NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The victim of a brutal rape and beating in New Orleans 20 years ago is one of District Attorney Leon Cannizarro’s biggest supporters in the material witness debate -- the controversial practice of jailing victims who don’t want to testify against their attackers.
Lisa Ripp has been in their shoes and believes victims of crimes should speak up to save other lives.
"It's weird being back here and I see the house is gone," Ripp said as she walked down Forshey Street toward an empty lot.
If the lot could talk she said it would tell horror stories. She was held captive in the house that once stood there, raped and beaten for 18 hours.
"He is not going to hurt anybody else. It's empowering. My work is done," she said.
She’s talking about Richard Lebeau, a random stranger who tortured her almost two decades ago. She met him in 1999 when she was looking for drugs.
“At the time in 1999, I was in the middle of drug addiction, buying drugs and smoking drugs. I was at a motel on Airline Highway,” Ripp said.
She said she walked across the road and came across Lebeau, who said he had drugs at his house. She went to a white house on the Hollygrove street, one of the darkest places she said she’s ever known.
“The next 18 hours were hell on earth,” she said. “He broke my jaw so I couldn’t scream anymore for the rest of the time I was there."
She said Lebeau told her he was going to kill her Sunday night because he had to go to work Monday morning.
While her captor was asleep, Lisa said she climbed partially nude through a small bathroom window to run for help.
“The doctor that took care of me at that point said in 25 years of being an ER physician he had never put rape with deadly force. I had a cranial bleed in the back of my head where Lebeau had beaten me.”
Lisa's face was so swollen she was hardly recognizable. Her alleged attacker was arrested.
"But I got arrested on drug-related charges a few days after this," she said.
Leon Cannizzaro, who was a judge at the time, eventually sentenced her to prison on drug charges. She said it was the best thing that ever happened to her.
"I went to St. Gabriel on two drug charges but it changed my life," she said. "I called it my prison rescue."
She worked on a crew in prison cleaning churches, plenty of time to think of punishing the man who brutalized her. When she got out 18 months later, she wanted answers. When she inquired at then-D.A. Harry Connick’s office, they told her Lebeau was released after 62 days. And they told her they couldn’t find her file.
In 2009 an assistant D.A. in Leon Cannizzaro's office found her missing file.
She tried for years to tell her story and now, Lisa Ripp encourages other victims or witnesses who are afraid to speak up, to tell everything they know.
“They had their hand over your mouth and tape over your mouth to shut you up when they did that to you! You have to rip that off, and talk and do what you’re supposed to do,” she said.
Earlier this month, City Council members and the D.A. blasted one another over their opinions on material witness bonds -- a way for judges to order the jailing of victims who refuse to testify. On Feb. 7, City Council approved a measure to stop the practice, calling it “misogynistic, barbaric and despicable." However, Cannizzaro said while it is a rare and extreme move to jail a witness, it is crucial for the prosecution to have the option if they need it.
The D.A.'s office spokesman Ken Daley said in five years, only two people have ever been jailed on a material witness bond related to sex crimes.
“It’s not fun to be in jail, but it’s to save your life, your family’s life, and someone else’s life," Ripp said. “It’s an inconvenience, but you know what more of an inconvenience is? It’s having your jaw broke or to be raped, or even murdered, and these people are going to do it again. The district attorney made a commitment to keep these people off the street.”
Ripp said Lebeau died last year in prison.
“It’s almost fitting that the house isn’t here anymore,” she said. “It’s another thing that was cleared out. The perfect ending.”
Now, Ripp is married and has two children. Her hope is to one day help to spearhead a temporary home through the D.A.'s office where assault victims can go to feel safe.