Honored Fairfield U. alum admits sex abuse at Haitian charity
NEW HAVEN -- The once-inspiring story of a Fairfield University graduate who gave up the good life to help clothe, feed and educate homeless Haitian boys came to a shattering end Wednesday when Douglas Perlitz, the founder of the humanitarian project and one-time commencement speaker at his Fairfield alma mater, acknowledged sexually abusing at least eight of his underage students.
Perlitz's guilty plea to one charge of traveling from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Haiti with the intention of engaging in sex with an underage boy ended a tumultuous year.
His Project Pierre Toussaint in Cap-Haitien, Haiti's second largest city, was shuttered. Perlitz was arrested and indicted. The indictment was dismissed due to lack of evidence that a crime was committed in Connecticut, and new charges were filed in the federal courthouse in Brooklyn, N.Y.
In between, Haiti, particularly Port-au-Prince, its capital city, was devastated by a January earthquake.
Perlitz told Judge Janet Bond Arterton at U.S. District Court on Wednesday that he would waive his right to further challenge filing charges in Connecticut. Seventeen minutes later, he admitted his guilt by reading a three-paragraph statement.
A thin, sandy-haired man with a medium build, Perlitz, 40, admitted he traveled to Haiti on June 6, 2005.
"One of the dominant purposes of that trip was to engage in illicit sexual conduct with one of the minor boys in Project Pierre Toussaint," he said.
While Perlitz admitted engaging in sex with only one boy, he did not dispute Assistant U.S. Attorney Krishna Patel's claim that she had evidence Perlitz engaged in sex with at least eight underage boys and as many as 13.
When Arterton asked him if he agreed with Patel, David Grudberg, who with William F. Dow III represents Perlitz, said, "In signing the plea agreement, I think he does." What Grudberg said they disagree with is Patel's claim that Perlitz provided things of value, including schooling, housing, clothing, money and electronic gifts, to those boys who engaged in sex with him.
Under the terms of the agreement, Perlitz faces anywhere from eight years and one month in prison to 19 years and seven months in prison when he is sentenced Dec. 21 by Arterton. Federal law provides no parole. Whatever sentence Perlitz gets will be the amount of time he serves, minus 54 days granted every year for good behavior. Additionally, he faces a fine of up to $250,000, as well as restitution to his victims.
Once he is released from prison, he must register as a sex offender, as well as spend anywhere from five years to the rest of his life being supervised by the U.S. Probation Department. Should he commit any crime while on supervision, he could be sent back to prison for another five years.
Patel, who headed the prosecution team, said she intends to bring victims and witnesses from Haiti to testify at the sentencing hearing.
Outside the courthouse, Dow countered that "even the thinnest piece of paper has two sides. We look forward to presenting our side of the matter during the sentencing hearing." Perlitz's side will involve details on hundreds of boys, abandoned by their parents, who were given the opportunity to eat, shower and learn a trade or profession by attending the three-phase Project Pierre Toussaint program begun by Perlitz in 1997 with a grant from the Order of Malta, a Roman Catholic charity.
The Rev. Paul Carrier, Perlitz's mentor and the former Fairfield University director of campus ministry and community service, touted the program both in Fairfield County and to the national media. Carrier helped raise millions in donations from Fairfield University, its campus chapel and in Fairfield County churches. Carrier, along with wealthy Fairfield County Catholics, created the Haiti Fund with a board of directors to raise money for Perlitz's program.
In February, Fairfield University officials reported they could not document how about $120,000 of the $775,000 they helped raise for Project Pierre Toussaint from 1997 to 2007 was spent. Federal investigators have been looking into this aspect of the case as well as information that two of Perlitz's supporters in the now-defunct Haiti Fund helped remove two computers from his home in Haiti while private investigators were looking into allegations of sexual abuse.
Neither Carrier nor anyone else has been charged with wrongdoing. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office said the investigation is ongoing.
The allegations of sexual abuse came to light in August 2007, when some students began writing graffiti alleging sexual abuse by Perlitz on building walls in Cap-Haitien. Several then went public with the story to Cyrus Sibert, a Haitian journalist and host of a radio talk show.
That led to an investigation by the Haitian National Police with help from the United Nations. Those two groups then approached the U.S. State Department for help in prosecuting Perlitz.
Unlike his previous court appearance, Perlitz, dressed in the khaki shirt and pants that is the typical garb of a person held at the privately run Wyatt Detention Center in Rhode Island, stood alone before the judge. No members of his family, which includes a brother who lives in New Canaan, nor his supporters among the Fairfield County Roman Catholic community, were present.
"Timing and logistics had a lot to do with that," Dow said after the proceeding.
Dow also pointed out that Perlitz pleaded guilty to a single charge that resolves all criminal allegations against him in the United States and not the 24 that were contained in the most recent indictment. That indictment was dismissed after Grudberg and Dow convinced the judge that no crime was committed by Perlitz in Connecticut.
The prosecution team then brought new charges in federal court in Brooklyn, alleging Perlitz traveled from JFK International Airport to Haiti to engage in sex with a minor. They also contemplated bringing similar travel charges involving airports in California, Colorado, Florida, Michigan and New Jersey.
But it was the Brooklyn charge and Perlitz's impending transfer from the privately run Rhode Island detention facility to the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., that some believe may have helped sway Perlitz to plead guilty. The Brooklyn facility houses a large number of black men awaiting trial in New York's federal courts, said Marguerite Laurent, who heads the Haitian Lawyers Leadership Network.
"We believe not only the imminent transfer to a New York jail, but perhaps the idea of meeting concerned Haitians who live in New York, the second largest enclave of Haitians living in the United States, and who are willing to be present for defenseless Haiti children in a New York courthouse, was such an unappealing factor to Perlitz he decided to come clean and plead guilty," Laurent said in an e-mail to sister paper the Connecticut Post.