Indictment tossed, prosecutors look to file new sex-abuse charges against Perlitz
Hours after dismissing the sexual abuse indictment against Douglas Perlitz, a federal judge Wednesday ordered the 2002 Fairfield University commencement speaker kept in custody at least until July 23 as prosecutors move swiftly to file new charges.
This allows the prosecution team to file charges in federal court in Brooklyn, N.Y., alleging that Perlitz flew from Kennedy International Airport to Haiti with the intention of sexually abusing young boys in that impoverished country. It also gives U.S. Attorney David Fein time to discuss with his supervisors at the U.S. Justice Department in Washington the feasibility of appealing the dismissal.
The 25-page ruling by U.S. District Judge Janet Bond Arterton, who found there is no evidence that the Fairfield University graduate committed any criminal act in Connecticut, set off a six-hour flurry of meetings, conference calls and court filings all intended to release or keep Perlitz behind bars.
"If I were a gambling man," said Jeffrey Meyer, a former assistant U.S. attorney here who headed the appellate division, "I would expect the government to file a criminal complaint" in Brooklyn. "That way, they could easily move the whole prosecution team there."
He said appealing the dismissal "might help clarify the law," but could delay what was expected to be an Oct. 1 trial for more than a year.
"I tend to doubt they would want to do that," said Meyer, now an associate professor at Quinnipiac Law School.
But New York is not the only state that may come into play. Investigators have evidence that Perlitz also boarded flights in Florida and Colorado to travel to Haiti.
"Perlitz may have won the battle," said Alex Hernandez, a former assistant U.S. attorney who supervised the Bridgeport office before going into private practice, "but in the long term may lose the war."
If the government is inclined, it could indict Perlitz in several states, a move that could drain his defense fund.
"If the government should obtain a warrant from a court in which it believes there is proper venue, Mr. Perlitz is prepared to plead not guilty, just as he did in Connecticut," said William F. Dow III, who with David Grudberg are representing Perlitz. "It's somewhat surprising that the government would have overlooked a basic element of the case in its indictment."
No matter what route the prosecution takes, it will have to bring evidence and witnesses before a new grand jury in a new state. When and if prosecutors obtain new indictments, the legal process starts all over again with an arraignment, a request for bond and new motions to dismiss.
Until Wednesday, Perlitz, 39, a former Fairfield and Bridgeport resident, was charged with 24 counts of traveling from the U.S. to Haiti with the intention of engaging in sexual conduct with 18 underage boys.
All of those boys were once students in Perlitz's nationally recognized project to feed, clothe, shelter and educate homeless street boys living in Cap-Haitien, the second largest city in one of the world's most impoverished nations. The program began in 1997 with a grant from the Order of Malta, a worldwide Roman Catholic charity.
It grew with international media recognition and millions poured in by wealthy Fairfield and Westchester County Catholics who established a nonprofit organization, named the Haiti Fund, to oversee fundraising.
However the project's luster dimmed in August 2007 when several students complained to a Haitian journalist that they were being sexually abused by Perlitz.
This led to an investigation by the Haitian National Police and the United Nations, which in January 2009 sought a warrant for Perlitz's arrest. But by then he had returned to the U.S. So Haiti and the UN appealed to the U.S. to prosecute him.
In September, Perlitz was indicted and arrested. Since then, he has been detained without bond in Rhode Island.
In April, Arterton heard arguments from Perlitz's attorneys seeking a dismissal of the indictment.
They claimed that Congress overstepped its bounds by extending federal prosecution of sex crimes committed in a foreign country, claiming the indictment did not specify all elements of the alleged crime, and claiming no criminal act occurred in Connecticut.
But Arterton focused on the Connecticut criminal connections and vigorously questioned both sides.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Krishna Patel and Stephen Reynolds explained most of the donations for Perlitz's project were raised in Connecticut and then wired from here to his Haitian bank account. They pointed out that most of his flights were booked in Connecticut and he usually drove from Connecticut to Kennedy Airport.
But on Wednesday, Arterton ruled that wasn't enough.
She pointed out that "Perlitz is not alleged to have traveled in foreign commerce or engaged in any illicit sexual conduct while in Connecticut." As a result, she said both the Constitution and the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure "prohibit the government from prosecuting him for those crimes in Connecticut."
She did not rule on any of the defense team's other claims.
Despite dismissing the indictment, Arterton gave the prosecution an out. She ruled that "the dismissal for improper venue does not prohibit the Government from seeking an indictment against Perlitz ... in the states where the said crimes shall have been committed."
Still her dismissal set off an outcry from advocates for victims of sexual abuse like the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and Paul Kendrick, a founding member of Voices of the Faithful's Maine Chapter.
"This is a devastating ruling that we desperately hope will be overturned by a higher court," said David Clohessy, SNAP's executive director. He called Perlitz, who has been convicted of no crime, " a dangerous predator who belongs behind bars and will likely molest again if given the chance."