Tammany coroner’s sexual assault nurses will also examine the dead

The St. Tammany Parish Coroner's Office north of Lacombe.

In a little over a month, Dr. Christopher Tape will become St. Tammany Parish’s first new coroner in 10 years.

Tape ran unopposed to replace the retiring Dr. Chuck Preston. On March 25, he will take over a key government office that handles everything from death investigations to overseeing a sexual assault response team for a five-parish area.

Tape touts more than a decade of experience as a court-recognized expert in forensic pathology who has performed more than 4,000 autopsies. But in his new role in charge of a team of sexual assault nurse examiners, Tape claims little expertise.

When Preston appointed Tape to lead the SANE program in August, Tape declined, writing that he needed “more time to review the relevant laws and regulations” before assuming those responsibilities.

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And now, WWL Louisiana has learned Tape was indicted in New Mexico in 2002 on six counts of child sexual assault. The station obtained extensive files from the district attorney in Bernalillo County, in which Tape admitted to Albuquerque police that he spanked and then rubbed the bare bottom of his girlfriend’s 7-year-old daughter, who also accused him of making her pose in suggestive positions while he whipped her.

Records show a police detective testified to a grand jury that Tape kept a trove of pornographic material in a locked shed showing young women being spanked and posing in the “the same type of positions that (the alleged victim) had been put in."

The indictment was later quashed after a New Mexico court found the state violated Tape’s right to a speedy trial by causing a 14-month delay between arresting Tape and formally charging him.

More recent court records in Lafayette Parish also show Tape paid an undisclosed civil settlement in 2022 to a young woman who worked for him at the private autopsy firm he ran there after she accused him of unwanted advances.

'I know what a false accusation is like'

In both cases, Tape told WWL he was falsely accused. He said the incident in New Mexico was legitimate punishment of a child and “not molestation.” And he said he believes his experience puts him in a good position to oversee all sexual assault investigations in St. Helena, Tangipahoa, Livingston, Washington and St. Tammany parishes.

“Yeah, because I know what a false accusation is like,” he said. “I'm fair with everybody. I don't know why that would affect anybody. I understand how it (feels) to be on both sides.”

The alleged victim in the New Mexico case, however, said that makes Tape exactly the wrong person to lead the SANE response team.

“He is not the right person for this job if you care about these children that have to go through these very hard experiences,” Victoria Lobato said.

Lobato, now 30, didn’t seek any attention for what she reported to police 22 years ago. Neither did her mother, Bernadette Finley, Tape’s live-in girlfriend at the time. Both their names are redacted in the public records of the case. But both of them agreed to go on the record for this story.

“I am grown enough now, and I've processed things enough that I can be able to talk about it,” Lobato said. “And not everybody has that opportunity.”

In a signed statement Tape gave to Albuquerque police when he was arrested, he admitted two occasions in which he slapped the 7-year-old Lobato with a belt while she “had her pants and panties down. I felt and rubbed her bottom after the second occasion only to assess if I had welted her bottom.”

An Albuquerque police detective testified to the grand jury that a trained forensic examiner interviewed Lobato after Tape was arrested. The detective testified that the girl told the examiner that Tape was punishing her “for no reason” and “made her lay on the bed with her legs in the air. She also talked about being in the position with her hands on the dresser … and her underwear down (and) that he would just look at her.”

Michelle Garcia, a detective with the Albuquerque Police Department’s Crimes Against Children Unit, testified that Lobato told her Tape “would make (Lobato) change positions and he would make her count and she remembers counting to five or six.”

Lobato told WWL she didn’t totally understand what was happening at the time, but knew it wasn’t right.

“I was having to wear my mother's clothes and have this man, who's supposed to be her boyfriend, touching me,” she said. “It was very uncomfortable, and I didn't understand what was going on.”

After the second incident, Lobato told her mother that Tape had been punishing her for no reason while Finley was gone. Finley said she immediately called the police.

Case tossed over delays

Tape told WWL that Finley lied about him. He admitted the spankings, but said he was issuing legitimate punishment in the place of Lobato’s mother. He told police Finley had told him he could punish Lobato and that she, herself, spanked her daughter’s bare bottom, according to his signed statement.

Finley denies she ever gave Tape the OK to spank her daughter or that she spanked Lobato at that age.

Records show Garcia also testified that police recovered a trove of pornography from a shed at Tape’s house, including fetish magazines, such as “Barely Legal” and “Kane,” as well as videos that showed women, some dressed as little girls, in "the same type of positions that (Lobato) had been put in."

Garcia described one home video Tape had recorded of himself with a woman. Garcia said the woman “was also made to count in that same fashion (as Lobato had described) and also put in various positions and spanked and struck with a cane-like instrument by Christopher Tape… and each time he struck the buttock area he would rub with the palm of his hand, which was also described by” Lobato.

WWL asked Tape about those videos and magazines.

“Well, it's legal, adult pornography that was in my locked shed that was brought out without any warrant,” he said.

Court records show Tape was questioned in May 2001, shortly after the second spanking incident. He was arrested in July 2001, but wasn't indicted by the grand jury until August 2002.

Just as the case was about to go to trial, the court ruled the 14-month delay violated Tape's constitutional right to a speedy trial, and threw out the indictment.

“If there's a case there, maybe there would have been a speedy trial,” Tape told WWL. Asked if that was just a technicality, Tape responded: “If you think the Constitution is a technicality, you can think that.”

From Lobato's perspective, the state of New Mexico failed her and her mother, who was forced to move them to Colorado after Tape’s arrest for their safety, according to prosecutors.

“It's something that you carry on for most of your life. It's not really something that goes away,” Lobato said. “Because I didn't get to walk away free.”

Tape said he hasn’t tried to hide the charges and figured it would have come out if someone had run against him.

“I've told everybody I need to tell, but I don't go necessarily running around advertising the worst thing that ever happened to me,” Tape said.

He said he reported the criminal charges to medical licensing boards in Vermont, North Carolina and Louisiana, but there’s no public record of that. The Vermont records are nearly 20 years old and no longer exist. North Carolina only reports convictions. And by law, Louisiana keeps secret all licensing records filed with the state Board of Medical Examiners, including applications.

Preston said he checked with the medical board before hiring Tape last year to see if there had been any complaints but admitted he did not run his own criminal background check.

Preston said he only learned about the New Mexico charges in October when someone delivered the results of an online search to the coroner’s office. That was after Tape had been elected to replace Preston and after Preston had fired Tape over an unrelated dispute.

After Tape was fired, Preston’s chief deputy, Dr. Robert Sigillito, testified that Tape shouldn’t be accepted as an expert witness for a murder trial in Lafayette. In November, the Louisiana Illuminator reported that Tape and others accused Preston and Sigillito of creating a toxic work environment and mismanaging the coroner’s office’s finances.

Preston then approached WWL about what he’d learned about Tape’s past. After WWL sought Tape’s response, Tape began posting on Facebook that Preston and Sigillito were going after him because they had been planning a “switcheroo,” in which Preston would run again, only to resign so Sigillito could “become coroner and continue the gravy train.”

Preston denied that, saying he never planned to run for a third full term and that Sigillito “has very, very little interest in being coroner.”