DA moves to dismiss criminal case against Jeff Leach, as Leach’s civil suit against alleged victim is allowed to move forward

BREWSTER COUNTY — After roughly one year of little to no movement on either front, both the criminal case against Jeff Leach, which in 2020 yielded a grand jury indictment on a felony sexual assault charge, and the civil case Leach had brought against one of his accusers have seen stark reversals within days of one another, both in Leach’s favor.

On Friday, the Eighth Court of Appeals in El Paso reversed a Brewster County judge’s decision to toss the defamation suit that Leach, the founder of Basecamp Terlingua, had brought against a former employee who accused him of assault. Now, over two years after its dismissal, that case will resume in trial court. 

Then, on Monday, Assistant District Attorney William E. Parham — of the office of 83rd District Attorney Ori White, who assumed the position in early 2021 — filed a motion to dismiss the sexual assault charge against Leach, citing insufficient evidence. As of December 2020, when former District Attorney Sandy Wilson still held the office, the case had been poised to go to trial, presumably within the coming year.

The protracted legal battle, which The Big Bend Sentinel has covered extensively, began in 2019, when Leach sued former employee Katy Milam for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress after she told authorities that Leach had held her down and told her “he gets what he wants.” 

Amidst the civil suit against Milam, who also goes by Schwartz, three more women came forward with accusations of rape and sexual assault against Leach. One of those women, who has asked not to be named in our reporting, filed an affidavit alleging that Leach had raped her in 2014 — it was that affidavit that ultimately led to Leach’s indictment in early 2020. The woman who filed that affidavit declined to comment for this story.

Around that time, Judge Stephen Ables tossed Leach’s defamation case against Milam, stating that Milam’s account of her alleged experience with Leach was protected by free speech laws. Leach appealed that decision, moving the suit to the Eighth Court of Appeals in El Paso, where it could continue as a personal-injury mediation. Milam’s attorney, Jodi Cole, moved to have the appeal tossed in March of 2021, arguing in part that Leach’s lawyers could not prove any of Milam’s statements were false, and that Milam was exercising her First Amendment right.

In the criminal proceedings, meanwhile, then-District Attorney Sandy Wilson said in December of 2020 that her office had offered Leach its “best and final plea offer,” and Judge Roy Ferguson told Leach he would face a jury trial in the coming months. 

Now, the defamation suit is moving forward, and Wilson’s successor has moved to toss the criminal case.

The reason for the appeal court’s opinion reversing the trial court’s dismissal comes down not to the merits of the suit or the merits of the dismissal, but to missed deadlines and an ordinance dictating the timeline for such dismissals. 

The dismissal was made under the Texas Citizens Participation Act, which protects people from being sued for exercising their legal rights. Once a motion to dismiss is filed under the TCPA, the opinion states, a statutory 60-day deadline for a hearing on the dismissal is put into place. An extension to 90 days can be granted, but an extension past 90 days is prohibited unless the court is allowing discovery germane to the TCPA motion. 

In this case, the dismissal was granted past the 90-day deadline. The trial court’s order had acknowledged the missed deadline, but deemed it had been missed for good reason: “(1) the docket conditions of the 394th District Court, (2) the assignment of two subsequent trial judges as a result of striking the first assigned judge, (3) the physical remoteness of the Court and (4) agreed settings by counsel.” (With regards to the reshuffling of judges, the first trial judge had recused himself, and Leach had objected to the second). 

But the appeals court has said it is bound by the limits of the TCPA statute. “The reasons for the late hearing here are entirely understandable, but we are not empowered to graft onto a statute a new exception to the deadline, no matter how compelling the reasons for an exception might be in this particular case,” reads the opinion.

Jodi Cole, Milam’s lawyer, said that she and her client were undeterred. “This case is dedicated to all recipients of abusive and assaultive behavior,” said Cole. “We will not be silenced.”

Cole also shared the following statement from Milam: “This is just a chance to settle it once and for all. I’m not backing down. I am not demoralized in the slightest, and I will never be silenced.”

Then there is the criminal case against Leach, poised to be tossed if a Brewster County judge grants the district attorney’s motion, which cites the following reasons for the requested dismissal: “After review of evidence and investigation of the case, including witness statements and interviews by law enforcement, timelines, dates and circumstances between parties, there is insufficient evidence to proceed with prosecution and in the interest of justice.”

When reached by phone, 83rd District Attorney Ori White said his office did not believe there was sufficient evidence to sway a jury. “It is something that we do not think we could persuade the jury beyond a reasonable doubt,” said White. “And we have a lot of cases, all the jails are full, and we just have to focus on cases that we think that we can win.”

When asked to elaborate on what obstacles the prosecutor faced in producing sufficient evidence, White said: “We just felt like the jury would not believe that it was not consensual.”

Former District Attorney Sandy Wilson, during whose tenure Leach had been charged and indicted, disagreed. “I thought the case was valid, and there’s plenty of evidence to show that he not only did it to her but to other women as well,” said Wilson, when reached by phone. 

“She had some good evidence that showed where she did a follow-up after the incident to prove her truthfulness that could have been brought up in court, and I think the jury could have had enough reason to believe that he was guilty of that crime,” she continued. “And I think that’s a travesty to women, that that happened. I hate to hear it happened, but I’m not surprised.”

She saw the case and its possible outcome as indicative of a larger problem in the region. “A lot of men out here don’t consider rape a big deal,” she said. 

A hearing regarding the motion to dismiss has been set for the morning of May 12, according to the Brewster County District Clerk’s office. Leach’s lawyer, Rae Leifeste, did not return a request for comment by press time.