By William Plummer
August 11, 1986 12:00 PM

When the grand jury that met last month in Annapolis, Md. made its decision, it came down hard on Griffin O’Neal. In the end, the jury simply didn’t believe his story. Returning an indictment for “boat manslaughter,” it charged that the troubled son of actor Ryan O’Neal had acted with “gross negligence” in the Memorial Day weekend death of Gian Carlo Coppola, the 22-year-old son of movie director Francis Ford Coppola. If convicted, Griffin, 21, could face up to five years in jail and a $1,000 fine.

O’Neal had told police at the scene of the accident that Coppola had been driving the 14-foot runabout when the boat ran full throttle into a tow rope strung between two other vessels in the South River, catching him in the left forearm and face and slamming him fatally back onto the deck. Yet, at the grand jury’s preliminary investigation, testimony from six witnesses indicated that Griffin had lied. He had been at the wheel. Following the hearing, Deputy State’s Attorney for Anne Arundel County, Md. Gerald K. Anders suggested that Griffin, who has been treated for drug dependency, may have been drinking before the accident. The autopsy report showed that Coppola was legally intoxicated at the time of his death. The police did not test O’Neal because at that time they accepted his statement that he was the passenger.

The young men had been working in nearby Arlington, Va., where Coppola’s father was filming Gardens of Stone. Griffin had a small part in the Vietnam-era picture, and Gio (as friends called him) was learning the business as his father’s right hand. News of Griffin’s indictment and his forthcoming trial—scheduled for the fall—was conveyed immediately by the state attorney’s office to Francis Ford Coppola, who was still on location. By all reports, the director, who has missed less than a week of shooting since the accident, has been using work to hold grief at bay. “When all this happened,” says Gary Lucchesi, production executive on Gardens of Stone, “Francis chose to go on with the movie because he felt it would be best for his psyche. I remember him saying the last place he’d want to be after Gio’s death was home. To see Gio’s room, to confront him there…he wanted time.”

Intimates deny rumors that Coppola was furious with Griffin, that he threw the young actor off the set, or that the cast—which includes James Caan, Anjelica Huston and James Earl Jones—lobbied for his ouster. According to producer Fred Roos, a week after the accident Griffin’s manager asked that he be released from the movie. Far from wanting to get back at O’Neal, says Roos, “Francis would say, ‘How can we help Griffin?’ “Lucchesi supports Roos’s statements. “I remember Francis saying, The gods gave me Gio and the gods have taken him.’ Francis knows nothing will bring back his son. He didn’t want to see another young life ruined.”

Coppola’s other son, Roman, 21, has joined his father on the Gardens of Stone set. “You could see Coppola petting him and wanting to be close,” says tap dancer Johne Forge, an extra in the movie. “It looked like he needed his support.” The mood on the set is far from downbeat, according to Forge. “James Caan keeps everybody laughing,” he says. “He’s doing a tap dance. He even made Coppola laugh.” Others saw the situation differently. The set was “very somber,” according to extra Sharon Fuller, 27. “There seemed to be a kind of sadness. I got the feeling that people were not approaching Coppola, like there was some unstated agreement not to.”

Gio and Griffin, who before the accident had completed work as “a reckless young marauder” in a new movie, The Wraith, were sometime friends who met in 1979 on the set of The Escape Artist. Friends say Gio was a different sort of kid from the star-crossed Griffin, whose life has been marred by problems with drugs and with his tempestuous father. “Gio was always working and going and doing,” says Nancy Drew, his neighbor in L.A.’s Benedict Canyon. “I always heard him typing, typing. He was completely immersed in learning the craft of movies.” The young Coppola was responsible for the montage footage in his father’s Cotton Club. He was to have interned on Spielberg’s Amazing Stories, and Penny Marshall had recently hired him to do second unit directing on her new picture, Jumpin’ Jack Flash.

Since Christmas, Gio had been dating Jackie De La Fontaine, 20, an aspiring fashion designer who had accompanied him and Griffin on that fateful outing to the South River. Jackie was waiting for him on the dock when he was killed. She is, reportedly, pregnant with his child. Yet it is Penny Marshall’s daughter, Tracy Reiner, Gio’s close friend and former girlfriend, who seems to have the last best word on this special young man. “Gio was a very, very old soul,” says Tracy. “He had a magic about him. He taught me more about life and love than anyone I’ve ever met.” Tracy pauses, then continues, “There’s no elaborate story to Gio. He loved art, he painted and wrote and wanted to make films, and he could fix just about anything. He was a very formal, classic gentleman.” Reiner feels no bitterness toward Griffin O’Neal either. “Griffin is a kid. He has had an incredibly rough life. Gio’s death is not his fault.”