During a brief court appearance Monday, the judge handling St. Bernard Parish President David Peralta’s sexual battery case largely played referee between attorneys for the first-term parish leader and his ex-wife, repeatedly warning both sides that he intends to have a trial underway in two months.
Retired Judge Frank Foil, appointed as an ad hoc judge to hear the case in 34th Judicial District Court in Chalmette, rejected a defense motion to hold Peralta’s ex-wife’s attorney, Stephen Rue, in contempt of court for allegedly violating a gag order that he imposed on the case.
Rue said in an October interview with WGNO-TV that his client, now known as Sharon Schaefer, “dreadfully fears” her ex-husband.
The comments were made in the wake of a lawsuit that Schaefer filed against Peralta in the St. Bernard court. The lawsuit, which seeks more than $50,000 in damages, cites a litany of allegations against Peralta, including that he “raped, sexually battered and sexually assaulted” Schaefer on her 49th birthday in October 2013, when they were still married, and that he kept her handcuffed while beating her.
During questioning Monday by Peralta’s defense attorney, Martin Regan, Rue said he had “no prior knowledge” of the judge’s order before giving the interview. “It was only after the fact that I learned that the judge issued a gag order,” Rue testified.
Peralta has denied raping Schaefer, instead maintaining that the couple engaged in “rough sex” that day at her request. Schaefer in turn has denied that assertion, saying the couple weren’t even on speaking terms at the time.
Peralta, who attended Monday’s hearing, was indicted by a state grand jury in April on one count of sexual battery in connection with the allegations. He pleaded not guilty and was released on a $20,000 bond.
In September, he was indicted again — this time by a grand jury in St. Tammany Parish — on one count of felony stalking for allegedly harassing Schaefer. He has posted a $35,000 bond on that charge.
The back-and-forth Monday between the two attorneys lasted about 20 minutes and at times appeared tense. At several points, Foil reminded the men that he wanted to move the proceeding along, and he urged them to “look at the big picture.”
Schaefer, who also was in court Monday, testified last month that she did not realize the judge’s gag order on the sexual battery case also barred discussing her lawsuit or Peralta’s second indictment in St. Tammany. However, Foil reiterated Monday that the gag order covers every aspect of the intertwined cases.
Meanwhile, Foil has set a tentative trial date of March 2. Prosecutors with the state Attorney General’s Office suggested Monday, as they have in the past, that discovery issues could push the date back slightly.
“I’m just interested in bringing this matter to trial,” Foil said Monday.
Foil has agreed to try to seat a jury in St. Bernard, but he has said he may move the case elsewhere if that proves too challenging.
Meanwhile, the stalking charge in St. Tammany is set to go to trial Jan. 20, though prosecutors seemed to suggest during Monday’s hearing that the date may be pushed back. Judge Richard Swartz is presiding over that case in 22nd Judicial District Court in Covington.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.