Retired Saints safety Darren Sharper told accused crime partner Erik Nunez to destroy a phone that contained “salacious pictures” of one of two women who prosecutors say were in a drug-induced stupor when both men raped them two years ago.
Later, Sharper paid $20,000 for lawyers to help Nunez beat the charges, a federal prosecutor said Tuesday at a federal court hearing.
Sharper and Nunez also called St. Bernard Sheriff’s Office Deputy Brandon Licciardi shortly after the alleged rape and urged him to keep mum about what he saw when he showed up late on Sept. 23, 2013, at Sharper’s condo on Tchoupitoulas Street, Licciardi’s attorneys say.
Attorney Ralph Capitelli described the phone call as an obvious threat, saying his client feared for his life.
Licciardi, a 10-year Sheriff’s Office veteran, had befriended Sharper in 2010. He would eventually tell authorities he found both Sharper and Nunez at the condo with a former Saintsations cheerleader whom he knew well. Only Sharper has admitted to sexually assaulting the two women at the condo that night.
Nunez, a former Morton’s steakhouse waiter, has told authorities he had sex with the second woman, with whom he’d slept before, but that it was consensual.
The $20,000 payment from Sharper, which Nunez’s attorneys do not dispute, wasn’t enough for U.S. District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo to jettison those lawyers, Sara Johnson and Herbert Larson, from the federal case in which Nunez and Licciardi are named as co-defendants. Both have pleaded not guilty.
Milazzo did not immediately rule on separate motions by Nunez and Licciardi, each asking to be tried on their own in the federal case. Their attorneys said they fear that if they’re prosecuted together, confusion will reign for a jury that is expected to hear the two men attack one another.
Tuesday’s court hearing took place almost exactly two years after a night of partying and admitted sexual assault that would help seal Sharper’s fate. It shed new light on a tense dynamic between Nunez and Licciardi, two men who seem to have been only loosely acquainted, though prosecutors claim they shared in the retired NFL star’s crime spree.
Sharper, 39, pleaded guilty last spring to a federal conspiracy to drug women for rape and three state rape charges, the Louisiana portion of a multistate plea deal in which he has admitted drugging and raping or attempting to rape nine women in four states while working as an NFL Network commentator.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael McMahon said Sharper will testify in the federal case against Nunez and Licciardi if he hopes to preserve a deal that would likely see his release by 2024.
“If he tries to go south, I will move to revoke that plea agreement,” McMahon said.
Milazzo has yet to formally accept Sharper’s guilty pleas.
McMahon described the Saints Super Bowl champion as an “adverse witness” against Nunez, despite the fact that he paid a chunk of his friend’s early legal tab.
Count Licciardi, who once referred to Nunez as “nobody,” as another adverse witness.
It was Licciardi who, in March 2014, finally coughed up to authorities that he saw Nunez in his underwear, leaving Sharper’s room, where Licciardi had seen the ex-Saints cheerleader lying prone. The day after Licciardi gave his statement, police secured arrest warrants for both Sharper and Nunez, accusing them of two counts each of aggravated rape.
Licciardi’s attorneys say fear made the deputy slow to reveal what he knew about the alleged rapes, and about Sharper’s now-admitted pattern of drugging women to prime them for rape.
Licciardi and Nunez both also face charges in state court in New Orleans that include separate counts of aggravated rape that carry a mandatory life prison term. Each has pleaded not guilty.
McMahon, the federal prosecutor, argued Tuesday that the payment from Sharper for Nunez’s attorneys created an “intractable conflict” that warranted tossing Johnson and Larson from the case. Sharper made the payment through an intermediary while jailed in Los Angeles last year.
“Who’s the client here? Sharper, who paid them? Or Mr. Nunez?” McMahon said. “There are too many unsavory elements. Sharper’s guilty plea and willingness to testify has injected a whole new variable in this.”
But Milazzo cited a lack of evidence that Sharper instructed the lawyers on Nunez’s defense. Milazzo found no “structural conflict,” ruling only after calling Nunez to formally waive any conflict.
FBI Special Agent Robert Blythe also testified about a confidential informant’s account of hearing Nunez second-guessing his attorneys and his decision to let Sharper pay for them. But Nunez stood by his attorneys on Tuesday. “I’m very fond of my representation,” he told the judge.
As if to drive home their animosity, two defense tables were set up for the hearing, one for Nunez, 28, and the other for Licciardi, 30.
Their attorneys said they fear a jury will conjure a conspiracy from unrelated alleged crimes.
As part of Licciardi’s defense, Capitelli told the judge they expect to grill Sharper over the $20,000 payment. He noted that Nunez and Licciardi are not charged together in any of the seven counts contained in a superseding indictment handed up by a federal grand jury in July.
McMahon, however, said the obstruction charge that Nunez faces, for getting rid of the phone, fits neatly with the three witness tampering and obstruction counts against Licciardi.
The former deputy also faces federal drug conspiracy and distribution charges in a case that once named Sharper but now names Nunez in a lone obstruction count.
Licciardi’s attorneys cited an interview Licciardi gave to investigators in February 2014, in which he said he “got a phone call from a weird number and I didn’t know who it was, and it was Erik and Darren on three-way.”
Sharper told him the New Orleans Police Department had searched his condo. Nunez insisted he didn’t even mention Licciardi’s name to police. Licciardi then explained to investigators his initial reluctance to tell the full truth.
“I was scared of Darren Sharper finding out, you know, that I’m talking, and he coming (to) kill me,” Licciardi said. Sharper “knows big-time people, you know, and I’m just, I’m nobody. ... I’m scared for my life, I really am.” Capitelli said the phone call was “clearly a threat.”
Without ruling, Milazzo remarked that Licciardi’s identification of Nunez coming out of the bedroom in his underwear “certainly creates a problem.”
In the meantime, Nunez and Licciardi remain defendants in the state rape case, which is on hold while the Louisiana Supreme Court considers whether the system used in Orleans Parish to select judges is illegal.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.