Judge tosses Leach defamation case

TERLINGUA — A judge last week threw out a defamation case filed by a prominent Terlingua man against a woman who said he assaulted her.

Katy Milam, a former employee at Basecamp Terlingua, told police in July that her boss Jeff Leach had allegedly pinned her down and told her “he gets what he wants.” Leach, the founder of Basecamp and a self-described diet and gut researcher, sued her in September for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. A couple weeks later, he also sued her in small claims court in Terlingua to collect on what he said was an around $1,300 debt.

Since the defamation case began, three women have filed affidavits accusing Leach of sexual assault and rape. Airbnb dropped Basecamp Terlingua from its listings, citing “multiple sexual assault allegations.” The Brewster County district attorney’s office won’t release records on Leach because it says it’s using them “in the detection, investigation or prosecution of a crime.” And Milam’s lawyers, Jodi Cole and Liz Rogers, have all the while argued that Milam was protected by the First Amendment and other free speech protections and that the case should be thrown out.

Milam’s account to friends and authorities was “by definition a public concern, because it was related to her own, and other women’s, safety,” Cole and Rogers wrote in a filing in October. They introduced what they said was more evidence of Leach’s allegedly violent behavior, including affidavits from the three women and another from a man who said Leach allegedly attacked him.

They also showed that Leach was arrested in 2015 after he allegedly “grabbed” a fifth woman and “shoved her around,” according to records from the Brewster County Sheriff’s Office. That woman, who has not responded to multiple requests for comment, later obtained a restraining order against him.

Last Thursday, Judge Stephen Ables agreed with the arguments made by Milam’s lawyers. In a one-page order, he dismissed the case and ordered Leach to pay Milam’s legal costs. There was not an exact figure for those costs at press time.

Ables — as the judge in a civil, not a criminal, matter — did not rule on the veracity of the allegations made against Leach by Milam and others. That work is up to a grand jury, should District Attorney Sandy Wilson choose to form one.

Rather, Ables’ order simply states that Milam’s account of her alleged experiences with Leach is protected by free speech laws. Ables said he did consider the affidavits in making his decision.

In his ruling, Ables also pushed back against an argument made by Leach’s lawyers: that the case was moving too slowly and that Milam’s lawyers had missed deadlines to dismiss the case. He said a trial was progressing slowly because of the “physical remoteness of the Court” and because the case had had three judges.

The first judge, Roy Ferguson, recused himself last year. He had granted a woman a restraining order against Leach in 2017. Leach’s lawyers then asked that the second judge, Thomas Spieczny, also be removed from the case. Their court filings don’t explain their reasoning, and they previously declined to comment to The Big Bend Sentinel.

In an interview with The Big Bend Sentinel, Katy Milam, an alleged victim of Leach and the defendant in his defamation suit, said she was glad the case is over and that she’s ready to move forward.

“I want to urge anybody who’s suffered from any kind of assault or trauma to go to the police and know they’re not alone,” she said. “They don’t have to hold it in. There’s strength in numbers. We can’t allow people like this to think they can do whatever they want with no consequences.”

“All I did was make sure that this violent behavior was on the record for my safety and that of the community,” she said of her police report last year. “Anything that came after that was Leach’s doing. I think he filed both of these lawsuits to try to silence me and run me out of town. That’s not going to happen.”

Jodi Cole, one of Milam’s lawyers, said she felt vindicated by the results of the case — and by the fact District Attorney Sandy Wilson had taken an interest.

Like Milam, Cole also stressed that Leach — and not Milam — had been the one to file a lawsuit. “He brought this fight to Katy,” she said.

“Jeff Leach may be entitled to his day in court,” Cole said. “But that court should be a criminal court.”

Leach and his lawyers did not respond to multiple requests for comment by press time.