As Jeff Leach’s defamation suit against accuser goes to trial, accuser files countersuit

BREWSTER COUNTY — Nearly three years after prominent Terlingua hotelier Jeff Leach sued a former employee for alleging he assaulted her, the alleged victim has countersued Leach — the latest in a protracted legal battle that has spanned courts, spawned a now-dismissed criminal case, and currently awaits trial in Brewster County.

Katy Milam, who also goes by Schwartz, told authorities in 2019 that Jeff Leach, owner of Basecamp Terlingua, had pinned her down and told her he “gets what he wants.” Months later, Leach sued her for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The suit was dismissed by Judge Stephen Ables, who said Milam was protected by the First Amendment — but Leach appealed the decision, moving the case to the Eighth Court of Appeals in El Paso, where it lingered for two years. 

At the end of April, the appeals court overturned the lower court’s dismissal, citing missed deadlines — the statute at play dictated a strict timeline for such dismissals, and a confluence of factors, including a reshuffling of judges, had resulted in late filings. The case was returned to the lower court, and a trial date has been set for December 12 of this year, with Ables once again presiding. 

On July 15, Milam filed a countersuit against Leach denying the allegations in his suit and reasserting her allegations of assault against him. In the filing, Milam’s attorney, Jodi Cole, argues in part that Milam was telling the truth when she made her allegation, that she is protected by free speech laws, that she was entitled to speak of her experience to law enforcement and did so in good faith, and that Leach himself is libel-proof.

In addition to these defenses, the suit also puts forth a number of counterclaims against Leach, namely that Leach assaulted, injured and threatened Milam when he pinned her down, reiterating the original allegation that put the current, ongoing legal battle into motion. The suit also accuses Leach of defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress, the very allegations he has brought against Milam, claiming Leach has defamed Milam by claiming she made a false report; the suit also points to the “Katy Lied” stickers that were dispersed throughout the community following her allegation. 

Milam has also filed a third-party petition to add Anna Oakley, identified in court filings as Leach’s romantic partner and Basecamp colleague, as a co-defendant in the suit, accusing Oakley of assisting and encouraging Leach in his alleged assaultive behavior and of intentionally inflicting emotional distress by telling others that Milam lied about her alleged assault.

Milam is seeking $1 million in damages, and a reimbursement of fees incurred through the countersuit. She is also demanding a jury trial. Milam’s attorney, Jodi Cole, declined to comment on the countersuit. 

Leach’s attorney, Rae Leifeste, told The Big Bend Sentinel on Wednesday that he will be filing a written response to the counterclaim on Leach’s behalf, and though he was unable to comment on the specific facts of a pending litigation, he did say he would dispute some of its contents.

“We disagree with a lot of the factual statements that have been made, and we believe that a substantial portion of some of the things they wish to bring up in this lawsuit will not be relevant at all to the lawsuit,” said Leifeste. 

Leifeste will also represent Oakley and will be filing an answer on her behalf, he said, but he had not yet received the filing against Oakley and so had not been able to review the claims.

The new development in the protracted civil suit comes after the dismissal of a related criminal case against Leach. After Leach had sued Milam for defamation in 2019, three more women swore in affidavits that Leach had assaulted them. One of those affidavits, from a woman alleging Leach had raped her in 2014, led to his indictment on a felony sexual assault charge in 2020. Eighty-third District Attorney Ori White filed a motion to dismiss the case, citing insufficient evidence — at the time, White told The Big Bend Sentinel that he did not believe his office could convince a jury that the encounter had not been consensual. 

The alleged victim in that case, Shawna Graves, submitted a statement to the court opposing the motion to dismiss and chose to make her identity publicly known; she also claimed that the district attorney’s office had shown little interest in her case and had been unhelpful throughout the process. Nonetheless, Judge Tryon Lewis dismissed the case in late May.