French Quarter living quickly turned south for Richard Abbott, who was a state fire investigator when he moved to the neighborhood but no longer is.
Divorced, turning 50 and eager for a change, Abbott moved last summer with his bomb-sniffing dog, Crash, into a Conti Street apartment house that once was Madam Norma Wallace’s legendary brothel.
He hadn’t even gotten his cable hooked up when, about 8:30 p.m. July 18, he slid off a corner bar stool, got in a scuffle, reached for the black revolver tucked under his “South Park” T-shirt and pistol-whipped a Jackson Square artist three times in the head, drawing blood.
Abbott was arrested and resigned from the state Fire Marshal’s Office. Over the course of two recent Friday afternoons, he stood trial before a Criminal District Court judge on an aggravated battery count that carries a maximum 10-year prison term.
Abbott claimed self-defense, testifying that he fell victim to a cruel hoax when street artist Curtis Courtney told him that Crash had been struck by a cab.
But Courtney’s friend Marshall Edwards said Abbott was sauced, couldn’t spot his unleashed dog in the Three-Legged Dog bar and opted to pummel Courtney with a palmed revolver.
Abbott had been on the stool since about 2:30 p.m., a bartender said, though Abbott said he went home at one point to fetch his state-owned service dog so Crash could roam around the pet-friendly bar.
He said he bought a round for Courtney and others and shots for the bartenders, introducing himself to the locals while touting his law enforcement bona fides.
“I didn’t show anybody my weapon, but I told people that state fire marshals are armed at all times,” Abbott said. “They were told by me that I have a gun with me at all times.”
A video from inside the bar, taken minutes before the fracas, shows Abbott chatting with a woman at the end of the bar while Crash roams in and out of camera view.
In a different video, from outside, Courtney is seen scratching the lyrics to a song from “West Side Story” in chalk on the Conti Street sidewalk.
Soon after that, Abbott testified, Courtney called to him through the bar’s door.
“He hollered at me and said, ‘Hey, fire marshal, your dog just got hit by a taxi out here.’ I look around in the bar and don’t immediately see Crash,” Abbott testified. “I told him, ‘You’re going to tell me where my dog is.’ He said, ‘If that dog’s so special, you need to keep a better eye on it.’ ”
Abbott got into a sidewalk altercation with Edwards. Shoving ensued, and Courtney reached toward his gun, Abbott testified, prompting him to bash the artist’s head.
Courtney said the blows caused him to spill blood from three lacerations, but he testified that he didn’t recall much about it. “I got hit in the back of the head three times with a pistol. I just remember the pain,” he said.
It turned out that Crash had followed a bartender into a back room where she was handling ice, she testified.
Edwards described Abbott as getting off his bar stool “extremely intoxicated, red in the face, wobbly” and slurring his words. Among those words were, “I am the cops,” Edwards said.
“He thought we had taken his dog and hid him in the back and told him it was dead. He got it in his mind. He wasn’t going to believe we didn’t have anything to do with it,” Edwards said. “He tried to grab my throat to strangle me, and I pushed him.”
After hitting Courtney, Abbott returned to a bar stool to await police.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office secured the aggravated battery indictment against Abbott just days after a magistrate commissioner found no probable cause for his arrest.
Prosecutors later dropped a second charge of possessing a firearm in an alcoholic beverage outlet, realizing that the law no longer applied to sworn law enforcement officers.
Prosecutors Rachel Hurd and Robert Ferrier showed multiple video angles of a black dog outside the bar, pacing or lying on the sidewalk, as they argued that Abbott was oblivious to the well-being of his highly trained explosives-sniffing dog.
“We submit to you that on that day, the dog was more responsible than its handler,” Ferrier told Judge Arthur Hunter.
“Poor judgment came back and bit Richard Abbott in the rear,” Hurd added.
Abbott scoffed at the idea he would unleash Crash into danger.
“My dog won’t go out of a building unless he’s directed or called by somebody,” Abbott said. “These dogs are trained to the nth (degree), because if they mess up they blow up, and you blow up.”
Abbott’s attorney, Arthur “Buddy” Lemann III, froze video from inside and outside the bar to argue that the dog on the street wasn’t Crash but rather Courtney’s dog, also a black Lab mix.
“They misunderstood the video. They’ve done that all along,” Lemann said of the prosecution. “The big villain in my opinion is the district attorney. This (prosecution) has rendered to (Abbott) total disruption, chaos, ruination for his whole career.”
Abbott said he resigned from the Fire Marshal’s Office in the fall after more than 12 years because he had given what he described as a black eye to the agency, as well as the taint of being viewed as a careless dog handler.
An Army veteran, Abbott said he received a medical discharge after receiving shrapnel wounds in the Gulf War. He took a failed turn at his family’s chicken-farming business in northern Louisiana, he said, before turning to fire investigations, working in the northern part of the state until he sought out a post in New Orleans.
“I wanted to live in the French Quarter. I’ll be honest with you,” he testified.
That made for an unfortunate decision, Lemann argued to the judge, but not a criminal one.
“It just seems to me, a guy from northern Louisiana moving into the French Quarter with a dog and having to deal with French Quarterites may have been, in hindsight, perhaps poor judgment,” Lemann said. “But this is a criminal case and not a political case or a disciplinary case.”
Abbott, free on $25,000 bond, still lives in the French Quarter. Crash has been reassigned to another state handler.
Hunter is due to render a verdict on the battery charge Thursday.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.