NEW ORLEANS (AP) — In 2010, a woman made a desperate 911 call to report that a powerful prosecutor sexually assaulted her at her home. Six years later that prosecutor has been called a sexual predator by authorities and faces a possible prison sentence.
Records released Thursday reveal that sheriff’s deputies summoned an FBI agent after Danelle Keim called for help and reported the allegations about Harry Morel, who served as St. Charles Parish’s elected district attorney for more than three decades.
Keim became the key witness for the FBI in its long-running investigation of Morel, who pleaded guilty Wednesday to obstructing a federal investigation of the sex abuse allegations. Authorities say Morel repeatedly abused his power to prey on vulnerable women, offering them or their relatives leniency from his office in exchange for sex.
Investigators accused Morel of soliciting sex from at least 20 women during his 33-year tenure in office.
“Harry Morel could make things go away, but he wanted sexual acts in exchange,” said U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite. “We suspect that this pattern of conduct has been ongoing for many decades. In fact, we will never know the full extent of it.”
In the end, prosecutors — facing a statute of limitations on the crimes, significant problems with evidence and victims who could prove to be difficult witnesses — chose not to charge Morel with any sexual crimes, Polite said.
Morel pleaded guilty to a narrowly tailored charge of obstruction of justice for harassing Keim and pressuring her to get rid of evidence in the federal grand jury investigation that targeted him.
Keim died of a drug overdose in 2013 when she was 27. Investigators said her cooperation with the FBI was instrumental in securing a guilty plea from Morel, who faces a maximum sentence of three years in prison.
A court filing Wednesday says Morel, 73, engaged in “inappropriate behavior” with Keim at her home after her arrest in St. Charles Parish on a drunken driving charge in March 2010. On Thursday, St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s office released the tape of Keim’s 911 call after Morel left her apartment. She accused him of sexually assaulting her.
“He grabbed me, he kissed me and he touched me in my private areas,” she told a dispatcher in a trembling voice. “He wanted me to take off my clothes. He wanted me to take my pants off so he can please me.”
Keim later told investigators that Morel left after she pulled away from his kiss, according to a taped interview released Thursday.
“He touched me, and I didn’t want to be touched. Nobody touches me if I don’t want to be touched,” she said.
Keim told a deputy that she worried it would be “my word against his.”
Keim later recorded conversations with Morel for the FBI after he agreed to assist her with new theft and drunken driving charges, according to Wednesday’s court filing. The FBI also videotaped a July 2012 meeting between Morel and Keim at her home. Morel brought two bottles of wine and again attempted to engage in “inappropriate behavior,” the filing said.
Jeff Sallet, special agent in charge of the FBI office in New Orleans, said Keim “should be singled out for her tremendous bravery and resolve.”
“Harry Morel is nothing short of a sexual predator,” Sallet said. “His days of victimizing the most defenseless among us are over.”
Morel’s attorney, Ralph Capitelli, rejected Keim’s allegations and said authorities never confronted Morel about the 911 call during his tenure as a prosecutor. Capitelli said law-enforcement officials have engaged in “character assassination” for releasing the 911 call and accusing Morel of conduct for which he hasn’t been charged.
“The release of a 911 call six years after it took place demonstrates clearly the continuing smear campaign that both the federal government and the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office are conducting against my client,” he said.
Keim wasn’t the first women to call authorities about Morel. Sheriff Greg Champagne said Wednesday that a woman whose husband had been arrested on traffic charges including drunk driving had called him in June 2009, a few months before Keim’s call. That woman, whom he did not identify, said Morel told her “that the charges could be ‘taken care of’ if she would agree to meet him at his camp in Mississippi to ‘play’ while her husband sat in jail.”
He said he referred the report to the FBI, which began investigating.
Keim’s mother, Tammy Glover, said her daughter cooperated with the FBI for more than a year.
“She went undercover with the FBI and exposed him,” Glover said in a telephone interview. “If it would not have been for my daughter, who is my hero, (Morel) would have never been exposed. I am amazed at what she did and so very proud of her. She will never be forgotten for her bravery in bringing down Mr. Morel.”
Wednesday’s court filing says Morel solicited sex from other defendants or relatives of defendants between 2007 and 2009, offering them favorable treatment from his office. But the document doesn’t provide any details of those allegations.
In 2011, a boyfriend of Keim took photographs of meetings between her and Morel in a courthouse parking lot and at a satellite office for the district attorney’s office. Morel instructed Keim to destroy photographic evidence of the meetings, knowing federal authorities wanted it, the court filing says.
“You shoulda got rid of it a long time ago,” Morel told her during a 2012 meeting, according to the filing.
Morel’s sentencing is set for Aug. 17. His attorney said there was no agreed-upon sentence.
Morel, who is free on $50,000 bond pending sentencing, served as district attorney from 1979 to 2012. After opting not to seek re-election, Morel served as an assistant prosecutor under his successor for several months before retiring amid the FBI investigation.
The Mississippi River bisects St. Charles Parish, which is about 20 miles west of New Orleans and has roughly 50,000 residents.
Associated Press writer Kevin McGill contributed to this report.