Bill Callaham, a seasoned trial lawyer from Sacramento, California, has visited New Orleans many times, never fearing for his safety or questioning the prudence of strolling around after dark. And so last week, after listening to some late-night music in the French Quarter, he didn’t think twice about walking back to the Hyatt Regency Hotel on Loyola Avenue.
Callaham, 66, had crossed Canal Street about 2 a.m. and gone a block or two into the Central Business District when he first spotted a trio of young men out of the corner of his eye.
One of them addressed Callaham, who had flown to the city to give a Dec. 12 address on trial presentation techniques at a Louisiana Association for Justice conference.
“They made some comment which I ignored,” Callaham said in an interview Friday. “I continued walking without turning back or paying any attention to them.”
The next thing Callaham remembers, he was staggering down the street, disoriented, having just regained consciousness. “I was covered in blood, bleeding profusely,” he said. “I remember standing and leaning on a trash receptacle for support, trying to figure out why I was bleeding and what was going on.”
“I don’t know if I was out for 30 seconds or 20 minutes,” he added. “I have no memory at all of any fight, being hit. Absolutely no memory of any of that.”
Puzzlingly, the assailants did not take anything from Callaham, who said he was wearing a nice cashmere jacket, slacks and a Rolex watch. Several hundred dollars remained in his wallet, untouched. “I don’t know if they got interrupted. I don’t know if they didn’t care,” he said. “They apparently made no attempt even to take anything from me.”
At some point, two young women pulled up in a vehicle, asking whether Callaham needed help. “I said, ‘I don’t know,’ ” he recalled.
Moments later, he realized his jaw had been broken and that he needed emergency treatment. The women drove Callaham to a nearby hospital, and a CT scan soon made plain the extent of his injuries. “They came back and said, ‘You have very serious facial and jaw injuries. We can’t handle it here. We’re going to send you over to University Hospital,’ ” he said.
Callaham underwent a complicated surgery that took several hours and involved six surgeons. He had suffered a broken jaw that required placing a metal plate across his lower mandible, in addition to a fractured nose and several broken teeth.
“They did a great job,” Callaham said of the medical staff.
While he’s already back to work in California, where he practices personal injury law, Callaham knows the road ahead will be a steep climb. He’s on a fully liquid diet for eight weeks and has lost seven pounds.
“If somebody would have confronted me and robbed me and said, ‘Give us all your money; give us your watch,’ I would have happily done it,” Callaham said. “Believe me, I would have paid 10 times what I had on me to not be putting up with what I’m going to be facing.”
Despite his harrowing encounter, Callaham didn’t hesitate to say he would visit the Crescent City again some day. “I’ve been to New Orleans many times,” he said, “and I do enjoy just wandering around and seeing people and things.”
Since the attack, he said, he’s heard from people who feel crime in New Orleans has gotten “out of control, that it is much worse than ever before.” He said he was told at the hospital that his surgery had to be delayed “because there were too many serious injuries, gunshot wounds and other crime victims who had life-threatening injuries that needed more emergent care than I did.”
This week, New Orleans police said they arrested two young men, 19-year-old Raheim Dimes and 18-year-old Abanobi Lawes, and two teenage women in the robbery and assault of a 46-year-old man Wednesday night. The victim had been walking toward the Saenger Theatre about 10 p.m. at Canal and Burgundy streets, police said, when one of the suspects punched him in the face and another began kicking him repeatedly as he lay on the ground.
Investigators said the youths, who took $65 from the man, are believed to be responsible for other similar robberies in the area, but they declined to say Friday whether the youths are suspects in Callaham’s beating.
A number of recent high-profile crimes, including some involving tourists, have fueled the perception that New Orleans’ crime problem has surpassed governable proportions, even as Mayor Mitch Landrieu touts historic decreases in the city’s murder rate. Many of the victims in the notorious Bourbon Street shooting in late June, for instance, were tourists, including a 21-year-old woman from Australia who was shot in the mouth.
“We spend a whole lot of money enticing people to come to Louisiana for conventions, for tourism, and then we just abandon them to the wolves once they get here,” said Harry T. Widmann, a local lawyer and friend of Callaham’s. “We’re basically having a crime wave here of home-grown terrorists. I know the city is strapped for money, but if they don’t have the resources, the state of Louisiana should be stepping up to the plate.”
New Orleans police classified the attack as a simple battery, a minor crime that carries a maximum sentence of six months in jail.
It wasn’t clear why the police did not record the incident as at least a second-degree battery, defined under Louisiana law as a battery in which “the offender intentionally inflicts serious bodily injury.” Serious bodily injury is defined under the law as involving “unconsciousness, extreme physical pain or protracted and obvious disfigurement, or protracted loss or impairment of the function of a bodily member ...”
Asked about the classification of the attack as a simple battery, Tyler Gamble, a Police Department spokesman, said, “Based on the investigation, that could change.”
For his part, Callaham said he was unable, due to his memory loss, to give investigators much to go on in the way of tracking down the perpetrators. Days after the attack, he and Widmann tried to approximate where the attack may have occurred to check whether any surveillance cameras were in the area, but they came up empty.
“I don’t know if there was any basis for them to do any investigation or what they could do without any witnesses,” Callaham said. “I don’t know what else anybody could do to try to find out who was involved. I don’t think anybody will ever know.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.