United States Attorney Bill Nettles stated today that Thomas F. True, age 69, of Mount Pleasant and Gunther Blancke, age 40, of West Palm Beach, Florida, were sentenced today in federal court in Charleston, South Carolina. True 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, and he sentenced Blancke to 24 months in prison and 3 years of supervised release. As a special condition of supervised release, Senior United States District Judge Duffy ordered that Blancke, a citizen of Belgium, be surrendered to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation.
Evidence presented at the trial established that on Wednesday, June 3, 2010, Steven Sarkela, a then 49 year old real estate developer who lived in Greer, SC, near Greenville, 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 owned by Sarkela and had placed eight lis pendens on eight of Sarkela’s condo units.
Sarkela contacted True about the lis pendens and True 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. True further threatened to kill Sarkela and some of Sarkela’s family members if True did not get paid the money he said he was owed. Sarkela denied that he owed money to True and told him that it was his step-father and others that owed True money. The discussion turned into an argument. At that time, Sarkela told True that the death threats were going too far. As Sarkela was getting ready to get up and leave, 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.
Blancke and True subdued Sarkela and prevented him from escaping. During this attack and throughout the evening, True called Blancke by the name “Ivan.” After True threatened to kill Sarkela with a large kitchen knife, Blancke and True forced Sarkela upstairs to a large closet adjacent to the home gym. 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. Sarkela then spat on the wall of the closet room while he was tied to the chair to leave evidence that he had been held captive. Results of FBI Nuclear DNA testing later determined that Sarkela’s DNA was present on the wall of the closet where Sarkela spat.
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.
In the home office, True and Blancke made Sarkela sit down in a chair in front of the office desk. Blancke, armed with the large kitchen knife, stood guard behind Sarkela. They then showed Sarkela his cell phone and asked him who was repeatedly calling him and Sarkela said it was his son. True then told Sarkela that True was going to call Sarkela’s son at the hotel and that Sarkela was going to tell his son that he would be back in about 20 minutes and to go to bed. True threatened to kill Sarkela if he said anything else during the call. True then dialed the number and held the phone up to Sarkela’s face during the call while Blancke held the knife to Sarkela’s throat. With Blancke standing guard over Sarkela, True then told Sarkela that Sarkela was going to sign over the condo unit to True and that True was going to the closing to get the money.
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.
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. The officers noted that Sarkela was acting oddly and made him do field sobriety tests. True told the officers he did not want to press charges, and the officers issued a trespass notice to Sarkela at about 1:00 AM on Friday, June 4. Sarkela went to hotel and stayed until after daylight.
Later that same morning, Tom True hand-delivered some documents signed by Sarkela to the closing attorney and she called off the closing, which was later cancelled. And the condo unit real estate purchase agreement between the out-of-state buyer and Sarkela was cancelled as well.
After leaving his motel that morning, Sarkela called the FBI and met with FBI agents that day. FBI agents gave Sarkela a telephone recording device to record any future telephone calls with True or Blancke concerning what happened. From that same day, June 4, 2010, through June 8, 2010, Sarkela recorded at least 5 conversations with True concerning the condo unit and what True and Blancke had done to Sarkela on the night of June 3 and the early morning hours of June 4.
During those telephone calls, 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 jury returned a verdict of guilty against Blancke on Count One of the Indictment, which alleged that on June 3, 2010 and continuing to June 8, 2010, True and Blancke conspired to obstruct, delay, and affect commerce and the movement of articles and commodities in commerce by extortion, that is, they conspired to obtain the property of the victim, with the victim’s consent induced by the wrongful use of actual and threatened force, violence, and fear. The jury also returned a verdict of guilty against Blancke on Count Two of the Indictment, which alleged that on June 3, 2010 Blancke attempted to commit extortion.
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.