Proving and stopping the pattern
On the morning of Nov. 18, 2013 – long before Darren Sharper and two friends confessed to drug-raping New Orleans women – William Peter Blatty Jr., owner of the Ohm Lounge, received a disturbing email.
It came from Derrick Townsend, then-general manager of the popular bar in the Warehouse District.
A New Orleans Saints’ cheerleader was making allegations of drug-rape following a party at the bar with Saints players only hours earlier.
Townsend wanted Blatty to come down to the club and take a look at tape from the Ohm’s 24-hour video surveillance system.
Blatty, who also owns bars in Baton Rouge and Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas, later told the courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge Jane Triche Milazzo that he was skeptical of the Saintsation’s allegations at first. “It’s kind of something you hear a lot about in the bar industry, that some girl claims that she got drugged or dosed when she’s embarrassed about who she slept with or how drunk she got, so I do recall when I first viewed it, to see if she was out stumbling around or drinking at the bar.”
According to a transcript of the federal court hearing, when Blatty arrived at Ohm he began watching the video with other managers. Edited excerpts follow:
Q. And when you started watching the video what was your focus?
Blatty: The bar.
Q. What types of activities were you focused on?
Blatty: Basically, guys putting their hands in girls’ drinks …
Q. …. What did you see in the video?
Blatty: … It looked like somebody put their hand up in their hat and then put something in a drink.
Q. So that caught your attention, right?
Blatty: Yeah, I was pretty surprised. I didn’t expect to see it.
Q. That was consistent with the [drug-rape] allegation that had been raised [by the Saintsation], right?
Blatty said he saw the cheerleader at the bar. He also identified the man who allegedly put something in her drink as Brandon J. Licciardi, a St. Bernard Parish sheriff’s deputy and friend of former New Orleans Saints star Darren Sharper.
Blatty said he turned the videotape over to Butch Wilson, a friend and investigator with the office of then-Louisiana Attorney General “Buddy” Caldwell. He later cooperated with an FBI investigation of Sharper, Licciardi and the third co-conspirator in the trio’s drug-rape schemes, Erik J. Nunez, a Morton’s The Steakhouse waiter.
Under questioning from Licciardi defense attorney Ralph Capitelli, Blatty acknowledged telling Capitelli that he gave the video to the Attorney General’s office, adding: “Basically, New Orleans has a shit record when it comes to investigating anything, and I just didn’t feel comfortable giving it to anybody in the NOPD.”
Well, not everybody.
Blatty also testified he turned to then-NOPD Major Bruce Little, “a trusted confidant” to determine the veracity of earlier reports of other people “getting dosed at Ohm.”
Three years ago, Blatty’s doubts about the NOPD’s capacity for investigation were shared by many. The city Inspector General later issued a report criticizing case handling by NOPD’s Special Victims Unit, including complaints of sex crimes and domestic violence.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu appointed a task force to reform the department’s Special Victims Unit, chaired by Tania Tetlow, a widely respected Tulane Law School professor and criminal law expert.
Darren Sharper is now serving an 18-year-plus federal prison sentence for drug-raping as many as 16 women in four states: Louisiana, Arizona, Florida and California. He will receive credit for time served, beginning Feb. 22, 2014.
This Oct. 13, Brandon J. Licciardi is scheduled to be sentenced to 17 years in federal prison for admittedly doping unsuspecting women with the intent to commit rape. One victim was a friend who Licciardi turned over to Sharper at club Ohm on Sept. 22, 2013 – two months before the club videotaping of Licciardi and the Saints cheerleader. The third man, Erik J. Nunez, has agreed to a 10-year prison sentence for drug rape. The trio’s arsenal of drugs included MDMA (ecstasy), Alprozalam (Xanax) and Diazepam (Valium) and Zolpidem (Ambien).
Today, Professor Tetlow trains NOPD officers on how to respond to complaints of rape – including drug rape. “It’s a huge problem,” Tetlow says of drug-rape. “It requires that we catch and punish perpetrators. At the moment, we almost never do. The evil genius of (drug-rape) is that the victim often wakes up with no memory of what happened.”
Tetlow says the limited research available shows that most rapists are serial predators, who commit the vast majority of rapes.
“Often the most effective tool of a rapist is alcohol, for three reasons: 1) alcohol enables the rape; 2) it guts the victim’s credibility; 3) it can deprive the victim of her memory.” In the case of drug-rapes, hospital-administered rape kits are less effective as evidence “because the defense is usually a claim of consent.”
The Sharper case illustrates how the public is skeptical of one rape victim’s allegations – until more victims come forward. Public opinion puts a burden on police and prosecutors to prove a pattern of rapes. “Until you can find the pattern of rapes, juries often refuse to believe the first victim who came forward,” Tetlow says. “The majority of rapes are committed against the rapist’s spouse or partner, and those are least likely to be reported. Getting over rape is a lifetime struggle. Rates of suicide, alcoholism, drug abuse and PTSD go through the roof.”
As for the Sharper case, director of education and prevention for the Louisiana Foundation and Sexual Assault Jessie Nieblas adds, “Our first priority is always for the survivors. They need to be believed. Most survivors do not come forward. We stand with the survivors.”