Sexual assault case against Leach going to trial

It's been a strange ride through the local courts system for Terlingua hotelier Jeff Leach, who started as a civil plaintiff suing an alleged victim and is now a criminal defendant.

BREWSTER COUNTY — The sexual assault case against Terlingua hotelier Jeff Leach is going to trial. At a virtual court hearing last week, District Attorney Sandy Wilson said her office had offered Leach its “best and final plea offer.”

The details of that plea weren’t disclosed in court — but Leach, who sat silently for most of the short hearing, told Judge Roy Ferguson he understood the terms of the deal and was rejecting it. Judge Ferguson then brought the hearing to a close, telling Leach he would face a jury trial, likely around August.

Leach, the founder of Basecamp Terlingua and a self-described diet and gut researcher, has been on a strange ride through the local courts system for around a year. He started as a civil plaintiff, suing a former employee for defamation after she told authorities he had assaulted her.

As more allegations surfaced, a local grand jury in February indicted Leach on a felony sexual assault charge. Now, even as his defamation lawsuit continues, Leach is also a defendant in a criminal case.

The controversy started in the summer of 2019, when Katy Milam, a former employee of Leach, told police that Leach allegedly pinned her down and told her “he gets what he wants.” Leach sued her last September for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Someone put disparaging stickers up around Terlingua and Alpine, declaring that “Katy lied.” But then, as The Big Bend Sentinel first reported, two more women filed affidavits of their own. Those women accused Leach of sexual assault and rape.

First, there was a woman who filed a sworn affidavit on November 5, 2019. That woman, who has asked The Big Bend Sentinel not to identify her in our reporting, said Leach had allegedly raped her.

“This was a violent assault,” she stated in her affidavit. “There was no consent.”

The woman stated she viewed Leach as a “powerful man in the area” and that she worried “how he may have influenced people’s feelings about my reputation.”

“I avoided Terlingua,” she stated. “I was scared to return to Terlingua alone for some time.”

It was her accusations that ultimately led to Leach’s indictment in February of this year. She declined to comment for this story.

A couple days after the second affidavit, on November 7, 2019, a third woman came forward.

That woman — Alaine Berg — said she was with Leach at a gathering in Marathon in 2018 when Leach put his hand on her leg.

Berg initially took the gesture in “a friendly way, kind of like [he was] patting my leg,” Berg stated in her own affidavit. Then, Leach allegedly put his hand up her shorts “without any warning” and sexually assaulted her.

“Coming forward was not something that I did lightly,” Berg stated. “But I have come forward because I feel that Jeff Leach is a dangerous person to women and our society.”

“I feel a responsibility to speak truthfully about my assault by Jeff Leach,” she stated. “I do not want this to happen to others in our community.”

Airbnb and local authorities started taking note. The short term rental service kicked Basecamp off its platform in November of last year, court documents showed. In an email to Leach, a company representative cited The Big Bend Sentinel’s reporting on “multiple sexual assault allegations” against him, which the rep said violated “Airbnb community standards.”

As the defamation lawsuit against Milam continued, Leach and his lawyer, Rae Leifeste, introduced affidavits, photos and text messages in an effort to discredit the victims.

One filing included a photo of an alleged victim with Leach after the alleged assault occurred, which was presented as evidence that the assault did not happen. They also introduced multiple affidavits from women, including Leach’s girlfriend, disputing the alleged victims’ versions of events.

But the allegations kept coming. In February, a fourth woman gave an affidavit against Leach, also accusing him of sexual assault. That woman, who formerly worked with Leach on business projects, asked The Big Bend Sentinel not to name her in our reporting.

In the summer of 2017, that woman stated, Leach had allegedly sexually assaulted her. “I had to fight him off to get him to stop,” she stated. “This sexual contact was non-consensual.”

A couple weeks later, the woman and Leach got into an argument at her house. Outside, she alleged that Leach “threw his glass into the night” and “knocked some things off of a table.” The woman “ran out into the desert and hid in the bushes,” and Leach got some clothes from inside and left, according to her affidavit.

“I stayed hidden in the desert for a while after Jeff left,” the woman stated. “I remember feeling like it was over, and I was relieved.” After the woman stopped working with Leach, he at least twice “threatened me with litigation,” she stated.

Separately, new details started to emerge about a fifth woman, who called police on Leach in September 2015. That woman has not responded to requests for comment from The Big Bend Sentinel.

According to an incident report, that woman said she had an “altercation” with Leach and was “worried he [would] come back.” Leach allegedly “went off on [the woman] for no apparent reason,” “began throwing things around the house,” “grabbed her and shoved her around” and then left.

When the deputy questioned Leach at his home, Leach said the woman had “jumped on him and attacked him” — allegedly hitting him on his neck and head around 20 times. But the deputy found no “signs of a struggle” on Leach. He “determined Leach to be the aggressor” and arrested him for assault/family violence.

In February — just weeks before Leach was indicted — a judge threw out his defamation case. That Judge, Stephen Ables, didn’t rule on the veracity of the sexual assault claims against Leach but instead said that Milam was within her free speech rights to talk about incidents that had allegedly happened to her.

In an interview at the time, Milam said she was glad the case was over and was 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 told The Big Bend Sentinel earlier this year. “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.”

But the defamation suit wasn’t quite over. In March, Leach’s lawyers appealed to the Eighth Court of Appeals in El Paso, where the lawsuit got an unexpected life as a personal-injury mediation case. Milam’s lawyer Jodi Cole opposed the move, arguing in a legal filing that the defamation lawsuit was “not a personal injury case.” That appeal was still pending at press time.

Milam’s lawyers, Cole and Liz Rogers, have argued that the case against Milam, who also goes by Schwartz, is baseless. They’ve cited the First Amendment and the Texas Citizens Participation Act, which prevents people from getting sued for using their legal rights.

“Mrs. Schwartz has a protected constitutional right to express what happened to her,” they wrote in one motion from October. “Her communication was by definition a public concern, because it was related to her own, and other women’s, safety.” And besides, the lawyers argued the affidavits from multiple people demonstrate Leach’s alleged “propensity to assault women.”

Leifeste, Leach’s lawyer, did not respond by press time to requests for comment, including on the terms of the plea agreement offered by local prosecutors. A local jury is expected to start hearing the case against him next year.