Update, 1:50 p.m. Monday: Darren Sharper takes 20-year plea deal in Louisiana rapes
As the owner and operator of a bar in Metairie and the manager of a busy nightclub on Bourbon Street, Tony Stafford knows drunks.
The way a friend of his was acting on the night of Sept. 22, 2013, Stafford knew it went beyond liquor.
The friend, a former Saintsation cheerleader, seemed zoned out while at a Decatur Street club.
“She was disoriented. It was very strange. ... I was concerned for her safety,” Stafford said in an interview with law enforcement officials.
The woman had arrived at the club, Jax, with http://www.theneworleansadvocate.com/news/11898147-172/darren-sharper-has-struck-plea">former Saints safety Darren Sharper. They’d come in Sharper’s SUV from a different bar, in the Warehouse District. There seemed to be no one else around whom she knew.
Stafford had taken his work crew to Jax after a stellar night at the cash register at his club. He approached Sharper, asking if the cheerleader was all right.
Sharper didn’t answer directly. Instead, he walked over to the woman, took her by the hand and walked out of the club with her. She still looked disoriented to Stafford.
“None of it sat right with me,” Stafford said.
The next morning, Stafford’s friend woke up to find a naked Sharper on top of her, she told police shortly after heading to the hospital for a rape exam.
Her accusation would be the first of several eerily similar accounts from women who said Sharper or a friend of his, Brandon Licciardi, had raped them in New Orleans, in what authorities later alleged was a well-plotted scheme involving cocktails of drugs and alcohol.
A third man, former Morton’s Steakhouse waiter Erik Nunez, also faces aggravated rape and obstruction charges. He is accused of joining Sharper in the rape of the cheerleader and another woman that night in the former NFL player’s condo.
On Friday, Sharper’s attorneys announced they had wrapped similar cases in four states and federal charges in New Orleans together in a global plea deal for the retired NFL star, details of which are expected to be unveiled in a Los Angeles courtroom on Monday.
Stafford — who eventually would become a key witness in the case — tried to protect his friend the night she was with Sharper. He turned to a man he thought would help: Licciardi, a veteran St. Bernard Parish Sheriff’s Office deputy who authorities now say teamed with Sharper in a vile partnership to incapacitate women for rape.
Stafford and Licciardi, who had left the woman with Sharper that night, ran in the same circles, centered on the Saints’ cheerleading squad.
Licciardi, 30, had been engaged to one of the cheerleaders, proposing inside a packed Superdome before the wedding eventually was called off. He grew up working at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, a venerable Bourbon Street bar co-owned by his father, Joe Licciardi, who spent many of his 35 years with the St. Bernard Parish Sheriff’s Office as a top-ranking deputy.
Sharper, meanwhile, signed with the Saints in 2009 and then helped the team win its only Super Bowl. The handsome All-Pro safety was popular in town, and he soon was acting as the celebrity bartender on opening night for a Bourbon Street bar Stafford had helped build.
Licciardi was hired that night to work security at the bar. He also was tasked with driving Sharper to and from his celebrity bartending gig. The two hit it off and became close friends.
It only made sense, Stafford thought, to enlist Licciardi to rescue his intoxicated friend from Sharper.
Licciardi got the call while in bed in Meraux, about 2 a.m.
In an interview he later gave to authorities at the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office, Licciardi recounted picking up the call.
“Man, dude, she’s f***** up! She can’t even walk,” Stafford told him.
Licciardi told authorities he thought it was the sound of a jealous man who had an eye for the cheerleader himself, but Stafford insisted he was only looking out for the well-being of a friend.
Licciardi and his girlfriend hopped in an unmarked patrol car and drove to Sharper’s condo on Tchoupitoulas Street.
Sharper previously had given Licciardi a key to the place, and the deputy let himself in. But he didn’t see anyone, so he headed back downstairs. Stafford, who had rushed over from the French Quarter, pressed him to return to the condo and make sure the woman was all right.
Licciardi went back upstairs and knocked on the bedroom door. Sharper opened it a crack, and Licciardi told detectives he saw the blonde head of a woman lying prone on the bed. Sharper wasn’t pleased. As Licciardi told it, the retired football player pressed a hand on the deputy’s chest and said, “Dude, I got this. Y’all go home. Everything’s fine.”
Simultaneously, court and police records show, Nunez and another woman, whom he had slept with before, were in a second bedroom of the condo.
As Licciardi went downstairs, he heard Sharper deadbolt the door behind him.
Licciardi spoke with Stafford and told him, “I can’t drag her out the place, Tony. I don’t know what else you want me to do.”
Stafford later called the cheerleader, but the call went to voicemail. He sent her frantic text and social media messages.
The next morning, the woman told Stafford she couldn’t remember what happened. Stafford begged her to go to a hospital. She did, early the next morning, and hours later, she told police that Sharper had raped her.
While Stafford was urging the woman to call police, Licciardi was in bed the next morning with his girlfriend, exchanging texts with Sharper.
Some of the texts suggested Sharper had had sex with two women the previous night, Licciardi would later tell authorities in a series of interviews in which he would alter his story and ultimately give up his cellphone.
One of the texts read: “The fat booty joint was a beast too. 2 for 1. Great night.”
Another message was even more graphic. It contained a video clip of a man’s fingers being inserted and removed from a woman’s vagina while pornography played on a television in the background. The video also showed a man’s penis.
Licciardi said he believed the video was made in Sharper’s bedroom.
What happened next played out over several months.
Stafford, who met with authorities a number of times about his friend and Sharper, acknowledged that he testified in front of a federal grand jury in the spring.
By Jan. 17, 2014, Sharper was in jail in Los Angeles on suspicion of raping two women there after serving them spiked drinks. Authorities in Las Vegas and Arizona later charged Sharper with drugging and raping women in Las Vegas and Arizona. Police in Florida had previously investigated Sharper for similar allegations that didn’t lead to charges.
Back in New Orleans, the other woman in the condo the night Stafford’s friend said she was raped also came forward, but later. She said that she, too, awoke to find a naked Sharper on top of her, and inside her, that same morning.
More women would come forward in New Orleans, and soon the authorities set their sights on Licciardi, who federal investigators concluded was Sharper’s full partner in a conspiracy to drug and rape women that went back years.
State and federal authorities linked two other claims of rapes that occurred before Sept. 22, 2013, to Licciardi and Sharper.
Among them was the alleged rape by Licciardi of a woman that both he and Sharper are accused of drugging at a party the night before the 2013 Super Bowl was played in New Orleans.
Another rape blamed on Sharper happened at a room at the Renaissance Hotel in August 2013; Licciardi is accused of serving up that victim to the retired NFL star.
Licciardi is also accused of drugging a woman who confronted him, weeks later, about Sharper’s alleged rape of the cheerleader. The woman awoke in a muddle, covered in vomit in the bathroom of a New Orleans club in November 2013. Licciardi was accused of drugging yet another woman in August 2012.
Licciardi is now in jail in St. Charles Parish under federal custody, facing charges in both federal and state cases. Nunez is there, too; he faces rape and obstruction charges in state court only. Both men face possible life sentences on their respective rape charges; they have pleaded not guilty.
Under a search warrant, Sharper allowed investigators to swab his mouth for DNA, but he never gave a statement to police.
Stafford admits he was initially scared to cooperate with authorities building a case against Sharper. He said he feared Sharper was powerful enough to have him killed.
But Stafford in the end overcame his fear.
“If (helping) meant they’d get a conviction, I’d help out,” he said. “If something is going to happen to me, then it’ll happen. But I don’t think someone wants to stand on the side of someone that would do” what authorities say Sharper did to his friend.