Developer Thomas True’s story read something like a Horatio Alger tale, a blue-collar kid who pulled himself up by his bootstraps and made a mint building homes and condos.
But his obsession with one soured deal drove the 69-year-old Mount Pleasant businessman to tie up and torture a rival who he felt had stiffed him, authorities said. And for that 2010 incident, True learned Tuesday that he will spend the next nine years of his life in a federal prison.
Dressed in a pin-striped suit and barking away in a thick Boston accent, True expressed little remorse during his sentencing hearing, arguing that he was the one who had been wronged.
His rant earned him few points with U.S. District Judge Michael Duffy, who handed True the maximum recommended term under the federal sentencing guidelines.
True’s co-defendant in the case, 40-year-old karate champ Gunther Blancke, fared much better. Duffy sentenced him to two years behind bars, citing Blancke’s previously unblemished record and expert testimony that he is unlikely to land in trouble again.
Blancke had faced the possibility of up to 10 behind bars for his role in the caper, under federal sentencing guidelines.
Duffy received letters from around the world in support of Blancke and five people showed up in court as character witnesses, including the martial arts expert’s ex-wife, who flew all the way from St. Barts to sing his praises.
The muscle-bound and misty-eyed black belt choked back tears as he spoke of the ruin he’d made of his life and the embarrassment he’d caused his family by helping True that night in June 2010. He said he lost his karate business and his savings, and he just wanted to be deported to his native Belgium so he could start over.
“Please judge, do not judge me for what happened that night,” Blancke said. “Look at all my life and all the good things I did for people. Please, sir, give me a chance to prove myself again to everyone.”
A frightful night
The episode stemmed from a dispute True had with Greer developer Steven Sarkela over a condo project near Folly Beach the two men were involved in. True was convinced he’d been shortchanged on the deal, and he hired a lawyer to place liens on the condos.
On the night of June 3, 2010, Sarkela, then 49, went to True’s home in Snee Farm with the hopes of clearing up the dispute. But the discussion turned heated and Sarkela later testified he was jumped by True and Blancke, who took on the persona of a Russian gangster named “Ivan.”
Sarkela said he was duct-taped to a chair, threatened with a knife and scissors, and held against his will until he signed papers allowing True to receive $200,000 from a condo sale.
Over the next five days, Sarkela recorded several threatening phone conversations with True who reportedly said he would use “Ivan” again if he didn’t get paid. The recordings were done in cooperation with the FBI.
True pleaded guilty in July to one of six counts he faced for extortion in the incident. Blancke went to trial shortly after True’s plea and was found guilty on two of six counts of extortion.
Tale of two suspects
During a morning hearing in Charleston, Blancke’s friends and family described him as a solid citizen, a caring and generous man who volunteered with children and would do anything to help a friend in need. They said he probably thought he was doing just that when he got caught up in True’s plot.
In fact, a psychiatrist who evaluated Blancke found it likely he viewed the older True as “an authoritarian, domineering father figure” whose commands should be followed, his attorney, Brian Harris Bieber, said.
Bieber argued that the incident constituted aberrant behavior on Blancke’s part and that he deserved some leniency. Duffy agreed, but reminded Blancke of the seriousness of the incident, saying Sarkela would have been within his rights to shoot both men that night if he’d had a gun.
“I just hope you understand, this can never happen again,” he said.
True, in contrast, showed up at his hearing Tuesday afternoon with just one witness, a former girlfriend who said she is convinced True didn’t plot in advance to harm Sarkela. He was under a lot of stress, financial and otherwise, and medications he took for hyperactivity and anxiety were affecting his behavior, she said.
True’s attorney, William Thrower, pointed out that the incident also was out of character for True and said he deserved some credit for accepting blame, pleading guilty and fully cooperating with prosecutors.
But then True opened his mouth in court, lobbing insults at Sarkela and his family, cutting off the judge with arguments and suggesting the outcome would have been very different had he gone to trial and sought justice. He also downplayed the harm he’d done to Sarkela, who was in the courtroom but chose not to speak.
“I never threatened him with violence,” True said.
“But you taped him to a chair in your home, didn’t you?” Duffy said.
“Yes, but that was to calm him down,” True replied.
Duffy, who had listened patiently to a parade of witnesses and attorneys all day, clearly was unimpressed, telling True he had put Sarkela through a terrible ordeal.
“This man is still suffering from that and you want to boo-hoo it, saying nothing happened,” he said. “Nobody has the right to subject another human being to that kind of treatment.”
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.