Katrina hero allegedly plotted ex-wife's death, police say

The subject of the best-selling nonfiction book "Zeitoun" about a nightmarish incarceration during Hurricane Katrina's aftermath has been accused of plotting to murder his ex-wife, her son and another man.

Abdulrahman Zeitoun, 54, faces charges of offering $20,000 to a fellow jail inmate in exchange for the killings. Zeitoun has been jailed since late last month on charges that he beat his wife, Kathy Zeitoun, on a New Orleans street.

In the book by Dave Eggers, the Syrian-born businessman was described as a compassionate neighbor paddling a canoe through Katrina's floodwaters and helping people before being arrested on false charges of looting. He then was thrown into prison for a month on suspicion of being a terrorist.

He was charged Thursday on three counts of solicitation for murder, records show. On Friday, he was being held in Orleans Parish Prison on those charges, one charge of domestic abuse battery and one charge of violating a protective order, according to the sheriff's office.

According to a police report, a 42-year-old inmate named Donald Pugh told authorities on Monday that he was offered $20,000 by Abdulrahman Zeitoun to kill his ex-wife, her son and a third man described in the report as his ex-wife's boyfriend. Kathy Zeitoun said the third man was the husband of her longtime friend and not her boyfriend.

The police report said Abdulrahman Zeitoun instructed Pugh to call his ex-wife and ask to look at a home she had for rent in New Orleans. According to the report, Pugh was to be paid to kill the three at the rental property only if Abdulrahman Zeitoun's children did not show up at the house. The Zeitouns had four children together. The police report said Abdulrahman Zeitoun wanted Pugh to kill a 22-year-old son Kathy Zeitoun had with another man.

Pugh told detectives that Abdulrahman Zeitoun wanted the three killed while he was in jail "so he would not become a suspect," the police report said.

Officials at the Jefferson Parish jail, where Pugh was transferred from New Orleans, said Pugh was released after posting bond on Tuesday on a charge of unauthorized use of a vehicle.

Abdulrahman Zeitoun was in jail with Pugh after he was arrested on July 25 and charged with beating his ex-wife in New Orleans.

Police said he threw her to the ground, beat her with his fists, struck her in the back with a tire iron and choked her. The report said an officer noted Kathy Zeitoun suffered injuries to her knees, face and arms. Abdulrahman Zeitoun fled after people intervened, the report said.

Later that day, Zeitoun turned himself in to authorities and was arrested.

He also was charged with violating a protective order his ex-wife had against him. In March 2011, he was charged with domestic abuse battery and accused of beating Kathy Zeitoun in her home. The Zeitouns were divorced in February of this year.

Abdulrahman Zeitoun's lawyer could not be reached for comment.

In Eggers' book, Abdulrahman Zeitoun chose to stay in New Orleans as Katrina bore down to look after the his house and other properties the family owned. The Zeitouns had been married for nearly a decade and ran a busy house painting business.

After the levees failed and caused the flooding of New Orleans, he paddled through the floodwaters in a canoe helping stranded victims and feeding dogs.

Then he and three other men were arrested and falsely accused of looting even though they were at one of the Zeitouns' properties, according to Eggers' book.

Over the next month, Zeitoun was thrown first into a makeshift jail at New Orleans' Greyhound bus station and then transferred to a prison in St. Gabriel, Louisiana. He and another Muslim friend were accused of being members of al-Qaida before being released by Homeland Security officials.

Reached by telephone Friday, Kathy Zeitoun said her ex-husband more recently had become a much different person from the one described in the book with his behavior turning violent toward his family.

"Over time, it just started getting aggressive, more and more way out of hand," she said. "He was a good man, he changed too much."

She added that Eggers has given his support to her and "condemns what has happened."

Her lawyer, Neil Montgomery, said she and her children were terrified and were in hiding. He added that Abdulrahman Zeitoun also threatened his ex-wife and daughter in June with a screwdriver because he was upset at his daughter for wearing shorts.

"Hopefully he won't get out (of jail)," he said. "He clearly wants to kill her (his wife), or have her killed."

Eggers won critical acclaim and awards after his book was published in 2009. Recently film maker Jonathan Demme has said he was interested in turning the book into an animated film.

The two artists issued a statement saying they were "profoundly saddened by the recent events" involving the Zeitouns. They said they had been in daily contact with Kathy Zeitoun since the July 25 domestic abuse incident and that they were "shocked" by the solicitation for murder charges against Zeitoun.