on the night of May 16, 1990, when Christian pulled a gun on her lover. Accusing the Tahitian Drollet of physically abusing Cheyenne, Christian shot him in the head from inches away with a .45 double-action SIG Sauer pistol.

But what exactly happened that night? What did Cheyenne say to Christian? What did she see? What did she hear? Because of her mental state, Cheyenne has never satisfied authorities in either Tahiti or Los Angeles that she has told the whole story about the events of that evening. And her movements in the months since then constitute a major (and largely unreported) subplot to this labyrinthine family soap opera.

New reports from sources close to the family indicate that many of Cheyenne’s strange maneuvers were choreographed by her father. Brando wept at Christian’s sentencing hearing in Los Angeles last year when he said that had he been a better parent, the tragedy might never have happened. Since then, the guilt-ridden father has gone to inordinate lengths to protect his daughter, acting out of what may well be natural paternal instincts. But the result has been to stymie further investigation and put the case in limbo.

Cheyenne’s life on the lam began when she left Los Angeles for her father’s island home in Tahiti within weeks of Drollet’s killing. Based on one statement Cheyenne made to a police detective — ”In case you don’t know, it was murder” — the L.A. district attorney’s office had obtained a subpoena that would have compelled her to answer questions. But before the subpoena could be served her father arranged her departure, driving her to the airport himself. Attempts by the U.S. government to extradite her as a witness during the police investigation were thwarted by her fragile mental and medical condition (she gave birth to a son, Tuki, within a month after her arrival in Tahiti).

Even if Cheyenne had taken the witness stand, she might not have made much sense. Given to odd behavior (laughing out of context, blowing her nose into her shirt), she was apparently pushed over the edge by the killing. Despite her pregnancy, she was reported to be consuming hallucinogenic drugs in Tahiti; after the child was born, she reportedly twice attempted suicide, once by hanging herself with a dog chain. She also began issuing a series of shocking statements — claiming that her newborn wasn’t hers, for instance, and that her father had ”asked Christian to kill Dag.”

As her brother’s case in Los Angeles got under way, Cheyenne’s condition grew worse. French-Polynesian prosecutors were conducting their own criminal investigation of the shooting (Tahiti is a territory of France, and Drollet was thus a French citizen; his father was once a prominent Tahitian educator and politician) but had been unable to get a coherent statement from Cheyenne. After Christian pleaded guilty in January 1991, her instability continued, and Tahitian authorities granted her permission to fly to Paris to check into Villa des Pages, one of Europe’s most exclusive psychiatric clinics. Her mother — former Tahitian actress Tarita Tariipia, whom Brando met in 1960 while filming Mutiny on the Bounty — along with Cheyenne’s doctor and Brando’s Tahitian public-relations man, flew to Paris with her for what proved to be an eight-month stay.

Then, in September 1991, in a plot twist that seems incredible even by Brando family standards, Cheyenne, accompanied by Marlon, bolted from the Paris clinic, a violation of the terms of her release from Tahiti. Tahitian authorities asked Interpol to reel her in, but for three weeks father and daughter lived like fugitives, slipping from one village to another, deftly eluding the police. The two were finally tracked to an estate near Orleans (reportedly owned by friends of Cheyenne’s French attorney, Jacques Verges, whose other celebrity clients have included the late gestapo chief Klaus Barbie). Details of the arrest are sketchy, but according to one report Brando was spotted dining alone at a local restaurant and the police simply followed him back to his daughter’s hideout. In mid-November, Cheyenne was put on a French military jet and sent back to Tahiti. Her father flew home to Los Angeles.

For the next several days Cheyenne was kept under guard at a regional hospital in Tahiti, then was released on bond and told not to leave the country. She remained in Tahiti until two months ago, when Brando’s lawyer convinced a court that she needed psychiatric care in the U.S. Local authorities granted her permission to return to Los Angeles (even though they say the Drollet case remains officially open in Tahiti). Lately Cheyenne has been spending most of her days secluded in her 12-room house in Sherman Oaks, although she recently was spotted on Sunset Strip, toting two shopping bags full of videotapes. It is not known whether she is receiving psychiatric care. U.S. officials familiar with the case say it is unlikely she will ever be compelled to return to Tahiti to testify.

