Post-Katrina hero Abdulrahman Zeitoun stands trial in attempted murder, hit on ex-wife

Associated Press photo by Michael DeMocker -- Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his wife, Kathy, pose for a photo in their Broadmoor home in New Orleans in 2009. Abdulrahman Zeitoun, who paddled his canoe through the eerily quiet flooded landscape of New Orleans while helping people and animals after Hurricane Katrina, has been accused of trying to hire someone to murder his now ex-wife, her son and another man. Show caption
Associated Press photo by Michael DeMocker -- Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his wife, Kathy, pose for a photo in their Broadmoor home in New Orleans in 2009. Abdulrahman Zeitoun, who paddled his canoe through the eerily quiet flooded landscape of New Orleans while helping people and animals after Hurricane Katrina, has been accused of trying to hire someone to murder his now ex-wife, her son and another man.

“Thank you for not killing my sister.”

Those words and a pair of hugs from Kathy Zeitoun’s brother Gino had Donald Pugh welling in tears outside an Orleans Parish courtroom Monday.

An admitted thief with a rap sheet stretching across four states, Pugh had just finished testifying about an alleged hit job offer from the inmate he befriended last year, sleeping in adjacent bunks at the Orleans Parish jail.

Pugh, 43, testified that Abdulrahman Zeitoun, the protagonist in Dave Eggers’ award-winning book about post-Hurricane Katrina injustice, love and survival, offered him $20,000 to knock off his ex-wife.

When Zeitoun moved over to sit on Pugh’s bunk, Pugh suspected a jailhouse sex proposition, he testified. But according to the ex-con, that wasn’t what Zeitoun had in mind.

“This man, he loves his family. He doesn’t want to lose his daughters. I respect that,” Pugh said as Zeitoun sat stone-faced in orange jail scrubs at the defense table. “I’m not a killer. I was a thief. I don’t do any of that anymore.”

At the time, Pugh was jailed on his own domestic-related beef, after stealing a car from the mother of his child and making off for Texas.

Zeitoun was in for something more serious, having allegedly chased down Kathy Zeitoun on Prytania Street, beat her with a lug wrench and tried to strangle her.

Zeitoun, 55, faces charges of attempted first-degree murder and solicitation for murder. He could spend the rest of his life in prison or be deported to his native Syria, if Criminal District Court Judge Frank Marullo convicts him after a judge trial that is expected to wrap up Tuesday.

Monday’s testimony from witnesses brought by prosecutors Lauren Favret and David Pipes belied the heart-wrenching tale told in Eggers’ acclaimed nonfiction account, as well as the accolades bestowed on Abdulrahman Zeitoun in the wake of its success. The book focused not only on Zeitoun’s post-Katrina plight as he was trapped by a collapsed New Orleans criminal justice system on false suspicions of being a terrorist, but also the powerful, loving bond he maintained with wife Kathy.

Pugh told the story of a detailed hit job from a man he befriended because of the “total chaos” among rowdy, younger inmates in one of the temporary Orleans Parish jail tents. The two inmates began to bond.

“That level of trust brought me to the point where I am now. Because he asked me to kill somebody,” Pugh said.

“He’s like, ‘Listen, I know how you can get an apartment, money, all of this.’ He gets up from his bed, sits next to me,” Pugh testified. “He goes on this spiel how he’s married to his wife and they’re going through a divorce. He’s like, ‘I’ll pay you $20,000 if you kill my wife.’ At first I’m tripping out. I’m like, wow, was it that bad? Actually, I thought he was playing. I thought it was a joke.”

The alleged plan: Pugh would pretend to be a prospective renter, look at an apartment in Algiers and kill Kathy Zeitoun if her children weren’t around, then take photos with a throwaway phone camera to prove he’d done it.

Ahmad Al-Akoum, who said he was a longtime family friend, said Abdulrahman Zeitoun revealed his designs to him in a phone call, saying Zeitoun thought that “by killing Kathy he would solve all his problems.

“I reminded him: Killing a soul is like killing all humanity. He said, ‘I don’t care anymore,’ ” Al-Akoum testified.

A key issue in the case may turn out to be whether a protective order that Kathy Zeitoun secured from a prior attack was still valid. Abdulrahman Zeitoun, arrested in 2011 for that beating, had been sentenced to six months probation after pleading guilty to a lesser charge of negligent injuring.

First-degree charges require special circumstances, one being a protective order in place.

Kathy Zeitoun took the stand to recount the brutal beating she withstood on Prytania on July 25, 2012. She described her ex-husband blocking her in as she was trying to exit a parking space, than smashing the tire-iron across her windshield.

She bolted the car, but her ex-husband ran her down within a few paces.

“I don’t know how many times I was hit. I didn’t count,” she said. “He started pummeling me with his fists. ... He was kneeling, dragging me toward him, trying to put my head in his lap. He’s trying to suffocate me. He was trying to twist my head so very hard, like he was trying to break my head, break my neck.”

She turned down a trip by ambulance to the hospital — a point that defense attorney J.C. Lawrence sought to highlight, arguing that Zeitoun’s violence fell far short of a murder attempt. In his opening statement, Lawrence also said there was no hit job offer to Pugh, and he questioned whether Pugh was seeking a deal from prosecutors in offering up the story.

A bystander, James Barber, testified that he saw Zeitoun beating on his ex-wife, ran up with pepper spray and punched Zeitoun in the head “20 times” to no avail. Another witness, Charlotte Rolfs, backed up the story of Zeitoun whaling on Kathy Zeitoun.

“My thought was that he was going to kill her right there,” she said. “That’s how strong it looked to me.”

After his prolonged, verbose testimony and weathering a cross-examination of his criminal past, Pugh stood outside the courthouse, lamenting how “they drag you through the mud,” when Kathy Zeitoun’s brother offered up his appreciation for declining the hit job.

The thought left him flummoxed.

“Guy thanks me for not killing his sister,” Pugh said, quivering. “How can that be?”