As federal authorities take a second look at a once-rejected case involving alleged misconduct by former longtime St. Charles Parish District Attorney Harry Morel, newly released evidence in a related case suggests that the woman who was expected to be the government’s star witness against Morel was wearing a wire at the FBI’s request in the months before she died of a drug overdose.
The investigation into the death of Danelle Keim also turned up the name of a second woman Morel allegedly offered leniency to in exchange for sexual favors. But like Keim, that woman, Melissa Silvestri, can no longer cooperate with authorities; she died Feb. 14 at the age of 34, of an apparent drug overdose.
A friend and an aunt of Silvestri told The New Orleans Advocate that they believed Morel had indeed propositioned Silvestri, although the friend said Silvestri had rejected him.
Those revelations are found in the case file of the investigation into Keim’s death, which was released last week by state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office in response to a public records request. They follow recent news that U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite’s office has decided to re-evaluate the Morel case.
Last year, when the FBI turned over its findings about Morel to then-acting U.S. Attorney Dana Boente, the office formally declined the case.
Ralph Capitelli, Morel’s lawyer, said he believes that was the correct decision and he doesn’t expect the government will change its view of the evidence against Morel.
But the FBI has continued to probe the matter since the case was initially declined, and just last week, the bureau delivered a second subpoena to St. Charles Parish Clerk of Court Lance Marino. This latest request sought all court documents related to Errol Falcon Jr., a former boyfriend of Keim who is now serving a 15-year prison sentence for burglary. Marino’s office produced about 600 pages of documents, he said. In January 2013, the FBI subpoenaed records from more than 1,000 DWI cases.
Falcon’s name has come up in the case before. Several years ago, the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office turned over a jailhouse phone call between Falcon and Keim from late 2009 or early 2010 in which — according to a source with knowledge of the tape — Falcon told Keim he’d get a more lenient sentence if she was willing to provide Morel with sexual favors.
A few months later, on April 16, 2010, Keim called 911 to allege that Morel had visited her St. Rose home and made some type of unwelcome sexual advance. The specifics of the incident are fuzzy in part because the Sheriff’s Office has refused to release a recording or transcript of the 911 call or the resulting incident report, saying the case remains under investigation by the FBI. But the Sheriff’s Office has confirmed that it responded to such a call.
Falcon’s father told The New Orleans Advocate on Monday that his son has not had any recent contact with the FBI.
While highlighting a few new facts about the Morel investigation, the attorney general’s case file provides a window into why the probe has been so problematic for federal investigators. Nearly everyone in Keim’s circle is troubled; many have drug issues and face criminal exposure. Their stories don’t always line up, and they sometimes have a self-serving ring to them. In addition, Silvestri and Keim are dead, leaving in doubt the admissibility of anything they might have told the government about Morel while they were still alive.
Two women who were close to Silvestri told The New Orleans Advocate that she indeed had an unusually close relationship with the former district attorney. Silvestri struggled with drugs her entire life, they said, and court records show she faced an array of criminal charges, mostly for drug possession.
A close friend, Kelly Chisholm, said in an interview that she was with Silvestri one day when Silvestri was booked by St. Charles sheriff’s deputies on a cocaine-possession charge. When she next saw her friend, Chisholm said, Silvestri told her that Morel had offered to make the charge go away in exchange for sex — an offer Silvestri said she declined.
“She came straight to me and said he wanted her to do sexual favors to get rid of the cocaine charge,” Chisholm said. “She said it happened more than once. But I only know for a fact about the one time.”
Records show that Silvestri was booked with possession of cocaine in December 2008. A month later, the case was closed; online court records indicate Silvestri was ordered to enter a pretrial diversion program.
St. Charles Parish District Attorney Joel Chaisson II did not return a call Monday seeking information about the case’s resolution.
“Harry Morel did get her out of a lot of trouble,” Chisholm said. “He also dealt with her brother, Arnold; he helped him get out of jail and stuff. I’d say if something legal happened, she could pick up the phone and he’d call her right back.”
Records show that Arnold Silvestri, who was a former boyfriend of Chisholm, has had more than a dozen run-ins with the law in St. Charles Parish. Charges in his most recent felony arrest, for possession of Lortab and drug paraphernalia, were dropped when Morel’s office declined to prosecute in March 2012, three months before the longtime DA retired.