Brando has had his own problems tangoing with the Tahitian authorities. For months, Tahitian officials had been trying to get the actor to return to Polynesia to answer questions about the Drollet case, but Brando refused to cooperate. So the Tahitians decided that if Marlon would not come to the island, the island would come to him. Last February they requested that the U.S. Department of Justice force Brando to give a deposition in Los Angeles for the Tahitian investigation. On June 19, after four months of negotiation, Brando finally agreed to meet with a representative of a Tahitian court (the Tahitians deputized Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory W. Jessner just for the occasion) in the West L.A. offices of Brando’s lawyer.

That 90-minute interview revealed a lot more about Brando than it did about the killing. The actor rambled and evaded questions; he was sometimes obsequious, sometimes downright hostile. Describing his son’s state of mind after the shooting, he said Christian was ”withdrawn, silent, and distressed” while Cheyenne ”had large emotional fluctuations.” About his own initial reaction to the violence, he said, ”I was very rapidly deteriorating into a state of confusion.” He conceded that he at first ”didn’t understand” when Christian came into his bedroom and announced that he had shot Drollet dead. ”It was so outlandish,” said Brando. But when Christian showed him the gun, ”it came upon me. It was sort of like a slow explosion.”

Otherwise, the 54-page transcript of the conversation contains 56 I don’t knows, I don’t remembers, and I don’t recalls. Claiming not to remember the date of the killing, he told the lawyers that ”little dots of recall” were all that remained of the incident in his mind.

Brando’s memory was particularly foggy on the subject of the .45 caliber bullet that had killed Drollet. L.A. police had been unable to find that crucial piece of evidence for several days after the shooting. ”I found the bullet myself,” Brando told Jessner, ”and I gave it to the police.” What he didn’t tell the Tahitian-appointed lawyer, though — and what sources close to Brando have never before revealed to the press — was that he had waited a week before disclosing his discovery to the cops. After stumbling onto the bullet (literally by stepping on it; it was lodged under the wall-to-wall carpeting), Brando methodically tore up the rug, moved furniture, and, with the help of assistants, took photographs and traced the presumed path of the bullet, trying to prove that Christian and Drollet had struggled and that the shooting was an accident. In the process, Brando so disrupted the crime scene that the L.A. police were never able to make an accurate determination of the bullet’s trajectory. Deputy DA William Clark allows that somebody cut up the carpet but won’t speculate on what he calls the ”rumor” that Brando tampered with the scene or withheld evidence. He also maintains that the entry and exit wounds, not the bullet, were the investigation’s ”most conclusive” evidence that no struggle took place.

(Edward Medvene, one of Brando’s Los Angeles attorneys, had no comment on his client’s actions after the killing, or on any other aspects of the case. Brando himself also declined to be interviewed for this story.)

But the actor has been busy with more than detective work in recent months: He has also been figuring out ways to pay the ever-expanding expenses of his campaign to protect his children in the aftermath of the killing. There have been huge legal fees (from five attorneys in Los Angeles, two in Paris, two in Tahiti, one in London, plus Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz for good measure), doctors’ bills (Cheyenne’s stay at the Paris clinic was said to have cost $30,000 a month), countless airplane tickets (Brando usually purchases a full row of first-class seats just for himself and sometimes even buys out the entire section), private detectives, bodyguards, and that pricey new piece of real estate in Sherman Oaks for Cheyenne — among other expenditures. At one point during Christian’s defense, it was rumored that the financial strain grew so great that Brando even had to borrow $1 million from Michael Jackson (another son, Miko, 32, is head of Jackson’s private security force).

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