Hurricane Katrina literary hero Abdulrahman Zeitoun will face a tougher time staying out of jail after a state grand jury handed up an indictment against him Thursday on a felony stalking count involving run-ins with his ex-wife this year.
The stalking charge relates to Zeitoun’s alleged actions between Jan. 26 and May 16, the day police arrested him on four misdemeanor counts of violating an “abuse prevention order” that a Civil District Court judge signed last October.
Zeitoun, 56, made a $35,000 cash bond shortly after his appearance in Municipal Court on those counts last month. But with the indictment Thursday, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office raised the stakes. Criminal District Court Judge Karen Herman issued an arrest warrant for Zeitoun and set a new bail of $250,000.
The one-count indictment marks the latest bid by Cannizzaro’s office to win a felony conviction against the protagonist of author Dave Eggers’ acclaimed 2009 book “Zeitoun,” an account of a couple’s supposedly enduring love and perseverance as the painting contractor fell victim to a criminal justice system left in shambles in the aftermath of the storm.
One of the most widely admired works of post-Katrina nonfiction, it portrayed Zeitoun as a stalwart husband and father who rescued neighbors by canoe before landing behind bars on a bogus charge.
Kathy Zeitoun painted a far different picture last year in an Orleans Parish courtroom, where her ex-husband faced charges that he tried to kill her at Prytania Street and Jackson Avenue in July 2012, then offered a fellow Orleans Parish jail inmate $20,000 to kill her.
She said he abused her before and after the storm in a progression of violence that escalated in recent years.
In the 2012 incident, she accused Abdulrahman Zeitoun of blocking her in his vehicle, smashing her windshield, then beating her with a tire iron as she tried to get away. She said he tried to strangle her as a witness attempted to pummel him on the street.
The inmate, Donald Pugh, insisted that Zeitoun gave him his wife’s telephone number, offering $20,000 for a hit job and proposing a plan for Pugh to kill her by posing as a prospective tenant at one of the couple’s 10 properties.
But Criminal District Court Judge Frank Marullo acquitted Zeitoun in a trial without a jury. Marullo declared Pugh to be “a liar” and said prosecutors fatally overcharged Zeitoun with violent crimes for which the evidence fell short.
Zeitoun’s attorney, J.C. Lawrence, did not immediately respond to a call about the latest indictment, which relates to an order barring Zeitoun from getting within 100 yards of Kathy Zeitoun or their four children or contacting them.
The order also prohibits him from visiting nine specified properties they still own together as their divorce proceedings drag on. Several of those properties remain the subject of a legal battle between them.
Louisiana law defines stalking as “the intentional and repeated following or harassing of another person that would cause a reasonable person to feel alarmed or to suffer emotional distress.” It carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison if a protective order is in effect.
In court documents, police allege that Zeitoun violated the court order in January, March, April and May.
Kathy Zeitoun told police that her estranged husband stopped May 16 in front of one of their houses, in the 5000 block of South Claiborne Avenue, and “delivered an intimidating stare.”
In an interview after his court appearance last month, 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.
A police report on the April 30 incident says Zeitoun 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,” the ex-wife said in May. “I don’t know how to handle my fear. I just run and scream like a crazy lady.”
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.
Court records contain no accounts of the two earlier incidents in which police issued warrants for Zeitoun’s arrest.
Kathy Zeitoun said Abdulrahman released goats on the Dart Street property in March 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.
Police cited three of the four incidents as violations of the protective order and one — the incident with the goats — as a domestic disturbance.
Zeitoun, who could face deportation to his native Syria with a felony conviction, had pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor charges, which prosecutors are likely now to drop with the indictment.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.