A Mount Pleasant man was sentenced in Charleston federal court Tuesday for conspiracy to commit extortion.
United States Attorney Bill Nettles said that Thomas F.
True, age 69, of Mount Pleasant previously pleaded guilty on July 23,
2012 to one count of Conspiracy to Commit Extortion and Blancke was
found guilty of one count of Conspiracy to Commit Extortion and on one
count of Attempted Extortion following a three day trial that concluded
on July 27, 2012 in the United States District Court in Charleston.
Senior United States District Judge P. Michael Duffy sentenced True to 108 months in prison and 3 years of supervised release.
Gunther Blancke, age 40, of West Palm Beach, Florida, was
also sentenced to 24 months in prison and 3 years of supervised
United States Attorney Bill Nettles explained the evidence that
came out during the trial. He said Steven Sarkela, a then 49-year-old
real estate developer who lived in Greer, drove to Mount Pleasant to
attend a real estate closing on Friday, June 4, for a condominium unit
he owned. Prior to the closing, Sarkela had been informed
that True had filed a lis pendens, which is basically a lien, on the
condominium. Sarkela and True had previously been involved in an 84 unit
condominium development named Pelican Pointe a few miles from Folly
Beach. Sarkela received several condo units as part of the deal. True
claimed that he was entitled to some of the condo units and told Sarkela
to come to True's house at Snee Farm in Mt. Pleasant on June 3 to
discuss the matter.
On June 3, 2010, at around 9:21 PM, Sarkela went to True's
house and sat down at a dining table beside the kitchen. Sarkela
believed that he was alone with True at the house. True began demanding
money from Sarkela for money True claimed was owed to him by members of
Sarkela's family. Court records show that True then threatened to kill
Sarkela and some of Sarkela's family members if True did not get paid
the money he said he was owed.
Then, Blancke, a 4th
degree Black Belt, from Belgium, who was a former two-time European
Champion in Martial Arts, and who taught martial arts in the Charleston,
SC and West Palm Beach, Florida areas, ran up and hit Sarkela and
knocked him to the ground, to prevent him from escaping.
Blancke and True then forced Sarkela to sit in a chair and then
tied him to the chair using cloth and duct tape. They then took
Sarkela's wallet, cell phone, and car keys out of his pants pockets.
True then threatened to kill Sarkela if he ever told the police and
threatened him with a knife, scissors, and a broken piece of a drinking
glass. Blancke made throat-slitting gestures as well. True and Blancke then left Sarkela in the hot closet without lights on and with the door slightly opened.
True and Blancke then drove to Blancke's karate studio in Mt.
Pleasant and returned to True's home about one hour later. True and
Blancke went upstairs and cut Sarkela loose from the chair. They then
forced Sarkela downstairs to True's home office.
True then began typing on his computer and printed out a
release of lien and a transfer of deed concerning the condominium unit.
True then told Sarkela that if he didn't sign the papers “Ivan” would
kill him. Blancke and True then signed the documents as witnesses. True
again warned Sarkela to not tell the police. They then gave Sarkela his
wallet, cell phone, and car keys back. True and Blancke raided Sarkela and once again threatened his family.
Out of the presence of Sarkela, True made a 911 call reporting
a burglar in his house. True told Blancke to lie to the police and tell
them that True met with Sarkela earlier at the house concerning a real
estate deal in Greer , SC and that all three of them left True's house
after the meeting and when True and Blancke returned to the house they
found Sarkela in the house.
Several Mt. Pleasant Police Department officers responded to
the burglary call and set up a perimeter and proceeded to conduct a
burglary investigation at the scene. True and Blancke gave their made-up
version of the story to the police. At the scene, Sarkela did not tell
the police what had really happened because of the death threats made
against him and his family.
When he got out, Sarkela called the FBI and met with FBI agents
that day. FBI agents gave Sarkela a telephone recording device and he
recorded at least 5 conversations with True concerning the condo unit
when True continued the threats and demands for money.
On Tuesday, June 8, Sarkela, with the support of the FBI, met
True inside Ruby Tuesdays in Charleston and wrote 2 checks totaling
$200,000 to True for the condo unit. FBI agents were conducting
surveillance and arrested True in the parking lot after the meeting
ended. FBI agents found copies of the contents of Sarkela's wallet in
True's car, which was parked in the parking lot of Ruby Tuesdays.
Blancke was arrested later that evening in Florida.
The case was investigated by agents of the Federal Bureau of
Investigation. Assistant United States Attorneys Dean H. Secor and M.
Rhett DeHart of the Charleston office prosecuted the case.