OPELOUSAS — Two years of Greg Stelly’s life are worth $20 million — or at least that’s what his attorney contends in a federal lawsuit seeking compensation from numerous St. Landry Parish officials for the two years Stelly spent in jail on charges that ultimately were dismissed.
During those 24 months behind bars, Stelly was accused of being a child predator, denied bond for a year, and the state delayed his trial four times — even though eight months into his incarceration, court records show prosecutors had received no investigative file in the case.
By the time bail was granted, Stelly claims, he was cut off from his family and could not afford posting the $20,000 bond. It would be another year before a judge dismissed the case for lack of evidence, as Stelly’s file had gone “missing,” according to the lawsuit.
“I felt that the people that were involved with this, who railroaded a human being, needed to be taught a lesson,” said Stelly’s Los Angeles-based attorney, Philip Kaplan, who handles civil rights cases in Louisiana. “I wanted to let them know that you can’t take somebody’s life away.”
Stelly’s case began on Feb. 2, 2012, when he was arrested on counts of computer-aided solicitation of a minor and indecent behavior with juveniles in an online sting operation targeting child predators.
According to a news release issued by the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Office — which conducted the sting in coordination with the St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Office — Stelly was accused of engaging in a sexually explicit conversation and activities online with someone he thought was underage.
Once incarcerated and after enlisting the aid of a court-appointed public defender, Stelly was denied bail in February and again in March.
In April, the District Attorney’s Office formally charged Stelly with a count of sexual electronic communication with a person under the age of 13 and a count of “lewd or lascivious act upon a child under the age of 17... for the purpose of arousing and gratifying the sexual desires of either person,” according to the bill of information filed in the case. He pleaded not guilty.
By his October trial date, the state requested a continuance until February 2013 “because no investigative file has been received,” according to court minutes.
Those court dates would sail by, granting Stelly only his first opportunity for bond — set at $20,000 — with the state requesting another continuance in June 2013 and again in October 2013.
By the time Stelly made it to trial in February 2014, Judge James Doherty dismissed his case “due to insufficient evidence,” and Stelly was released.
Stelly made three requests for a speedy trial during his time in jail, said 27th Judicial District Defender Ed Lopez.
“The people that remain in jail are normally on very high bonds, and they are not going to get out of jail unless their matter is disposed of,” Lopez said. “There’s very little that you can do for them a lot of the time.”
Among the numerous defendants named in the suit is St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby Guidroz. He said he would not comment on the allegations made in the lawsuit because he has not yet been served, he said. But he did discuss the nature of his department’s work in targeting Internet crimes.
In St. Landry Parish, a single detective “will cruise some of these websites and look for offenders” engaging in sexual conversation with minors or possessing sexual imagery involving children, Guidroz said.
“Child predators used to go to playgrounds,” he added. “Today, we are seeing those predators on the Internet talking to children. They get on the website or social network, and they’ll engage in a conversation, and it becomes sexual. And that’s what we’re looking for. Those predators.”
But the circumstances that led to Stelly’s arrest are unclear, as all court records but the minutes related to his court appearances in the case are sealed from public view.
The order that sealed Stelly’s and similar cases in St. Landry Parish is a strict interpretation of state law guaranteeing that the names of minor victims or victims of sex crimes are kept confidential, according to the Feb. 7, 2012, order from District Judges James Doherty, Alonzo Harris, retired Judge Ellis Daigle and the late Judge Donald Hebert.
The new procedure came only five days after Stelly’s arrest, and it’s another challenge brought forth in Stelly’s suit.
“In a sting operation, you’re not gonna have real minors involved,” Kaplan said Friday in a phone interview. “There’s no child to protect in a case like this. We’re going to ask the federal court to weigh in on that as well.”
Stelly also names Doherty, Harris and Daigle in the suit on allegations the judges routinely deny bail to people arrested for noncapital crimes and misdemeanors, in contradiction to the Louisiana Constitution, which states “a person shall be bailable ... except when he is charged with a capital offense and the proof is evident and the presumption of guilt is great.”
Stelly was not offered bail until he had been in jail a year, according to court minutes in his case. The judges were not available Friday for comment.
District Attorney Earl Taylor, who’s also named in the suit and accused of “sanctioning, condoning and approving a department-wide culture of prosecution at all costs,” including charging Stelly with the crimes without any evidence, did not respond to requests for comment.
Also named as defendants are former jail Warden Wanda Gallien, who’s accused of maintaining an unsanitary facility with inadequate medical care for inmates with chronic illnesses, as was Stelly’s case; St. Landry Parish sheriff’s Deputy Ricky Leger, who arrested Stelly; and Capt. Craig Ortego, who was reportedly Leger’s supervisor at the time.
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825