Florida deputies found Judge Jessie LeBlanc on Tuesday afternoon, driving outside Pensacola, after family members in Louisiana became concerned about her well-being and asked law enforcement officers to find her, authorities said Wednesday.
Ascension Parish Sheriff Bobby Webre said Wednesday she was found safe and has since returned to Louisiana.
LeBlanc, a judge with the three-parish 23rd Judicial District Court, and cases on her criminal docket in Assumption Parish have come under scrutiny in recent weeks after the disclosure of a long-standing personal relationship with the parish's chief sheriff's deputy, Bruce Prejean. Questions center on the nature of their relationship and whether it may have undermined the fair administration of justice.
Tuesday evening, the Assumption sheriff said Prejean recently revealed that a relationship that had been just a friendship turned "intimate" after LeBlanc became a judge in 2012. Prosecutors say that potentially raises conflict-of-interest questions for hundreds of cases that have gone before her in Assumption Parish. Those cases are being reviewed for Prejean's level of direct involvement.
In a statement provided Tuesday to WBRZ, the judge accused Prejean of being dishonest — he initially told the sheriff that he and LeBlanc were friends, before changing his story. In a statement to The Advocate, though, LeBlanc wouldn't confirm her earlier claim to the television station about Prejean and would only say that she would "not deny there was a close friendship" with him.
Ascension sheriff's deputies were asked Tuesday to conduct a welfare check on the judge, but they were unable to find her. The judge is from Gonzales and still lives in the area, the sheriff said.
“The family members thought she was under duress and needed to be found,” Webre said on Wednesday.
Webre declined to share any more information about the nature of the purported duress, citing federal medical privacy rules.
Deputies with the Escambia County Sheriff's Office in Florida found LeBlanc driving on Davis Highway outside Pensacola sometime around 3:30 p.m. and pulled the judge over, a spokeswoman said.
Amber Southard, spokeswoman for the Escambia County Sheriff's Office, declined to say what happened after deputies found LeBlanc, but Sheriff Webre in Ascension Parish said LeBlanc was found safe and has since returned to Louisiana.
LeBlanc hasn't had court since her criminal docket Monday at the St. James Parish Courthouse in Convent, court officials said. She is scheduled to return to the bench Friday for her civil docket in Donaldsonville in Ascension.
LeBlanc, a former court hearing officer and judicial administrator, works in the 23rd JDC, which encompasses Ascension, Assumption and St. James parishes. LeBlanc has her main office in Napoleonville, but, like other judges, rotates among courthouses in the district to preside over cases.
LeBlanc didn't immediately respond to a text message for comment Wednesday. A call to her office went to voicemail.
Setting off the questions about LeBlanc and Prejean was the judge's refusal to sign an Assumption narcotics warrant in November.
Assumption Sheriff Leland Falcon and prosecutors say LeBlanc said at the time that she wouldn't sign the warrant because of her "personal relationship" with Prejean, prompting prosecutors to send a round of disclosure letters to about 20 defendants about the purported admission and that it may be information that could help their clients.
LeBlanc disputed this recollection in a prepared comment to the media last month, saying she refused to sign the warrant because of an undercover agent who is a close relative of Prejean's but not Prejean himself with whom she is friends. LeBlanc had written the agent a job recommendation and believed it could be a conflict.
Falcon stands by his recollection of what LeBlanc told him personally, and said a polygraph test taken this month showed he was not being deceptive when asked about his version of events.