When a pastor told Ascension deputies that a former high school coach had admitted to sex crimes against a 16-year-old girl, it breathed new life into a three-year-old investigation, court records say. But the pastor's death severely limits the extent to which that alleged confession can be used at the ex-coach's trial, a judge has ruled.
Dr. Jere Melilli was a doctor, pastor and founder of the former Christian Life Academy, where Todd Foster was a teacher and head basketball coach. Foster considered Melilli a counselor and spiritual adviser, court documents say.
In 2017, a former student, now an adult, accused Foster of raping her in 2007 at his then-home in Prairieville, the records say. But Ascension sheriff's deputies did not arrest him until November 2020, after they said "an associate" — now identified as Melilli — reported to deputies that Foster had confessed in a phone conversation.
Foster faces a felony charge of carnal knowledge of a juvenile. He has denied the accusations.
Melilli died last summer at age 88, his obituary said. Deprived of a potentially important corroborating trial witness, Ascension prosecutors had sought to have a sheriff's deputy recount Melilli's statements before a future jury.
But a judge has ruled that would violate Foster's constitutional right to cross-examine accusers to test the truth of their claims.
"The statement of Dr. Melilli given to the Ascension Parish Sheriff's Deputy constitutes inadmissible hearsay to the extent that its use is to prove the truth of the matter asserted," 23rd Judicial District Judge Cody M. Martin ruled.
In other words, the statement cannot be used as direct evidence of a crime. But Martin did leave open the possibility that prosecutors could use the statement for some other purpose — he said he wouldn't rule on such an attempt until a trial.
Prosecutors declined to comment on what's next in the case. Foster's attorney, Clifton Ivey Jr., said he can't see any other way that the statements will get in at trial.
"There is no other way. That's pretty much it. I don’t see how else and I don't think the state can see how else this can be introduced," Ivey said.
Prosecutors still have the accusations from the victim, who claims Foster, now 53, had sex with her when he was 39, taking advantage of her at an emotionally vulnerable moment after her father had died.
She didn't report the allegations until she had learned in 2017 that Foster was a pastor in Mississippi, a sheriff's report says. She told detectives she worried about other youths.
Sheriff's deputies weren't able to collect physical evidence 10 years after the alleged incident. They didn't bring a case until after they spoke with Melilli in 2020, according to court papers.
Foster's attorneys had tried to argue that his statements to Melilli were protected communication between him and his pastor, but the judge rejected that argument.
Foster is back in court on May 10.