On June 27, 1978, a 44-car Conrail freight train struck and killed two Crow Indian brothers near Little Falls, New York. The day before, the boys had disappeared. It was later revealed that the two boys — Bobby, 13, and Tyler, 11 — had run away from the white, Baptist family that had adopted them and their biological sisters seven years earlier, spiriting them from a troubled Montana reservation family to an idyllic Victorian castle across the country. Lost Sparrow is filmmaker Chris Billing’s investigation into the dark family secret that prompted his own adopted brothers’ fatal flight. MORE
A mosaic of Super 8mm home movies, family photographs, newspaper articles, adoption records, police reports, and new on-camera interviews with key people involved in the lives of the two boys, Lost Sparrow pieces together memories and theories from Bobby and Tyler’s biological sisters and father, adoptive parents and siblings, social workers who oversaw their adoption, and the police officers who investigated their deaths.
Bobby and Tyler’s brief lives were tragic from their very beginnings. They were born to teenage parents on the Crow reservation in Montana, survived early years of abuse and neglect, were adopted by a wealthy East Coast family, and finally died on a railroad track in upstate New York. Thirty years later, in an act to close the circle, filmmaker Chris Billing arranges the return of his brothers’ remains from Rural Park Cemetery in Manheim, New York, to the Stands Over Bull Family Cemetery in Pryor, Montana.
“We as Crows don’t believe in burying a Crow Indian some place off in a far away land,” says Pat Stands Over Bull, the boys’ uncle. The Crow belief is that their spirit never rests, and they just go around, when that happens.”
Seeking answers for his own closure, Billing returns to the site of the train accident. Two Little Falls Police officers who investigated the tragedy recall their all-night search for Bobby and Tyler, an early morning call about an incident at the railroad tracks, and the grisly discovery of two young men on the tracks.
“It was just a terrible, terrible, terrible thing,” says retired officer Edward John Dillon. ”Even today, the thought still comes into my mind. You never forget things like that. Never.”
What caused the boys to run away remained a mystery for years, until Billing began to gently peel away the layers of shame, denial, and fear to begin to heal and forgive.
Chris Billing is a writer, producer, director, and editor. Previous to Lost Sparrow, he produced, directed, and scripted the full-length documentary Up to the Mountain, Down to the Village (2005), about Chairman Mao’s decade-long youth re-education campaign during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Billing worked for more than a decade as a China-based journalist, including a five-year stint as NBC News Beijing Bureau Chief (1996-2001).