Abdulrahman Zeitoun stood up in court on Tuesday morning, pulled his arms back and submitted to an all-too-familiar routine: getting shackled and hauled off to jail.
Once an everyman hero of the storm, the exalted protagonist in a prize-winning work of post-Hurricane Katrina literature, Zeitoun has had trouble staying free amid accusations lodged by his ex-wife, Kathy Zeitoun.
He will spend at least the next week behind bars in Orleans Parish Prison after ringing her up early Saturday morning, allegedly violating the terms of a stay-away order that a judge imposed last month in a stalking case against him.
Cleared by a judge last year over allegations that he tried to kill Kathy Zeitoun with a tire iron on a Garden District street in 2012 and also that he ordered a hit on her while in jail, Zeitoun pleaded not guilty last month to a single stalking count from a state grand jury indictment.
The charge relates to a series of four alleged run-ins with his ex-wife between Jan. 26 and May 16, allegedly in violation of a civil court “abuse prevention order” that bars him from visiting nine specified properties they own jointly.
The allegations, which started out in Municipal Court, don’t involve physical violence. In one, Zeitoun allegedly leveled “an intimidating stare” at Kathy Zeitoun while driving past a house on South Claiborne Avenue. Another involved him allegedly passing by his daughter “driving at an extremely slow pace” and raising his hand in what the daughter described as “a half-ass wave.” In another, an officer found Zeitoun trimming the trees in front of a house they owned, and from which he had been ordered to steer clear.
The last incident, in May, prompted his arrest.
He was released on bond, then booked again with the indictment. Friends posted a $50,000 cash bond late last month to keep him from yet another jail stint.
Prosecutors say Zeitoun, 56, called his ex-wife at 6:24 a.m. Saturday after an earlier attempt to reach her through a third party, which also would mark a violation. Criminal District Judge Keva Landrum-Johnson, who issued the stay-away order, has scheduled a bond hearing for next Tuesday.
Zeitoun’s attorney, J.C. Lawrence, acknowledged that his client made the call, and he didn’t fight the order to remand Zeitoun to jail for a week. But Lawrence said Zeitoun, who hasn’t missed a court appearance, is “neither a flight risk nor is he a danger to her.”
Lawrence said the latest alleged violation is the result of broken-down talks over splitting up the couple’s properties, in an attempt by Zeitoun to stop his ex-wife from “bleeding away their combined wealth” on legal fees and other expenses.
“This is a divorce that has gone bad, on steroids,” Lawrence said.
It’s been five years since Zeitoun and his wife became iconic figures in the city and beyond, thanks to acclaimed author Dave Eggers’ book “Zeitoun,” a nonfiction tale of post-Katrina injustice, enduring love and perseverance.
The story recounted the couple’s partnership running a well-known local painting business and the Syria native’s arrest and jailing on bogus charges after he had stayed behind and rescued neighbors by canoe after the storm.
Fame ensued, with a movie deal in play.
But Kathy Zeitoun said her husband grew increasingly violent, culminating in an incident she recounted on the witness stand, of being cornered in her car at Prytania Street and Jackson Avenue in July 2012 as Zeitoun smashed the windshield. By then they had split, following an earlier allegation of violence.
She testified last year that Zeitoun grabbed her as she tried to run down the street and beat her with a tire iron. Witnesses supported her story. Zeitoun didn’t deny the confrontation but denied bashing her with the tire iron or trying to kill her.
His violence, she testified, had started before the storm, raising questions about the credibility of Eggers’ account.
After his jailing for the beating, according to prosecutors, Zeitoun approached a fellow inmate and offered him $20,000 to kill her.
But after a two-day trial, Criminal District Judge Frank Marullo declared the inmate, Donald Pugh, a liar and said District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office had overcharged Zeitoun on a count of attempted first-degree murder that it couldn’t prove.
A week before the trial, Kathy Zeitoun filed a lawsuit in Civil District Court, seeking damages for the alleged beating, in which she claimed Zeitoun “gouged her skin at the hip,” partially tore her ear and injured her head, neck and back.
The lawsuit also was filed on behalf of their four children. It claims Kathy Zeitoun lost $150,000 and half of a 5 percent share of the net profits from an aborted movie deal with a French production company, MK2.
The notoriety that surrounded her ex-husband also cost them additional royalties from an expected boost in book sales with the movie, states the lawsuit, which does not appear to have moved forward. Her attorney in that suit, Neil Montgomery, did not return a call for comment Tuesday.
Kathy Zeitoun filed a motion on July 29 in East Baton Rouge Parish family court, seeking authority to sell their former family home on Dart Street in New Orleans.
According to the filing, the sale of the house would help pay off tax bills on numerous other properties the former couple owns, as well as more than $70,000 in credit card debt, $134,000 in lines of credit that used two houses as collateral and four years of taxes from unfiled IRS returns.
Other properties are headed for tax sales, the motion states. Kathy Zeitoun is seeking to avoid that outcome through the sale of the Dart Street house, her filing states.
Lawrence said Zeitoun had agreed to let his ex-wife sell the properties, pay off the debt and keep the rest for herself, to help set aside college money for their kids.
Kathy Zeitoun ran the deal by her lawyer, who drafted an agreement on Aug. 7. But Zeitoun balked, Lawrence said.
Lawrence showed a reporter a letter he says Zeitoun wrote to his ex-wife, dated Friday. In it, he tells her he declined to sign the agreement “because I expected that you will offer me at least a house to live in.” He offered three alternative proposals.
Lawrence said Kathy Zeitoun “has not paid him anything in the last 2 1/2 years,” while maintaining control over the properties.
Kathy Zeitoun declined on Tuesday to discuss details of the phone call, saying she didn’t want to compromise the criminal case.
“It’s kind of like a repeat. It’s just the same thing that happened before,” she said. “It’s a bunch of games. It’s not me, it’s him. He’s playing the system.”
She said the phone call prompted her to lodge a complaint with Cannizzaro’s office.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.