Father Hood

Without a lawyer or a prayer, a plaintiff nails a priest big time

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When David Richardson's lawyer presented him with a $2,000 settlement offer in a civil lawsuit, Richardson did the only thing that made sense to him:

He fired the lawyer.

And for the past two years, the former St. Louisan waged a lonely fight against the Roman Catholic priest he says stole from him.

Forget the old saying about fools who choose to represent themselves: Richardson learned last week he'd won $650,000 in a case that seemed to garner little-to-no interest from lawyers and the criminal-justice system.

The six-figure judgment came nearly two years after St. Louis Circuit Judge David Mason determined that Father Leo J. Hayes and his business associates, Mary Ann Caton and Floyd Harris, either through mismanagement or outright theft, had destroyed Richardson's nest egg.

Richardson, a civilian Army employee who moved to Alabama in 1997, entrusted a string of nineteen local rental properties to Hayes, who owned and managed his own set of rentals as a sideline business. Richardson was making money on his properties when he left town, but by the fall of 1998, his bank account was running low and he was months behind on mortgage payments. Ultimately, lenders foreclosed on all but three of Richardson's properties, and his credit history is shot [Laura Higgins, "In The Hands of the Father," March 1, 2000].

At a bench trial in February 2000, Judge Mason blasted Hayes for withdrawing money from Richardson's bank account without Richardson's permission, rejecting the priest's explanation that he was simply taking money that belonged to him. "In fact, you were stealing at that point," the judge said. Neither Hayes nor the other defendants could produce receipts to explain how money taken from Richardson's account, supposedly for repairs and maintenance, had actually been spent. Besides giving Hayes access to his bank account, Richardson also sent him money. "It seemed like the minute I left St. Louis, Father Hayes started to demand money," Richardson says. "I sent him, in 1998, $13,000 that's still unaccounted for."

Before the judge issued a ruling, he urged the parties to settle the case, making it clear any judgment would be against the defendants. "When you consider the amount of dollars involved, this ends up being a very serious case," the judge said. "Someone violated their fiduciary responsibilities left and right. It's [my ruling is] going to say there was a piss-poor job of management going on."

Richardson says his attorney, Robert E. Jones Jr., presented him with a settlement offer of $2,000 in the spring of 2000. Not only didn't Richardson accept the deal, he says he fired Jones, whom he says he had already paid $15,000. Jones did not return a phone call. Since then, it's been a lonely battle for Richardson, who has been handling the case himself. His pleas for criminal prosecution haven't been answered by the U.S. Attorney or the St. Louis Circuit Attorney.

"I feel betrayed by St. Louis law enforcement," Richardson says.

Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce says she sympathizes with Richardson and is "overjoyed" that he won a large judgment. But just because Judge Mason says it's a case of stealing doesn't mean the matter can be prosecuted in criminal court, she says. For one thing, prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Hayes had criminal intent and that he committed a crime. That's a tough burden, particularly in light of the fact that Richardson had voluntarily given Hayes access to his bank account, says the prosecutor, who estimates Richardson has called her office at least 50 times, as often as 14 times on a single morning. He first contacted the circuit attorney's office three years ago, she says. His last call came on June 4.

"I cannot think of a case that has come before us that we have looked at as extensively as we've looked at Mr. Richardson's case, and that has taken so much time and attention from so many people in my office," Joyce says. "I agree what happened to him is a bad situation. We exist to incarcerate people, not to collect funds owing in real-estate deals where somebody got ripped off."

Neither Hayes nor Caton could be reached for comment, and Harris has died. Canice Timothy Rice Jr., Hayes' attorney, declined comment aside from a written statement in which he says Mason had no jurisdiction in the case and an appeal will be filed. "Upon the conclusion of all legal proceedings, I expect that Leo Hayes will be completely vindicated," Rice writes.

Hayes serves as priest for three small parishes in the Belleville Diocese, which did not follow up on a promise to have a church official return a call from the Riverfront Times.

Hayes is the author of Evil In Mirror Lake, a book that examines the nature of evil and concludes that it isn't God's will when bad things happen. Published last year, the book has sold about 3,000 copies, according to a May story in the Belleville News-Democrat. Hayes in December visited St. Louis University High School, his alma mater, and told the student newspaper that evil stems from three things: your own bad decisions, a neighbor's bad decision or a force of nature. "We are the people who make the choices," he told the paper.

In his legal case, Hayes didn't follow an order from Mason to produce financial documents and an accounting of money owed to Richardson, who was awarded the value of properties he'd lost plus the sum Hayes had spent for various expenses that he couldn't document at trial. In his initial ruling in August 2000, the judge didn't set a dollar amount on damages. Rather, Mason ordered the defendants to produce records so that a damage figure could be determined. The documents weren't forthcoming, even after the judge, in March 2001, ordered the defendants to produce them within 60 days.

"Defendants, and particularly Leo Hayes, have engaged in an ongoing pattern of delay and obstruction," the judge wrote in his May 30 ruling awarding Richardson $650,000, the amount he had asked for. "The defendants cannot challenge the sufficiency of the proof of damages when defendants are responsible for such insufficiency."

Richardson, who has spent nearly two years filing motions and appearing by himself in hearings, says he couldn't find a lawyer who would take his case on contingency.

"If I had been raped by a priest, sodomized by a priest, if I'd been a child sexual victim, there're attorneys out there who probably would have taken me," he says. "But on a civil matter like this, no attorney would take me."

Winning is one thing, collecting is another. But Richardson thinks he's taken this case as far as he can by himself.

"I'm going to fight like hell," he says.

"I think right now I probably need to get an attorney."

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