On the morning of May 20, the long-simmering criminal case against Terlingua hotelier Jeff Leach, who was indicted by a grand jury on a felony sexual assault charge over two years ago, was brought to an end—at the request of the local prosecutor, a Brewster County judge dismissed the case, voiding the possibility of an anticipated trial.

Accusations against Leach, a prominent entrepreneur in the remote border town, began emerging in 2019 when former employee Katy Schwartz told authorities that Leach had held her down and attempted to forcibly kiss her, telling her he “gets what he wants.” Leach responded by suing Schwartz for defamation—but it was there, in civil court, that more women began coming forward with similar allegations. After Schwartz, 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 in 2020.

That woman, Shawna Graves, resisted letting the case die quietly. Two days before the dismissal, Graves submitted a statement to the court opposing the motion. “I believe this case needs to be heard, as uncomfortable as it will be for me,” she wrote. “This happened to me. I did not want to bear this cross, but I also did not ask for that act of violence to occur, nor for all of the years of difficulty and darkness I experienced afterwards.”

Though the statement was sealed by the court, Graves chose to share it with the press with her name attached—a dramatic reversal, as she had always asked to remain anonymous in coverage of the case. When asked why she was choosing to emerge publicly now, her emailed response was brief: “I’m coming forward now because I used to have faith in the system and now I don’t.”

But the case was ultimately tossed, at the request of Ori White, district attorney for the Eighty-third Judicial District, who cited insufficient evidence—his office simply did not believe there was enough to sway a jury beyond a reasonable doubt, he told the Big Bend Sentinel shortly after the motion was filed. As a “complaining witness” in a criminal case—in which it is the state, not any individual, that brings charges against an alleged perpetrator—Graves had only so much say in the case that emerged from her accusation, only so much recourse in opposing its fate.

In her statement, she recounts her attempts to have some degree of input in the proceedings. By her telling, she was contacted by a prosecutor with the DA’s office on April 28 and notified of the motion to dismiss. She was shaken by the phone call, she says. “He said no jury would believe me,” she writes. “It was a case of he said-she said; that I had no evidence that the sexual assault occurred.”

She writes that she heard from a victim coordinator with the DA’s office on May 11, the day before an initial hearing on the motion to dismiss was to be held, and was told she would be able to speak, though the coordinator could not say definitively where the hearing would take place. Graves retained the counsel of Alpine attorney Jodi Cole, who is representing Schwartz against Leach’s defamation suit and is representing a former assistant prosecutor with the DA’s office in a lawsuit against White.

Graves says she arrived in Brewster County district court on the morning of May 12, only to be told she would not be permitted to speak, but she could file a written statement that would be sealed. Leach himself was present in the courtroom that day, she says—an unanticipated shock. (Cole also recounts these events in a separate court filing, in Schwartz’s civil case).

Graves had quietly waited for her day in court since filing her affidavit—she had declined to speak to the press and had asked to keep her name out of news coverage. In her statement, she recalls the disappointment of being denied that day and feeling that the DA had no interest in taking on her case. She had not been contacted by White before the assistant prosecutor called her in late April, she says. “Not only were they (the DA’s office) unhelpful in navigating the legal system, uninterested in talking to me about my experience and about the case, unhelpful in informing me of any options I might have from here, unsympathetic about my experience—but then when I showed up to court, they seemed to not want me to be there,” she writes.

The district attorney’s office did not return requests for comment on the contents of Graves’s statement (Marfa Public Radio reported that the office had declined to comment for the outlet’s story on the matter). In a previous conversation with the Sentinel, White had explained that his office was overwhelmed by cases and had to focus on those they felt would be successful. “We just felt like the jury would not believe that it was not consensual,” he said of the Leach case.

On May 20, the remote hearing on the dismissal took place over Zoom, with Judge Tryon Lewis presiding in the place of Judge Roy Ferguson—who was absent to conduct legal training, Lewis explained—and assistant district attorney William E. Parham representing the State of Texas. Leach was present, along with his attorney, Rae Leifeste. The dismissal was swift, with less than ten minutes devoted to the final discussion of a scrutinized case that had ground on for years.

But there was some discussion, however brief, regarding the statement. Judge Lewis asked Parham, then Leifeste, if they had been able to review the statement. Both said that yes, they had, though mere minutes before the hearing.

Parham began to comment on the contents of the statement: “I have some difference of opinion as to what was stated therein—” he began.

“I was not asking your opinion on anything,” the judge interjected. Parham then simply stated that he had reviewed the statement approximately 27 minutes prior. The judge then directed the “precise” question to Leifeste—had he had the opportunity to review the statement?—to which Leifeste responded yes, “just a few minutes ago.”

The judge opined briefly, before signing off on the dismissal, on the “heavy burden” the district attorney’s office bears in deciding which cases to pursue.

“In the state of Texas, under our constitution, only the state can bring a prosecution, and in a felony the district attorney is charged with the right and the burden of deciding what of those cases in the office that have been brought forward, whether the law and the evidence supports the continued prosecution of the case,” said Lewis. “It’s often a heavy burden, but it is a burden, it is the prerogative under the constitution and obligation of the district attorney to make that decision, in the best interest of justice and in the circumstances of the case, and that decision is not reviewable by the court.”

Judge Lewis then signed the order to dismiss the case. Afterward, Cole—still acting as Graves’s attorney in her limited capacity as a complaining witness in the case—issued a statement. “People who have been assaulted sexually should have no shame or fear about speaking the truth. The times are changing, even if there is still some fear and resistance about taking prosecution seriously. We want all courageous survivors who report crime to know that many people do take these kinds of offenses seriously. The shame resides with the perpetrators, not the innocent.”

For those who work closely with victims of sexual assault in the remote region, the case and its outcome are all too familiar. Gina Wilcox, program coordinator for the Family Crisis Center of the Big Bend, noted that sexual assault cases are very difficult to prosecute, in part because of a lingering stigma felt by victims, but also because of a lack of physical evidence and witnesses. “The jury has to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt for criminal charges, and a lot of times there’s just not enough to do that,” she said. For that reason, prosecutors may decide the monetary cost and the stress of a trial—often a traumatic experience for victims—is not worthwhile.

And resources available for victims of such crimes in rural regions are extraordinarily limited. The crisis center—with locations in Alpine, Presidio, and Terlingua—is one of two of its kind in the Big Bend region. The other, in Fort Stockton, is fairly new, noted Wilcox. “We’re the primary agency to provide services for victims of sexual assault in this region,” she said. “And we do the best we can, but it is challenging.”

Wilcox said she had seen firsthand how dismissed cases and dropped charges affect victims’ willingness to come forward. “Any of these high-profile things, even if it’s just something local, they’re seeing it in the news or in the newspaper that the charges are being dropped. They’re like, ‘Well, why should I?’ ” said Wilcox. “I’ve had numerous clients ask me that question: ‘They did this and this and this with this case, with that person; I knew this person who pressed charges but nothing ever happened, so why should I? Why should I put myself through that?’ And I don’t blame them for feeling that way.”

Still, Wilcox said she encourages victims of sexual violence to speak to someone—if not law enforcement, then a counselor, or someone else who can provide assistance. The Family Crisis Center of the Big Bend operates a 24-hour hotline at 800-834-0654 for this very purpose. The center provides accompaniment for victims who wish to speak to law enforcement. Even as the criminal case draws to a close, Leach’s civil suit against Schwartz has been given new life after the Eighth Court of Appeals in El Paso reversed a lower court’s dismissal of the suit. A status hearing on that case will take place at the end of the month.

A version of this story was first published in the Big Bend Sentinel, a weekly newspaper that covers West Texas.



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