Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Devastated by a 2005 arrest for which she was later acquitted, the woman credited with bringing the faux finish craze to Lafayette 25 years ago has another shot at vindication. By Walter Pierce

A Lafayette interior decorator arrested and charged in 2005 with 32 counts of forgery and 32 counts of theft by fraud — and later acquitted — will get another crack at suing the wealthy oil-patch family she claims defamed and maliciously prosecuted her — a family she once counted among her close, personal friends.

The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal recently reversed a ruling by Lafayette District Court Judge Marilyn Castle dismissing Judy Lyons’ civil suit against defendants Ann Knight, Mark Knight, Kelly Knight Sobiesk and Knight Oil Tools.

The case stems from Lyons’ hire by Ann Knight and Kelly Knight Sobiesk in 2002 to do interior design work in the Knights’ primary homes and other residences. However, according to the appeals court ruling, there was no small amount of cloak and dagger involved in the arrangement: “Rather than pay Ms. Lyons directly, [the Knights] instructed her to submit invoices to Knight Oil Tools, Inc., a family corporation that had previously been run by Mrs. Knight’s late husband but was now managed by her son, Mark Knight. In order to keep Mark Knight from knowing that personal work for Mrs. Knight and Mrs. Sobiesk was being paid for by Knight Oil Tools, Mrs. Knight instructed Ms. Lyons to alter invoices so that they looked like business expenses. Ms. Lyons would turn in invoices to the company’s accounts receivable department, and they would give her an unsigned check for Mrs. Knight to sign. At some point, Ms. Lyons, with or without the permission of Mrs. Knight, began signing Mrs. Knight’s name on the checks. While there is no dispute that Ms. Lyons signed some of the checks, there is no claim that Ms. Lyons did not do the work for which the checks were issued, though there is some dispute about the amounts she charged.”

Lyons’ bills for the Knights between 2002 and 2005 totaled more than $600,000 for goods and services provided by her and other vendors, according to the court record.

When company President Mark Knight discovered the subterfuge in 2005, he contacted police who, armed with accusatory affidavits signed by both Knight women, arrested Lyons. After a three-day bench trial that began in August 2009, Lyons was acquitted by District Judge Herman Clause.

The 3rd Circuit ruling cites the fact that Ann Knight was unable to “identify any checks that she did not sign.” Clause also found that there was no intent on Lyons’ part to defraud the Knights — a requirement for a criminal conviction for forgery.

About six months after her acquittal, Lyons filed suit against the Knights, accusing them of defamation and malicious prosecution. Castle dismissed the suit. The appeals court reversed Castle's ruling.

The case has now been remanded to District Court in Lafayette for further proceedings.

Lyons was candid with ABiz about the emotional and physical toll the arrest and trial took on her. “I still have little flashbacks,” she says. “But up until about eight months ago I wouldn’t have been able to carry on a conversation with you. It just devastated me. I couldn’t deal with anything. But I talked to a whole lot of people and got a lot of help. With the support of my friends and my family and people that believed in me, I made it.”

Lyons spent five days in the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center following her arrest in early September 2005 during the chaotic days following Hurricane Katrina as thousands of evacuees streamed into the city from New Orleans.

Lyons says it wasn’t until February 2010 that she found the strength to pick herself up and seek redress for the wrongful arrest. “I had to make a decision: Get up and not let this defeat you,” she says.

Widely credited with bringing the faux finish craze to Lafayette in the mid 1980s — newspaper stories about her and her craft date to 1989 — Lyons began working with the Knight family in 1988, first with Knight Oil Tools founder Eddy Knight and, after he died in 2002, with his widow. “Ann depended on me for just about anything and everything, and I considered them friends,” recalls Lyons, who also attributes a dramatic downturn in her health since 2005 to her arrest.

“Up until a year ago I wouldn’t even have been talking to you at all,” she says. “I lost everything. My life was turned upside down.”

Although no new trial date has been set, Lyons says the ruling renews her desire to one day be vindicated. “It’s something that, for five and a half years, has kind of been kept quiet,” she says. “But I’m still here, and I will be here until it’s finished.”

An attorney representing the Knight family did not return a call seeking comment for this story.

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