For years, former Lake Charles gynecologist Peter LaFuria molested his patients and took pictures of their unclothed bodies without their consent, all under the guise of practicing medicine.
He was finally caught in 2007, but it was 6 1/2 years before he was brought to justice. On Wednesday, LaFuria pleaded guilty before Judge David Ritchie and was sentenced to eight years in prison.
While LaFuria, 65, was first arrested on a video voyeurism charge on April 30, 2007, what was not well-known until the plea hearing were LaFuria’s bedside abuses. The outline of sexual assault, molestation of a juvenile and obscenity charges said that, in addition to touching the women’s genitals far beyond what was necessary for medical reasons, he would rub himself against the women. He did the same to girls under 17, leading to the molestation charges.
During a civil hearing in 2008, it was revealed that one woman had attempted to report LaFuria several years before 2007.
So how did LaFuria get away with his actions for so long?
“We trusted him,” one victim said. “Never in our wildest dreams would we have thought that he would have a camera in his pocket.”
In addition, LaFuria would prey on victims who were seeing their first gynecologist, District Attorney John DeRosier said.
“They didn’t know any different,” he said. “They didn’t know he was going overboard; they had no benchmark.”
LaFuria is believed to have begun taking inappropriate photos with the advent of the digital camera in 1998, DeRosier said. But it wasn’t until a woman filed a complaint that she had seen a camera in LaFuria’s hands that he was arrested in 2007.
The woman who finally exposed LaFuria, Brandi “Skye” Taylor, died in July 2012 at age 39, without seeing him go to trial.
“She would be very proud that this day has finally come,” a family member said after the plea hearing Wednesday.
On Aug. 29, 2007, authorities checked out a report that LaFuria may have shared the photos, but authorities have since said they do not believe he took the photos for anything but his own gratification.
Victims spoke Wednesday of their fear that he would not spend a day in prison, the embarrassment of hearing jokes told about the case, even the fear of running into LaFuria around town.
“The last six years have been lots of stress and anxiety,” a victim said.
“I never have a restful night’s sleep,” said another.
Sheriff’s deputies seized 13 computers, three digital cameras, a video camera and hundreds of CDs — including one that contained more than 600 images. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office forensic unit aided in examining the 13 hard drives.
The photos LaFuria took number in the thousands. Some date to 1999, but those cases were too old to prosecute, the Sheriff’s Office said.
DeRosier said he is proposing legislation that would start the statute of limitations from the date the offense is uncovered, rather than from the time the offense occurred.
“That will give the benefit to the victim instead of the perpetrator,” DeRosier said.
As the investigation grew, so did the number of charges and victims. When he was indicted on Aug. 16, 2007, his charges totaled 269 — 186 counts of video voyeurism, 78 counts of sexual battery and five counts of molestation.
The photos and the evidence in the case are sealed and “never will be in circulation,” DeRosier said. Eventually, the images will be destroyed.
LaFuria entered a treatment program in Texas after his arrest. Able to meet a bond nearing $1.3 million, he continued to live in the Dallas area. LaFuria didn’t attend his arraignment and didn’t attend the numerous court hearings that followed.
Wading through so many photos took time, but what delayed the case the most was that once it reached a courtroom, a bevy of legal questions followed.
Defense attorney Glen Vamvoras asked that Ritchie be removed because Ritchie had worked with LaFuria’s wife at political functions and was acquainted with two of the victims — one through church and one who had been a former client. Judge Kent Savoie denied the motion, saying Ritchie was capable of being fair and impartial.
There were also several discussions of what access the defense could have to the photographic evidence, where each photo originated and whether a fair jury could be gathered in Calcasieu.
“The issues presented in this case had to be carefully examined by the defense and prosecution,” Vamvoras said.
No question, though, was bigger than whether the search warrant served April 24, 2007, was valid. “That has been the legal issue since Day 1,” DeRosier said.
In addition, the search warrant carried with it other issues that were brought up on appeal, he said.
Vamvoras first filed the motion to suppress the evidence found in the truck on Oct. 12, 2007; it wasn’t settled until Dec. 19, 2013.
“It would heat up and die down, but each time it was the search issue that kept the case from going forward,” Vamvoras said.
Vamvoras and attorney Shane Hinch argued that because the search warrant only listed LaFuria’s medical practice and vehicles on the premises, the CDs and digital cameras found in the doctor’s truck, which was parked at his house on River Lane, should be thrown out. Both sides agreed that if Ritchie did throw out the evidence from the truck, then evidence found at LaFuria’s home would also be inadmissible because what was found in the truck led detectives to search the house. No cameras were found at LaFuria’s practice.
