Koppala case: Chief on stand

BLUE EARTH – Father Leo Charles Koppala of Blue Earth appeared in court Monday, the same day the Diocese of Winona released a list of priests, including Koppala, accused of sexual misconduct with children.

Koppala, 47, who had been serving Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Blue Earth and St. Mary in Winnebago, is charged with second-degree criminal sexual conduct, stemming from a June 7 incident in which he allegedly fondled a child while visiting a home where the child was staying.

The only witness called to the stand Monday was Tom Fletcher, police chief in Blue Earth.

Koppala’s attorney, Philip J. Elbert, wants Judge Douglas Richards to suppress the initial statement Koppala made to Fletcher.

“The issue was whether they can use Father Leo’s statement. My position is they can not,” Elbert said after the hearing. “The reason is, if a person is in custody and being interrogated by the police, the police have to give you the Miranda warning and that warning must be understood and there must be a voluntary waiver of the rights. So my argument is he was in custody subject to interrogation and did not understand the Miranda warning so he could not have voluntarily waived his rights.”

Koppala is a native of India and his first language is Tamil, so he has had an interpreter at all court proceedings. He has served at the Catholic churches in Blue Earth and Winnebago since August 2009, according to the release from the Diocese. He was ordained April 29, 1994, and served in the Diocese of Nellore in India, before entering the Winona diocese in September 2008. In October 2008, he began serving at a church in Rochester.

“You can function in a community even if you don’t speak the language,” Elbert noted.

Prosecutor Troy Timmerman asked Fletcher about the chain of events after the initial report implicated Koppala.

Fletcher said he went to the church to see Koppala after the child had been interviewed by a social worker about the incident. Fletcher said Koppala was talking to people who were attending an event at the church. Fletcher waited until they stepped away before he approached Koppala.

Timmerman asked Fletcher whether Koppala was speaking English to the other people and Fletcher said he was.

“Generally, parishioners of this church speak English?” Timmerman asked.

“Yes,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher said he asked Koppala if they could talk. Fletcher said Koppala mentioned confession was starting soon and asked if the talk could be postponed.

“My preference was clearly to do it at that time,” Fletcher said.

They went to Koppala’s office. Fletcher said Koppala was not handcuffed nor forbidden to leave. Fletcher said he read Koppala the Miranda rights and recorded the conversation.

Fletcher said Koppala had difficulty deciding if he wanted to speak to the chief. Fletcher advised him he would tell Koppala why he was there, then Koppala could decide if he wanted to speak.

Fletcher described the interview as “very conversational, not aggressive or confrontational at all.”

Fletcher said Koppala indicated he had kissed the child on the lips and touched her lower back or buttocks.

“That’s not unusual,” Fletcher reported Koppala saying.

Fletcher said Koppala denied any sexual intentions.

During Elbert’s cross-examination, he asked Fletcher if he was wearing a police uniform when he interviewed Koppala. Fletcher said he was not, but did introduce himself as the chief of police.

Under persistent questioning from Elbert, Fletcher said he could not recall exactly how he phrased some of the things he said to Koppala.

Elbert asked Fletcher numerous questions regarding whether Koppala was hesitant about talking to Fletcher and how they were seated in Koppala’s office, whether Fletcher was between Koppala and the door.

Fletcher said he was seated between Koppala and the door, but that Koppala had entered the office first and chose his own seat.

Elbert asked if Fletcher had talked to Koppala during the interview about the girl’s breasts being touched and Fletcher said he had.

Elbert said Koppala said, “That’s why I do not touch, you know, breasts.”

“Yes, he did say that, in the transcript,” Fletcher agreed.

When Timmerman got a chance to redirect, he asked Fletcher what he asked Koppala next.

“You put your hand across her chest, though,” Fletcher said he told Koppala in the interview. “He indicated that he did.”

“When you asked about breasts, the father (priest) said no?” Elbert would ask during his redirect time.

“Yes,” Fletcher said.

“When you said chest, he was agreeable?” Elbert asked.

“Yes,” Fletcher said.

Richards ruled that Elbert has two weeks to submit his written final argument, with a deadline of Dec. 30. Timmerman will have one week to respond, by Jan. 6.

Then the judge will set an arraignment, at which Koppala will be allowed to enter his plea, Timmerman said.