Mt. Pleasant man sentenced for extortion - WCBD-TV: News, Weather, and Sports for Charleston, SC

Mt. Pleasant man sentenced for extortion

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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 release.

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.

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