Suffering persists for paralyzed ex-stuntwoman

Tue Jun 15, 2010 10:36pm EDT

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Heidi von Beltz was a stunning 24-year-old actress and world-class skier in 1980 when she got a call from her boyfriend, "Cannonball Run" stunt coordinator Bobby Bass, to head to the desert outside Las Vegas and double for the film's female lead, Farrah Fawcett.

A top-notch athlete, Heidi was training to be a stuntwoman, and Bobby thought she could do it. It was a disaster waiting to happen.

The stunt called for an Aston Martin to weave its way through a line of speeding, oncoming cars, but the car was plagued with mechanical problems. The steering barely functioned, and the clutch and speedometer didn't work. To make matters worse, the vehicle had no seat belts.

The driver, Jimmy Nickerson, wanted to wait until the car could be repaired, but he was told that the parts from Los Angeles had not arrived and that he'd have to "make do."

"The last thing I remember before the crash was somebody yelling, 'Faster! Faster!' over the walkie-talkie," Heidi recalls.

Her car, in which she was a passenger operating the smoke machine to make the car look as if it was on fire, slammed head-on into the first in the line of onrushing cars, and she was hurtled into the windshield. When members of the crew got to the scene of the accident, they found Heidi unconscious, her head hanging limply on her chest, her neck crushed. In that moment, on that day 30 years ago this month, her life would change forever. She was paralyzed from the neck down, and remains so to this day.

Heidi spent the next six months in the hospital. Around Christmas, she went home to her one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood, and her whole family -- father Brad, mother Patty, aunt Joanna, sister Christy and niece Allison -- moved in with her and took care of her day and night.

Her lawyer, San Francisco attorney Melvin Belli, filed a wrongful-injury suit on her behalf, and she eventually settled for $7 million -- much of which went to her attorneys and a mountain of medical bills.

If anything good came out of the accident, the industry adopted mandatory seat belts on all stunt-car work. "I'm very proud to have been a part of that," she says.

Her breathing impaired by the accident, Heidi and her family decided to move to Malibu for the cool, clean air. They leased a house for a year, and then bought a bigger place up the beach, where they would live for the next 20 years.

Those were happy times. Surrounded by family and friends -- she counts Melanie Griffith and Kathleen Quinlan among her BFFs -- and buoyed by her faith, Heidi was convinced that one day she'd walk again, perhaps, even, to walk down the aisle. Before the crash, she had dated Jack Nicholson and Harrison Ford. Afterward, she found love again, with a then-unknown actor named Ray Liotta.

In 1997, Heidi was on a promotional tour for her book, "My Soul Purpose," when her mother fell ill. Heidi rushed back to her side, and Patty died a few months later, followed two years later by the suicide of their father, who never got over his wife's death.

One of the last things he said to Heidi was, "Do you want to go, too?"

"No," she told her father tearfully. She wanted to live. She wanted to walk again.

After the suicide, her sister Christy was left alone to care for Heidi. They decided to move back to the Valley, where they'd grown up, and bought a ranch-style home on a tree-lined street in Woodland Hills with a swimming pool -- perfect for Heidi's therapy -- and a gigantic backyard with a stable for horses.

"After my dad's death, we felt so alone, but we decided not to look back," Heidi says. "We were optimistic about the future."

The sisters took in boarders to help defray the cost of round-the-clock nurses and mounting medical bills. "Life seemed back on track," Heidi recalls.

They were making ends meet -- and making their mortgage -- when, in March 2007, just before the national financial crises hit, they renegotiated their loan with IndyMac Bank, a subprime lender, and were told they would be able to refinance after a year. Before the year was up, the bank collapsed.

"Only in the last few months has the truth surfaced that the mortgage on our house was thrown into a default pool for liquidation," Heidi says. "These are 'vulture loans,' with no way out. And the mortgage on our home was sold on the stock market to foreign investors without our even knowing."

Last year, IndyMac's assets were taken over by OneWest Bank, which now wants to take back their home.

While all this was going on, Heidi was hit by severe medical problems and last year had to be rushed to the emergency room 10 times.

Confined to bed, mostly, she spends her days reading and watching TV, with an occasional trip in the car out to Malibu. She directs the housekeeping and does limited workouts on a machine that keeps her muscles from atrophying.

The bank wants their house, and two weeks before Christmas it served them with a foreclosure notice. The girls fought back and filed suit in federal court to stop the sale, with Christy acting as their own lawyer. "We are not going down without a fight, and we will prevail," Heidi says.

The foreclosure sale, which was scheduled for early this month, has been postponed until July 13. An attorney for the band declined comment.

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