The judge presiding over St. Bernard Parish President David Peralta’s sexual battery case rejected prosecutors’ request Wednesday to increase or revoke the bail of the embattled first-term parish leader.
Peralta’s legal issues stem from an incident in October 2013 in which his then-wife, Sharon Schaefer, alleges that he handcuffed, beat and raped her in their Meraux home. Peralta maintains that the couple engaged in “rough sex” that day at her request, but Schaefer has denied that assertion, saying the couple weren’t on speaking terms at the time.
Peralta was indicted by a state grand jury in April on one count of sexual battery in connection with the allegations. He pleaded not guilty and was released on a $20,000 bond. In September, he was indicted again — this time by a grand jury in St. Tammany Parish — on one count of felony stalking for allegedly harassing Schaefer. He has posted a $35,000 bond on that charge.
As a result of the second indictment, the Attorney General’s Office, which is prosecuting the two cases, sought to have Peralta remanded to home confinement or to have his bail in the first case increased or to have it revoked and Peralta sent to jail.
Assistant Attorney General David Weilbaecher Jr. contended in a court filing that the latest charge showed Peralta’s “inability to follow the lawful orders of the court,” having allegedly violated a court-imposed stay-away order.
Prosecutors said Schaefer received a package in September at an address in Jefferson Parish where she was briefly staying, and that the envelope bore Peralta’s Meraux home as its return address.
Retired Judge Frank Foil, appointed as an ad hoc judge to hear the case, on Wednesday denied the state’s request. Before doing so, Foil asked Weilbaecher whether any new allegations had surfaced that Peralta violated the order after his bail was set in St. Tammany.
Weilbaecher replied, “No” — a point reinforced by Peralta’s defense attorney, Martin Regan.
“The answer is, of course, no,” Regan said.
Peralta, who attended the hourlong hearing, listened intently during the exchange before Foil offered some stern words. “I want to warn both of you,” Foil said, referring to Peralta and his now ex-wife. “You need to stay away from each other.”
Schaefer was not present for Wednesday’s proceeding, though she’s more likely to attend the next hearing, scheduled for Dec. 15. That’s when Foil is scheduled to hear arguments on a defense motion asking him to find her in contempt of court because of comments her attorney, Stephen Rue, made in an interview with WGNO-TV last month. In the interview, Rue said Schaefer “dreadfully fears” Peralta.
The contempt motion was originally slated to be heard Wednesday, but neither Schaefer nor Rue was at the 34th Judicial District Court in Chalmette. Foil said he would ensure both are subpoenaed to appear Dec. 15.
In other matters Wednesday, Foil agreed to consider a request by Regan to keep the trial in St. Bernard even though Foil agreed last month, at Peralta’s request, to move it out of the parish.
Regan, who took over Peralta’s legal representation in the St. Bernard proceeding after the October hearing, said Peralta in fact “would like to be tried in his parish. He’s not running away from his parish.”
Though Weilbaecher noted his opposition to having the judge revisit his earlier decision, Foil agreed to consider it. “The theory is to be tried by a jury of your peers, and the jury of your peers is in your hometown,” he said from the bench.
Foil said he is willing to try to seat a jury in St. Bernard, but that if that proves challenging, he may move the case elsewhere.
Going further, Regan argued that the stalking case in St. Tammany also should be tried before Foil, a position that Weilbaecher opposed. Foil said that decision would be up to whoever is presiding over the case in Covington, currently Judge Richard Swartz. At the moment, that charge is set for trial in January.
“I can’t reach over and take it,” Foil said, referring to the St. Tammany case.
Also on Wednesday, prosecutors requested that Foil lift a gag order imposed in the case so they can interview two reporters who have covered Peralta’s legal proceedings over the past year.
Foil reiterated that he did not want any parties discussing the case with the press, but he told Weilbaecher that “if part of your case is to interview members of the press,” then lifting the gag order is probably unnecessary.
In their motion outlining their request, prosecutors named news reporters from two outlets — The New Orleans Advocate and the website nola.com — whom they want to interview regarding “facts and circumstances concerning the sexual battery and events leading up to and following the sexual battery.” The motion said they are seeking details allegedly outlining “efforts Mr. Peralta made to inhibit (Schaefer’s) decision/ability to proceed with prosecution.”
The filing noted that “such questioning may result in members of the press appearing for grand jury testimony.”
In March, before the initial grand jury indictment was handed up, The Advocate reported details of an interview with Peralta, in which he said — for the first time publicly — that the couple occasionally engaged in “bondage” and that he was simply fulfilling his wife’s “rape fantasy” that morning.
As he has done before, Weilbaecher also noted during Wednesday’s proceeding that Peralta is the focus of an ongoing investigation by state law enforcement authorities, though he again offered no details.
That probe likely is tied to a search warrant that investigators executed in July at Peralta’s home and government offices. The warrant indicated that authorities believed they had evidence of witness intimidation, obstruction of justice and malfeasance in office by the parish leader.
Foil said he hopes to have the sexual battery case set for trial by February or March.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.