The evidence in the house would have been the “fruit of a poisonous tree,” Vamvoras said.
The case was first reported to authorities on April 20, 2007. Detectives asked Ritchie to sign the warrant, but he declined to do so because of his affiliation with LaFuria’s wife.
Detective Patty Bailey said the search warrant she took to then-Judge Rick Bryant included LaFuria’s medical practice and all vehicles on the premises, as well as his home and all vehicles on the premises. Bryant told her there wasn’t yet cause to search LaFuria’s home and instructed her to remove it from the search warrant.
She testified that when the truck was not found at his medical practice, deputies went to his house to find the truck because she believed the truck was included on the search warrant.
“Granted, it says, ‘On the premises,’ but we had no intention of searching every vehicle. Only his,” she said.
In a gym bag in the truck, Bailey found two cameras and spindles of CDs. She said LaFuria told her, “That’s it. That is the camera. I’m so stupid,” before trying to take it from her twice.
In December 2013, Ritchie ruled that all evidence would be allowed, but that the trial would be moved out of parish because of the publicity it had received. Ritchie said the evidence would have been discovered eventually. The judge also mentioned exigent circumstances.
“You can delay a case quite a while,” DeRosier said. “The key is to stick with it, win every battle and ultimately win the war and bring that defendant to justice.”
Vamvoras and Hinch appealed the ruling, but both the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal and the state Supreme Court upheld it.
Like DeRosier, Sheriff Tony Mancuso believes Ritchie’s decision was the right one.
“I don’t know that we did anything wrong,” Mancuso said. “We will never, ever, ever break the law or intentionally try to manipulate the system to make an arrest.”
Vamvoras said he believes the search warrant violated the Fourth Amendment: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Had the case involved a lesser crime, Vamvoras said, the search warrant would have been thrown out.
“That is disappointing to me that the strengths of a constitutional protection should not be hinged upon the type of crime that has been alleged to have been committed,” he said. “It’s easier to suppress evidence of a stolen lawn mower versus a bloody knife that killed someone even though the Fourth Amendment is blind to that and requires strict compliance with warrant requirements.”
Gaining a conviction may have been more difficult without the photos, but it would have posed difficulties for the defense as well, Vamvoras said.
While the legal wrangling continued, LaFuria stayed out on bail, able to attain nearly $1.3 million for the bond.
It was found during bankruptcy proceedings that LaFuria was worth millions. A lawsuit settled in December 2007 distributed between $3 million and $4 million to patients. A court investigation found that LaFuria’s total assets were $6.2 million, split evenly between him and his wife, Sharon, who filed for divorce in May 2007, the same month as the bankruptcy filing.
While there were about 200 victims in the criminal case, 623 plaintiffs ultimately received $3.75 million of LaFuria’s personal assets. In August 2012, $150,000 was paid by insurance companies, although that money went to a women’s shelter and a sexual assault response team.
Ron Richard, who was lead counsel in the civil case against LaFuria, said many of his clients would have liked to have seen LaFuria go to prison for longer, but “most were pleased to see him going to prison. Many were concerned that he would never see any amount of time in jail. Regardless of what people think, eight years at Angola is a tremendously difficult time.”
Prior to Wednesday’s plea, LaFuria had not spent a night in jail.
Plans were already being made to hold the trial in Baton Rouge in March, but the two sides began working on a plea deal about 1 1/2 months ago, DeRosier said.
LaFuria, 65, flew into Lake Charles on Wednesday and was taken from the airport to the courthouse.
Within an hour after the hearing, he was booked into the Calcasieu Correctional Center, then was transferred to Elayn Hunt Correctional Center on Thursday, state Department of Corrections spokeswoman Pam Laborde said. It may take several weeks to decide where he ultimately will be imprisoned, she said.
LaFuria pleaded guilty to five counts of sexual battery, five counts of molestation of a juvenile, five counts of video voyeurism and five counts of obscenity.
“If we’re just dealing with conduct and punishment, I am OK with the way the case was resolved,” Vamvoras said. “I think it was within the ambit of the interest of justice. It was not too lenient, it was not too harsh. It was appropriate given all the facts and circumstances.”
LaFuria will have to serve every day of his eight-year sentence; he won’t be eligible for parole, and he waived his right to appeal. He will serve his sentence “hour for hour and minute for minute,” DeRosier said.