Update 3:30 p.m.: In court on Tuesday morning, a visibly distraught Henri Morris opted to plead guilty to drugging and sexually assaulting one employee rather than continue with what was certain to be a grueling jury trial.
Morris spent much of the morning slumped over in a chair at the defendant's table, with heaving breaths and hands shaking as his attorneys negotiated a plea deal with prosecutors. Under the 16-page plea agreement he signed Tuesday, Morris admitted to the "drug-facilitated sexual assault" of a woman who traveled with him -- for business, she was told -- just a week after she joined his company.
Court documents state that after checking in with Morris at a New Jersey hotel in 2011, Morris asked the woman to meet him for drinks at a concierge lounge. Morris mixed her a vodka and soda before offering to take her to Manhattan to show her the city. According to court records, the woman started to feel, inexplicably, "very intoxicated" on the drive to New York. Manhattan was a hazy blur. When the woman briefly came to hours later, she was on a bed, naked and back in her New Jersey hotel room. Morris was looking down on her, snapping photos with his Blackberry.
Prosecutors on Tuesday agreed to dismiss the rest of the charges against Morris. He faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. He'll have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.
A judge is scheduled to sentence Morris in February.
--- Original story:
By early 2012, not long after Kelly (not her real name) took her first business trip with Henri Morris, word was starting to get around that women who traveled with the software company CEO kept blacking out.
Kelly tried to piece together hazy memories from her January 8, 2012 trip to New York City, just three weeks after she'd joined Edible Software, a Houston-based company that helps food wholesalers track inventory. According to court records, Kelly and Morris boarded at Bush at Intercontinental Airport and, when they landed at LaGuardia, Morris rented a car and drove them to the nearby Marriott.
Kelly met Morris in the hotel's concierge lounge, where he poured her a cranberry-and-vodka. Morris told Kelly he wanted to take her out to dinner in Manhattan. He mixed some "to go" cups at the self-serve bar. Kelly began to lose consciousness three or four sips in.
Some hazy memories lingered, however. Kelly remembered coming to in the passenger seat of Morris' rental car as they pulled back into the hotel parking lot. There was a "disoriented" search for her hotel room. She could remember Morris standing in her room, telling her to lie on the bed until she felt better.
When she returned home with a spotty memory and bruises, a coworker began to ask Kelly some unnerving questions. Did she know that other women who'd traveled with Morris also suffered business-trip blackouts? "Are you scared of traveling with Henri Morris?" the coworker asked.
Prosecutors claim Morris drugged Kelly and several other women who traveled with him, sexually assaulting the women and, in some cases, snapping nude cell-phone photos after they'd lost consciousness. During opening statements in Morris' long-awaited trial Tuesday, federal prosecutor Sherri Zack called Morris a "calculated, choreographed sexual predator."
Morris, now 67, is in the unusual position of defending himself against crimes to which he's already pleaded guilty. Last year, Morris signed a 22-page agreement admitting to the "drug-facilitated sexual assault" of several women. The plea deal described in troubling detail how Morris drugged and assaulted women in places like New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New Orleans. According to prosecutors, a woman on one such business trip with Morris blacked out and came to naked, wrapped only in a bed sheet, under a desk in Morris' hotel suite.
Morris' plea agreement, however, was conditional and stipulated that he serve no more than a year behind bars. After hearing testimony from three of Morris' victims last year, federal district court Judge Melinda Harmon threw out the deal, saying a jury must hear the case.
The jury, which was empaneled Tuesday, will decide over the next week whether to convict Morris of two counts of transporting individuals across state lines to commit sexual assault and another count of transporting a victim to commit indecent assault.
Defense attorney Dan Cogdell stressed to jurors that there was "no intent by Henri Morris to commit sexual crimes." During his opening statements, Cogdell hinted at the defense strategy going forward, blaming the women's memory lapses on alcohol instead of rape drugs.
"These aren't children, these aren't teenagers, these are grown women consuming alcohol voluntarily, on their own," Cogdell said.
In a PowerPoint presentation to jurors, Cogdell displayed grainy black-and-white photographs of Morris' accusers, questioning why none contacted police, hotel security or even company HR after suspecting they'd been drugged and assaulted. Cogdell pointed to lawsuits that two of Morris' accusers have filed against him and his former company in civil court (Cogdell literally flashed a giant dollar sign on the projection screen in Harmon's courtroom).
Still, Cogdell hinted at the stomach-turning nature of what's likely to come out at trial in the coming days. Cogdell asked Morris to stand at the defense table while he told jurors, "Mr. Morris did some things that he shouldn't have done, no question about it. ... Some of the things are going to offend you greatly. Some of the pictures he took couldn't be any more offensive or improper."
But Cogdell argued Morris' failings were moral, not criminal.
In her opening statements, prosecutor Zack told the jury that Kelly eventually called the FBI after her business trip with Morris, worried she'd been drugged. That call, and the subsequent FBI investigation, Zack says, led to several more coworkers who suspected they'd been drugged and assaulted during business trips with Morris.
In February 2012, Kelly again called the FBI agent working on her case. Kelly was still working for Morris. Morris wanted her to accompany him on yet another business trip.
By this point, the feds say they had enough probable cause to execute a search warrant. On February 27, 2012, Kelly played along and joined Morris at Bush Intercontinental, where federal agents were waiting. When they searched his bags, agents found what prosecutor Zack called Morris' "special little rape kit": a label-less prescription pill bottle containing knock-out drugs, three small Jack Daniel's bottles filled with clear sugar-water (which prosecutors believe Morris used to dissolve the pills and mask the bitter taste of the drugs), and two different types of erectile dysfunction pills.
"You're going to hear from a lot of women," Zack told the jury. "And these women are going to tell you very similar stories."
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