Landlord Barbara Marullo already had evicted Ricky Cambre from the Covington building that housed his restaurant, the Ground Pat’i, and was suing him for back rent. Then, in November 2011, she discovered that $11,500 in parts were missing from the building’s walk-in cooler and a kitchen drain had been filled and sealed with cement.
But Marullo did not alert the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office. Instead, her husband, Anthony, took an unusual shortcut, placing a call to the office of Walter Reed, the parish’s district attorney. Two investigators, one of them an old friend of Anthony Marullo’s, promptly began looking into the case. A month later, Cambre was arrested for theft and criminal damage to property.
Yet what seemed like swift justice has now raised more questions about Reed, already under scrutiny for his private business dealings and the way he has spent campaign money.
That Anthony Marullo could order up an investigation with a phone call to the DA was unusual to begin with. But the case against Cambre also has fallen apart, largely because Barbara Marullo’s testimony about the alleged theft and property damage directly contradicts the version of events offered by Reed’s chief investigator, Louis Dabdoub.
Dabdoub said in a sworn statement to a judge that Cambre had admitted to Barbara Marullo that he took the cooler parts and filled the drain. Marullo said under oath that no such admission ever happened.
Now Cambre is seeking a $42,500 settlement from Reed’s office for what his lawyer described as a “malicious prosecution.”
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said the Cambre case at the very least looks bad for the embattled District Attorney’s Office.
“You’ve got the victim refuting what’s in the arrest warrant and the investigative report and essentially admitting no crime was committed,” he said. “How does a purely civil landlord-tenant dispute evolve into a felony prosecution for theft and criminal damage to property? And why wasn’t it transmitted through normal channels? Normally, you’d report this to the Sheriff’s Office.”
Two investigators, Dabdoub and Sam Gebbia, took a statement from Barbara Marullo just a few days after her husband called the DA’s Office.
A few weeks later, Dabdoub signed a sworn affidavit for arrest before 22nd Judicial District Judge August Hand, claiming that Cambre had already acknowledged to Marullo that he stole the cooler parts and cemented the drain.
But a recording of Barbara Marullo’s interview with the investigators shows she didn’t say anything of the kind. In fact, Marullo says that she never talked to Cambre and that her only contact was with his lawyer. “He just denies all of it,” she told the investigators.
In a deposition taken in August 2012 by Cambre’s attorneys, Marullo firmly and repeatedly denies she ever told anyone that Cambre had admitted anything.
“I never, ever spoke and said that he took it,” Marullo said in the deposition. “I never said he took them. I said: Who else could have? I did not say that he took them, but I did say that he was there, and he was renting it or leasing it.”
The DA’s own file on the Cambre case contains a version of events that doesn’t square with a simple admission by Cambre either. It relates a conversation the DA’s investigators had with Cambre’s previous attorney, Warren Montgomery.
According to the report, Montgomery told investigators that the property removed from the cooler belonged to his client and that a plumber had advised Cambre to seal the drain.
The report contains no suggestion that Barbara Marullo had received any kind of confession from Cambre. “Ms. Marullo feels that Mr. Cambre was responsible because he was extremely angry that she had him evicted,” the report said.
Last year, the criminal case against Cambre was finally dismissed by Reed’s office — more than a year after Marullo’s attorney had put Reed’s office on notice that the arrest warrant had substantial factual errors.
The lawsuit, meanwhile, came to a similar conclusion. Marullo won a judgment against Cambre’s company, Debob foods, for lost rent. A separate portion of the lawsuit, going after Cambre personally for the missing cooler parts and filed after his arrest, was dismissed with prejudice.
Robert Stern, a lawyer who represents Cambre, wrote to the DA’s Office in March of this year seeking a $42,500 settlement — part of it to cover the $17,128 in legal fees Cambre incurred defending himself against the criminal charges and the rest for the “mental anguish, humiliation and embarrassment” that resulted from that case.
Reed’s office responded to a public-records request for documents related to any settlement by saying that no such documents exist, so it is unclear whether Cambre received any compensation.
Stern did not respond to requests for comment.
Dabdoub referred questions about the case to Reed’s spokesman, Rick Wood, who did not respond to multiple calls and email.
“We didn’t do anything wrong, and that’s it,” Dabdoub said in a brief telephone interview.
Cambre did not return multiple calls for comment. But Stern’s letter says the DA’s actions against Cambre met all the criteria of a malicious prosecution, including the absence of probable cause for the original proceeding, the presence of malice and damage resulting to the plaintiff.
“Based on the more than one year of mental anguish, humiliation and embarrassment sustained by Mr. Cambre, we are willing to recommend that he compromise all claims resulting from his prosecution for $42,500,” the letter says.
Host of questions
Goyeneche said the Cambre case raises a host of questions about the District Attorney’s Office, starting with why the office decided to handle the matter itself rather than referring it to a police agency.
A spokesman for Sheriff Jack Strain confirmed that the Sheriff’s Office never received a theft complaint from either of the Marullos or the DA about the property in question.
It’s not clear why the Marullos chose to take their complaint to Reed’s office.
Reed, Dabdoub, Gebbia and Anthony Marullo all served as New Orleans police officers decades ago, but it’s not clear whether they all knew one another. Barbara Marullo testified in her civil deposition that Dabdoub and her husband were friends, but she did not say when or how the friendship began.
Anthony Marullo is a well-known figure in the city; he has owned bars in the French Quarter, where Dabdoub patrolled, and he still owns the French Market Restaurant and Bar on Decatur Street.
He has also come under scrutiny from law enforcement on multiple occasions, most notably in the late 1980s, when he was charged alongside 12 co-defendants in a sweeping racketeering case. He was ultimately acquitted in that case, which was prosecuted by former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, then an assistant U.S. attorney targeting organized crime.
Goyeneche said the fact that the Marullos went to the district attorney rather than to a police agency suggests a personal connection with the office.
“If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s usually a duck,” he said. “This case did not progress the usual way a complaint would progress. They went right past the ‘Go’ position on the Monopoly board and went straight to Park Place. They reached right into the DA’s Office.”
Goyeneche also suggested the episode warrants investigation from federal authorities because Cambre’s civil rights may have been violated. And he called it troubling that Reed’s office has shown no sign of conducting an inquiry on its own into what went wrong.
“There should have already been an investigation conducted by an entity outside the DA’s Office,” he said. “It’s not sufficient to tell me they did an internal investigation because this involves the office’s chief investigator. It has to be referred outside. But as far as I can see, no investigation was ever done.”
Cambre’s case isn’t the first time an investigator for Reed’s office has been accused of giving false statements under oath.
Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, in agreeing to vacate the 34-year-old murder conviction of Reginald Adams last month, cited phony testimony from Gebbia during Adams’ trial. Cannizzaro said Gebbia and another homicide detective lied on the witness stand when they denied pursuing other suspects in the 1979 murder of a New Orleans cop’s wife.
Gebbia did not return calls seeking comment on the accusations, while Reed released a statement that said his office had contacted Cannizzaro’s office for more information. “It is troubling to learn of any wrongful conviction and we are reviewing the matter,” Reed said at the time.
Reed has not answered questions submitted subsequently via email about whether Gebbia has been disciplined or whether Dabdoub faces any consequences for his sworn statement in the Cambre case.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter at @spagonesadvocat.