Ten months after a judge acquitted Abdulrahman Zeitoun on charges that he tried to beat the life out of his wife with a tire iron last year, then offered a fellow jail inmate $20,000 to kill her, the onetime Hurricane Katrina literary hero landed back in orange jail scrubs on Monday to face allegations that he repeatedly violated a restraining order designed to protect her.
New Orleans Municipal Court Judge Joseph Landry set Zeitoun’s total bail at $60,000 for four alleged violations of a permanent “abuse prevention order” signed Oct. 22 by a Civil District Court judge.
The order bars Zeitoun from getting within 100 yards of Kathy Zeitoun or their four children or contacting them. It also prohibits him from visiting nine specified properties they still own together as their divorce proceedings drag on.
The total bail amount, and particularly the $25,000 that was set for an alleged violation in March, are considered extraordinarily high for misdemeanor cases.
Zeitoun’s arrest Friday marked the latest chapter in a legal saga that has cast deep suspicion on the favorable image of the former house contractor that author Dave Eggers presented in his 2009 book, “Zeitoun.” One of the most widely admired works of post-Katrina nonfiction, it portrays Zeitoun as a stalwart, loving husband who rescued neighbors by canoe but then fell victim to a criminal justice system that crumbled in the wake of the storm.
In court documents, police allege that Zeitoun, 56, violated the court order in January, March, April and again Friday.
Kathy Zeitoun told police that her estranged husband stopped Friday in front of one of their houses, in the 5000 block of South Claiborne Avenue, and “delivered an intimidating stare.” In an interview Sunday, she said he rolled up in his van and left her again in fear for her life.
“I felt like a deer in headlights. I started running back toward the apartment to get my gun. He could have been chasing me for all I knew,” she said. “It just brought back Prytania and Jackson.”
That corner is where, in July 2012, Abdulrahman Zeitoun allegedly blocked her in with his vehicle, smashed her windshield, beat her with a tire iron as she tried to get away, then strangled her as one witness tried to fend him off on the public street.
He later tried to convince a bunkmate in the Orleans Parish jail, Donald Pugh, to kill her for $20,000, prosecutors alleged.
Criminal District Court Judge Frank Marullo acquitted Zeitoun last July in a trial held without a jury. The judge declared Pugh “a liar” and said prosecutors in District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office overcharged Zeitoun with violent crimes for which the evidence fell short.
Kathy Zeitoun, who now lives in Baton Rouge but tends to the New Orleans properties, secured the six-page protective order three months after the acquittal. Abdulrahman Zeitoun refused to sign it.
A police report on the April 30 incident says he drove past a property the couple owned in the 4600 block of Dart Street, sounded his horn, then drove by again.
One of Zeitoun’s daughters, now 18, told police he drove up “at an extremely slow pace” with the window down, stared at her as he passed and raised his right hand in what she described as a “half-ass wave.” She immediately alerted Kathy Zeitoun.
“I called the police. I got scared. You get scared every time,” Kathy said Monday. “I don’t know how to handle my fear. I just run and scream like a crazy lady.”
On Monday, court records held no accounts of the earlier two incidents in which police issued warrants for Zeitoun’s arrest.
Kathy Zeitoun said they include an incident in March when Abdulrahman released goats on the Dart Street property in what she described as an attempt to “run off the tenants.” In January, also at the Dart Street address, he ordered contractors who were preparing the house for sale to stop work, she said.
“He says, ‘We are partners, any work has to go through me to do it,’ ” she said. “He told the contractor any work he did, he’s going to come back and tear it up. There’s a protective order. He shouldn’t have been there.”
Police cited three of the four incidents as violations of the order and one — the incident with the goats — as a domestic disturbance.
Zeitoun pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor charges Monday. His attorney at his arraignment, J.C. Lawrence — one of his lawyers at his trial last year — declined to comment.
A cousin of Abdulrahman’s, Fouad Zeitoun, called the allegations spurious.
“She will not rest until he goes to jail. She’s going to continue her bogus story and false allegations against him until he gets in trouble,” he said. “It’s not fair; it’s not right. He’s a good father. He loves his kids. He doesn’t see them with all these crazy allegations. He lost everything. She’s in control of everything.”
Fouad Zeitoun said his cousin isn’t angry. He said he blames Eggers’ book for foisting undue media attention on his cousin.
“His name’s high-profile because of that stupid book they wrote about him,” he said.
He said he hopes that Zeitoun, a native of Syria, is released from jail soon.
“He has a lot of friends and the bail is not that much,” said Fouad Zeitoun. Still, he called the bail excessive for someone with no convictions on his criminal record.
Kathy Zeitoun, who said she has called police numerous times with no satisfactory response, called herself “relieved” by her estranged husband’s arrest.
“I’m glad he’s in jail. I’m kind of hoping he just stays there, and I’m really glad the judge takes it seriously,” she said.
Landry issued a new stay-away order for the four charges against Zeitoun, each of which carries a penalty of up to six months in jail if he’s convicted.
Zeitoun returns to court on May 28.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.