Roman M. Leimer, the Montgomery County truck driver and wine importer who at first was believed to have been killed in a fiery truck accident in Virginia last January, was returned to the Washington area last night after being arrested in New Orleans, where police stopped him on a minor traffic violation late last week.
Leimer, 39, was initially thought to have died in the crash of his 8,900-gallon Exxon tanker on I-66 near Front Royal. But a Smithsonian Institution expert determined two weeks later that the charred flesh and bones found in the wreck were not Leimer's but those of a pig.
Leimer, who was indicted in Front Royal on a felony arson charge last February, was released on his personal recognizance after he agreed to return to Northern Virginia in the custody of law enforcement officials. If convicted, Leimer faces a penalty of up to 10 years in prison.
Michael Ogden, a New Orleans attorney who is representing Leimer, said yesterday that his client had volunteered to return to face charges in Virginia because he was "tired of running."
"When he first came here he had a drinking problem and a lot of personal problems that he'd been afraid to deal with," said Ogden. "He was ready to give up his life. In the past few months, he's found himself."
Ogden said Leimer had been living in hotels and rooming houses, and cooking Austrian specialties in in a small, neighborhood restaurant near St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans' French Quarter. His arrest appeared to end what had seemed like a tale of international intrique with law enforcement officials questioning Leimer's relatives and friends in Europe and the United States.
Police said the Austrian-born Leimer, who was using the alias of Antonio (Tony) Leimer, was stopped in New Orleans at 10:15 Friday night when police noticed that the brown BMW he was driving lacked a rear license plate. A routine check of his last name and description through a national law enforcement computer bank turned up a federal fugitive warrant against him.
Leimer, in handcuffs and accompanied by the Warren County, Va., sheriff and a Virginia state trooper, arrived at National Airport on a commercial airline flight shortly before 10 last night. He was then driven to Front Royal, where he was to be jailed after being formally charged.
Warren County prosecutor David Crump, who said Leimer will likely appear in court on Thursday, said: "I wasn't surprised that we found him. I felt certain we would find him eventually because from all the evidence we found, it was inconceivable that he ever perished in that fire."
"I was shocked," said attorney Richard Paugh, who has been representing Leimer's wife, Antonia, in efforts to collect on Leimer's life insurance. "I was relatively fairly convinced that Roman Leimer was killed in that truck accident."
Paugh said Leimer's wife was "devastated" upon hearing of her husband's arrest.
"She burst into tears on the phone," said Paugh, adding that he planned to travel to Front Royal to determine whether the man being held was indeed Leimer.
At the time of Leimer's disappearance, business associates reported that his two-year-old wine distribution business in Jessup, Md., was debt-ridden and on the verge of bankruptcy. Mrs. Leimer, who has been living with the couple's three children in Burtonsville, had sought to have her husband declared legally dead and had asked permission from the Montgomery County Circuit Court to take legal control of her husband's business and other assets.
Leimer was released from the Orleans Parish Prison Saturday morning after a woman identified as Helga Forsloff posted a $15,000 property bond on his behalf, according to Louisiana State Magistrate Gerard J. Hansen.
Court records show the woman used her home in an exclusive New Orleans neighborhood as collateral on the bond.
"People got to respect him here-- they know his story and want to rehabilitate him," said Ogden.
Leimer was arrested again by federal authorities on the same charge. Yesterday in New Orleans he was brought before a federal magistrate, who released him on personal recognizance.
Crump said authorities are continuing to investigate other individuals in connection with the arson charge.
Since the truck crash last winter, agents from the FBI and Interpol have questioned "dozens if not hundreds" of Leimer's relatives and acquaintances in Germany, Austria and the United States, Crump said.
Suspicions about Leimer began when investigators discovered that the remains found in the cab of the tanker were actually three ham bones.
A state trooper later reported having seen Leimer's tanker parked at the side of the road 15 minutes before the fire broke out in the early morning hours of Jan. 13. A half mile down the road, the trooper reported talking to a blond woman with a German accent who had parked her small blue car along the shoulder of the road. Later efforts to locate the woman proved unsuccessful.
At the time of his disappearance, friends said that Leimer had described himself as a former math professor in Vienna, Austria, and a onetime member of the Austrian national soccer team. A wine article a year ago in the Baltimore Sun mentioned Leimer as a former upholsterer.