Chisholm’s account turns up in the probe of Keim’s death because Chisholm’s husband, Michael, was involved in providing one of the drugs — the club drug “Molly,” a relative of Ecstasy — that are thought to have killed Keim. Keim also had consumed Adderall and Xanax, records show, and the coroner ruled that she died from a “multiple drug overdose.”
In a taped interview last year, Michael Chisholm told deputies that Keim had asked his wife if she knew anyone else who had received an indecent proposal from Morel, and his wife mentioned Silvestri. The case file does not make clear whether authorities ever sought out Silvestri, who was then alive; neither her aunt nor her friend was sure whether they had.
Capitelli, Morel’s lawyer, declined to address the new claims about Silvestri and her brother.
“All of the specific allegations that you have asked about were clearly well-known to the federal government when the U.S. Attorney’s Office made the decision last year to officially decline this matter,” he said. “This means, quite simply, that the government was convinced there was no case. I have been told of no new evidence that would change that correct decision.”
Under a state law that allows for people who provide or sell drugs that lead to a death to be charged with second-degree murder, the Sheriff’s Office arrested six people in Keim’s death.
Three of the six were booked on that charge, while another was booked with being a principal to second-degree murder. The two others were booked with drug charges, which are still pending. Keim’s live-in boyfriend, Matthew Savoie, was sentenced in November to 20 years in prison, with 10 years suspended.
Savoie admitted in tape-recorded interviews that he and Keim each had swallowed what they thought was Molly, supposedly a purer form of MDMA. Then they each took a second pill as a suppository, on the theory that more of the drug would be absorbed. Savoie admitted inserting the pill into Keim’s rectum, and he was initially booked with second-degree murder.
Savoie also told deputies that Keim abused drugs in part because of her fear of Morel, though he said he knew little about Keim’s experiences with Morel because she refused to talk about it when he would ask. But he said he believed that Morel assaulted her sometime in 2010, apparently the incident Keim reported to authorities.
Savoie also said Morel called Keim on the phone at times, and it upset her.
Though deputies audiotaped at least three interviews with Savoie, the file shows, he made no reference to Morel in the first two interviews, done the same day Keim died. But in the third interview, conducted two months later, he references the former district attorney extensively, and even speculates — while conceding he has no evidence of it — that Morel might have played a role in Keim’s death.
Savoie said the FBI called Keim often. And Keim’s friend Kelly Chisholm said that two days before Keim died, she confided that “she had been working for the FBI and the case was fixing to become public.”
Indeed, Nola.com published a story about the probe, and Keim’s role in it, less than 24 hours before her death. The story did not name her.
Savoie told deputies that he and Keim had procured “Molly” in order to celebrate new jobs they had gotten. “It was a special occasion, like going to eat sushi,” he said. But the drug was powerful, and he told authorities he blacked out not long after he inserted it.
When he awoke and staggered into the living room hours later, he saw his girlfriend in the same position he had left her: pants down, on the sofa. Initially, he said, he thought it was funny; he snapped a picture of her bare buttocks with his phone to show her later.
“I was gonna show it to her and be like, ‘Dude, you did not move,’ ” he explained.
But nearly a half-hour passed between the time he shot that photo, at 4:36 a.m., and when he called 911.
Savoie said he didn’t realize Keim wasn’t breathing until he went to touch her and felt no pulse. At that point, he said, he called 911 immediately and dragged Keim upstairs to the shower, thinking some cold water might bestir her, although he said he didn’t think it would.
“I turned her over and she was like limp, lips were blue, and I, like I said, I’ve seen dead bodies before,” he told deputies in his second taped interview.
The deputies who arrived minutes later told Savoie his girlfriend was dead.
Others interviewed by the Sheriff’s Office speculated that Savoie killed Keim on purpose, perhaps for money. Few seemed to trust him, and more than one witness commented on his blasé demeanor after the death of Keim, who, he claimed, had agreed to marry him just days before she died.
In the interviews, Savoie often comes across as emotionless. Though he describes Keim as the love of his life, he seems distracted, talking about his need to clean up and organize their apartment, among other trivia.
When a reporter called him several days after Keim’s death, he said he could not talk at the moment because he was doing his taxes.
Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter @gordonrussell1.