The arraignment of Roman M. Leimer was delayed in Warren County Circuit Court here today after his three attorneys wrangled with him and his brother-in-law over the cost and strategy of his defense.
Leimer, 39, is charged with felony arson in connection with the burning in January of his Exxon tank truck along I-66 near here. He was at first believed dead, but investigation later revealed that remains found in the truck's cab were not those of a human but a pig. Leimer was arrested in New Orleans last week and now is being held in the jail here.
Early today Leimer's attorneys told reporters he planned to plead innocent. No plea was entered, however, and the day was taken up with discussion about whether his family could afford to pay what the lawyers said they believed were the necessary costs of his defense. Another hearing was scheduled for Sept. 23.
With a throng of reporters and cameramen crowded into the quaint, two-story courthouse, attorneys also huddled in a small room with Leimer to discuss whether he should go along with the prosecution's suggestion that he plead guilty to the arson charge, according to defense and prosecution lawyers in the case.
"Everyone has told him he should plead guilty , but he doesn't want to do it," said John Whitten, a family friend and lawyer who sat in on discussions between Leimer and his attorneys. "He thinks he's innocent."
Leimer "can't explain" how the 8,900-gallon tanker burned, or how he made his way to New Orleans' French Quarter where he had been doing odd jobs in a restaurant, Whitten said. "He remembers part of it, but how it happened the way it did he can't explain."
Leimer's wife, Antonia Maria, who had steadfastly maintained that her husband was dead and had made repeated efforts during his nine-month absence to collect an estimated $500,000 in life insurance and other benefits, was not present at today's hearing. Her brother, Walter Siering, said that she did not attend because "she was under possible threat of indictment" on a charge of insurance fraud. Through her lawyers, Antonia Leimer has denied any wrongdoing.
"They are trying to make an innocent person guilty," he said of his sister. "Absolutely no one in the family knew that he was alive."
Siering said Leimer telephoned his wife at the family home in Montgomery County only once since his arrest and expressed remorse over the situation, Siering said.
"Naturally she was angry at first," Siering said. "She didn't know what to feel at first: 'Hooray he's alive!' or 'What did he do to us?' "
Before today's hearing, Leimer, dressed in a blue suit, was escorted across the courthouse parking lot from the jail as television cameras rolled. The Austrian-born Leimer, responded once to a German greeting shouted from the crowd but otherwise ignored reporters' questions.
Appearing before Judge Henry Whiting, Leimer's Louisiana attorney and two lawyers from the Washington area said they could not agree to continue representing Leimer unless they were assured continuing payment for their services.
When Leimer told the judge that he did not have enough money to pay an attorney, Whitten rose from his seat in the audience and announced that the Leimer family was prepared to fully support him. "There will be some funds for his defense," he said.
After more than an hour of deliberations about potential legal bills, Siering said that the lawyers were trying to get the family to pay $50,000 to $75,000 for Leimer's defense. "All they want is money," he said.
Attorneys Richard Paugh of Montgomery County, Michael Ogden of New Orleans and Gregory Wade of Alexandria said later that they had not set a firm price, but that they had tried to explain to Leimer that his defense would require expensive expert witnesses.
Late this afternoon, the three lawyers told Judge Whiting that they had not resolved which of them, if any, would represent Leimer.