Kathy Zeitoun was painting baseboards at a rental apartment she owns at South Claiborne Avenue and Robert Street on Friday afternoon when she started to walk to her car to retrieve an item she had forgotten.
She never made it.
Instead, she stopped in fear at the sight of her ex-husband, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, staring at her from the front seat of his van, which was stopped in the middle of the street.
“I felt like a deer in headlights,” she said in an interview Sunday. “I started running back toward the apartment to get my gun. He could have been chasing me for all I knew.”
Abdulrahman Zeitoun, well known for being the protagonist of the Hurricane Katrina-era book “Zeitoun” by Dave Eggers, didn’t pursue her. But hours later, he was arrested on four counts of violating a protective order and taken to Orleans Parish Prison, where he was still being held Sunday, according to Sheriff’s Office records.
The incident is one of a spate of allegations of domestic violence or harassment against his former wife, including an attempted murder charge, that Zeitoun has faced in the past three years.
They are a far cry from his characterization in the book as a hard-working, generous Syrian-American who rescued his neighbors after the storm, only to be arrested on a trumped-up looting allegation and held for weeks without contact with his family.
Kathy Zeitoun said Friday’s incident evoked memories of a 2012 assault, when she said Abdulrahman Zeitoun beat her with a tire iron and strangled her on a public street in the Lower Garden District.
“It just brought back Prytania and Jackson,” she said, citing the location of the earlier incident.
Zeitoun, 56, was tried in July 2013 for attempted second-degree murder in that incident, as well as solicitation of murder after fellow inmate Donald Pugh claimed Zeitoun had offered to pay him $20,000 to kill his wife while the two were in prison.
He was acquitted by Judge Frank Marullo, who, according to media reports, said the charges were too severe for the beating incident. Marullo also questioned Pugh’s credibility.
The acquittal frustrated Kathy Zeitoun, who said she still suffers from her injuries.
“I don’t care what Marullo says,” she said. “I have pictures of my back and my arms. I have photos of the damage that he did. My neck has a curve in it now.”
Zeitoun also was charged with battery after a 2011 incident. According to a police report, he allegedly punched Kathy Zeitoun in the back of the head after a dispute about money.
Kathy Zeitoun said Friday’s incident was not the first time her ex-husband has stalked her. She said she has called police between 10 and 12 times since his acquittal, with mixed responses.
“They don’t take it seriously,” she said. “They think I’m nitpicking, but I know I have reasons to be afraid.”
On some occasions, she said, officers told her they didn’t see a protective order against her husband in the system and asked her to provide it.
Officer Frank Robertson, a spokesman for the Police Department, said Kathy Zeitoun called police four times in 2014. He said that in April, in separate incidents, officers wrote reports for a violation of the protective order and a domestic dispute.
“Each and every time the officers came out, they took appropriate law enforcement action based on the evidence that was presented to them,” Robertson said.
According to Kathy Zeitoun, she has a protective order mandating that her husband not contact her or her children or come within 100 yards of the nine properties the two own.
She said she currently lives in Baton Rogue and has been trying to divvy up the couple’s properties to finalize their divorce settlement but that her ex-husband has stalled the process.
His repeated appearances near her property and her five children have rattled her, Zeitoun said.
“It’s just intimidating; he’s showing that nobody’s going to stop him,” she said.
Tania Tetlow, a Tulane Law School professor who heads the school’s Domestic Violence Clinic, said continually violating a protection order would constitute two crimes: a violation of the order and stalking.
“In many ways, it’s a way to test the limits, to see what you can get away with,” she said.
Tetlow said protective orders are entered into a nationwide database and should always be available to police. “There’s no requirement that she prove the protective order,” she said.
According to Tetlow, it’s possible for an acquittal to embolden a domestic-violence offender.
In 2010, 78-year-old Alfred Andrews killed his wife, her sister and her mother in New Orleans, just two days after he was acquitted on a misdemeanor domestic-violence charge. He shot himself in the face during the incident but survived.
Kathy Zeitoun said she’s eager to finish the settlement of her assets with her ex-husband, so she can sell her rental properties and leave the area.
She said she doesn’t feel safe when she’s in New Orleans and keeps a firearm with her at all times in the city, in case her husband tries to attack her.
“Every time I’m in New Orleans, my gun is right there on my belly,” she said.