As Leach faces continued scrutiny, Milam’s lawyer moves to throw out appeal

FAR WEST TEXAS — It’s been more than a year since a local judge threw out a lawsuit brought by Jeff Leach, the founder of Basecamp Terlingua and self-described diet-and-gut researcher, against Katy Milam, a former employee who accused him of assault. But even as Leach has faced growing scrutiny and now also a criminal trial, that suit has continued to drag on in state appeals court.

That case, which The Big Bend Sentinel covered extensively, started after Milam, who also goes by Schwartz, told authorities in 2019 that Leach had held her down and told her he “gets what he wants.” Leach sued her for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Then, several other women came forward with allegations against him. One woman, who has asked not to be named in reporting by The Big Bend Sentinel, gave an affidavit stating that Leach had allegedly raped her in 2014. Those allegations attracted the attention of prosecutors, who ultimately indicted Leach on a felony sexual assault charge. He will face a criminal trial on that charge later this year.

Leach has also faced growing scrutiny outside the court system. Airbnb removed Basecamp Terlingua from its platform in 2019, citing the “multiple sexual assault allegations” against him. Last year, a reporter for Science magazine raised questions about whether Leach, who has collaborated with researchers at Stanford University and beyond, even has an undergraduate degree.

This month, Texas Monthly also zeroed in on Leach with an article entitled “Surviving Terlingua.” The magazine described the “backlash” local women, including Milam, faced as they went public with assault allegations against Leach.

The story included an interview with Leach’s half-brother, Perry. Perry told Texas Monthly he believed Milam. The details of Milam’s police report, he said, had made him think, “Okay, that’s Jeff.”

“I believe this woman,” Perry said, “and I don’t even know who she is.”

In spite of these developments, Leach has continued to fight his defamation case in court. After he lost his local court battle last year, he appealed to the Eighth Court of Appeals in El Paso, as The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported. He requested the case be continued as a personal-injury mediation — meaning a mediator, and not a court judge, would oversee the case.

Milam’s lawyer, Jodi Cole, argued the lawsuit was never a personal-injury matter and urged the appeals court to toss the case. “This is not a personal injury case,” she wrote in a filing last year. “[Leach] sexually harassed and assaulted [Milam], and then sued her for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress when [Milam] reported the conduct to law enforcement.”

The appeals court last March ruled the case could continue as a mediation. A spokesperson for the Eighth Court of Appeals previously told The Big Bend Sentinel that the court automatically issues orders for mediation, which the other party can then oppose.

In new court filings this month, Cole renewed her efforts to have the appeals case dismissed. First, in a 70-page filing last Monday, she outlined multiple reasons why she said it had been “legally sound” for a Big Bend judge to throw out the case.

She argued that Leach and his lawyer, Rae Leifeste, “could not show that any statements” made by Milam “were false” and therefore that there was no evidence Milam had defamed him. She argued that “if [Leach] suffered any emotional distress,” it was not because of Milam but because he had a “poor reputation” from “his repeated behaviors, including coming to the attention of law enforcement authorities.”

Cole argued Leach was “libel-proof,” meaning he could not sue for defamation, because he “simply had no reputation to lose.” She argued Milam had a “First Amendment right to speak about her experience” because her allegations were “a matter of public concern.” And last but not least, Cole argued, there was no defamation because Milam had told the truth.

Days later, on Thursday, Cole filed another motion to add more evidence to the record. She included the criminal indictment of Leach from last year, in which local prosecutors accused Leach of rape.

Also among the new evidence was the Texas Monthly story. The story, she said, contained “new relevant information,” including “another account of sexual harassment of an employee at a pizza shop owned by [Leach].”

In an interview on Tuesday, Leach’s lawyer, Rae Leifeste, said he was waiting to see how the appeals court responded to Cole’s latest filings before filing a response of his own. “I’ll probably be replying,” he said, or “I may not, depending on what the court decides.”

Regardless, Leifeste said he felt confident about the defamation case. He argued it was “simply not appropriate” for Cole to introduce new evidence during the appeals process and besides, that news stories were not admissible evidence. However, courts across the country, including in Texas, have generally ruled that news stories are admissible in court.

Meanwhile, Leifeste said he was also confident about the criminal trial, where he’s also representing Leach. As he saw it, his legal opponents were trying to argue Leach was a “bad guy” rather than addressing the merits of each case.

“You cannot be convicted because you are just generally a bad guy,” he said. “I think we have a very strong reply to their allegations.”

In a statement, Cole, Milam’s lawyer, said she would not “back down when it comes to protecting Katy’s freedom of speech” and “her right to be heard.”

“Katy’s legal issues extend to all of us who refuse to be victimized,” Cole added. “Many Texans do not subscribe to the old ways of blaming the victim, and we refuse to be complicit.”