Facing a trial date next week after a judge denied their request for a delay, state prosecutors Tuesday dismissed a year-old sexual battery charge against embattled St. Bernard Parish President David Peralta.
But even though his attorney declared victory — and took advantage of the lifting of a gag order that has hung over the case — this latest turn in Peralta’s long-running legal saga doesn’t mean the first-term parish leader is out of the woods just yet.
A grand jury in St. Bernard that has been in session for several months met again Tuesday to consider further criminal charges against Peralta. Those charges may include witness intimidation, obstruction of justice and malfeasance in office.
“The grand jury can certainly do that, but it certainly wouldn’t be fair or just,” Peralta’s attorney, Martin Regan, said Tuesday about the possibility of another indictment. “We have countered every investigative theory they’ve had so far, with respect to malfeasance and other matters. I think we’ve answered them in full score and canceled any allegations that have come to contention.”
Aaron Sadler, a spokesman for Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, whose office is handling the case, said that while the original indictment was dismissed, “this matter is ongoing.”
Peralta still faces criminal charges in St. Tammany Parish, where he was charged by a different grand jury in September with stalking his ex-wife, Sharon Schaefer. He has pleaded not guilty to that charge. The case is set for trial in Covington in late June.
Tuesday’s decision to dismiss the sexual battery charge wasn’t entirely surprising. Earlier this month, prosecutors asked retired Judge Frank Foil, who has been handling the case in St. Bernard on an ad hoc basis, to delay the trial’s start. Molly Lancaster, an assistant attorney general, said in a court filing that there was “a strong probability that a superseding indictment will be returned in the near future” but likely not before the trial was due to begin Monday.
Foil rejected that request. For months, the judge has repeatedly warned both sides that he intended to have a trial underway in April. “Until I get a formal dismissal of this indictment, I’m going to move forward on this case,” he said in March.
That remark came after Assistant Attorney General David Weilbaecher Jr. told Foil there was “a 99 percent chance” Peralta would be re-indicted.
At the time, Regan said such a prediction was proof the state’s case “has fallen apart.”
It’s unclear whether prosecutors’ optimism has waned. But apparently they’re confident enough in the evidence that’s been presented so far to grand jurors that they were willing to scrap trying Peralta on the original battery charge even though they have no new indictment in hand.
Sexual battery, defined as “the intentional touching of the anus or genitals of the victim by the offender using any instrumentality or any part of the body of the offender,” is a less serious crime than rape, but it is still a felony that carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
Peralta was charged with sexually battering Schaefer by a grand jury in April 2014. Schaefer has accused him of handcuffing, beating and raping her in their Meraux home in October 2013.
Peralta claimed that the couple — still married at the time — engaged in “rough sex” that day at her request. Schaefer denied asking her husband to “rape” her as part of a role-playing game.
Peralta pleaded not guilty to the charge, which the Attorney General’s Office dropped Tuesday.
“They finally dismissed it, and it should’ve happened a long time ago,” Regan said.
Reached by phone, Peralta mostly declined comment. “I am waiting to speak with my attorney concerning the matter,” he said.
For more than a year, Peralta — a former New Orleans police sergeant and a major with the St. Bernard Sheriff’s Office — resisted calls to resign as parish president as his legal troubles mounted. St. Bernard’s charter says he would have to step down were he convicted of a felony, but not simply because he was charged with one.
Peralta has said he will run for re-election in the fall.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.