A strange case is unfolding at the federal courthouse in Charleston involving a black belt karate champion who, to make his actions more sinister and Russian mafia-esque, allegedly went by the alias “Ivan.”
It also involves two businessmen fighting over a Folly Beach condo, and threats of murder and castration.
Karate champion Gunther Blancke, 39, originally from Belgium, is on trial for multiple counts of extortion by force and violence, accused of being the muscle to intimidate one-half of a failed business partnership. He potentially faces years behind bars, if convicted.
The case surrounds a June 3, 2010, visit by Greer businessman Steven Sarkela to the Mount Pleasant home of a former associate, developer Tom F. True, in a well-to-do section of Snee Farm.
According to Sarkela, the visit was to see if he could get True to pull back on what he saw as a nuisance property lien foiling a condo sale.
But shortly into the meeting, the encounter turned violent, Sarkela testified Monday, saying True, 69, and Blancke ambushed, beat and tied him up until he promised to turn over money.
True apparently felt he’d been cheated out of a $200,000 condo he had been promised in the Pelican Pointe development on Folly Beach.
For his role in the attack, and as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors, True pleaded guilty Monday morning to one of six extortion charges against him, leaving Blancke the only defendant.
During nearly three hours on the stand, Sarkela testified Blancke said little during the encounter but helped in beating, kicking and forcing Sarkela up some stairs in True’s house. Sarkela was then confined in a closet and duct-taped to a chair for more than an hour.
“That’s the knife they put to my throat,” Sarkela said as he identified one piece of the prosecution’s evidence. A pair of scissors also was used, with Blancke holding them above his head, he said. To leave a DNA trail, Sarkela spit on the closet walls.
“I was beat up and tied up in a closet and they were torturing me,” he also testified in front of U.S. District Judge Patrick Michael Duffy.
At several points in his testimony, Sarkela said the death threats were sometimes non-verbally communicated toward him by the man he knew as “Ivan.” That included by drawing his index finger under his chin from ear to ear in the universal “throat-cutting” motion.
After the attack, Sarkela said he was forced to sign documents leading to the sale of the unit and giving the proceeds to True.
True also called Mount Pleasant police to his house that night and filed a trespassing charge against Sarkela.
The plot unraveled when Sarkela went to the FBI the morning after the alleged attack. Days later, after multiple threatening phone-call recordings between True and Sarkela about the reported shakedown, True was arrested at a James Island Ruby Tuesday’s restaurant after Sarkela passed him two checks totalling $200,000.
In his opening argument Monday, Blancke’s defense attorney, Brian Harris Bieber, said Blancke was not guilty of a federal crime. Blancke may have used bad judgment in not telling authorities about what transpired, he said, but was not guilty of a federal level crime. Blancke had been invited to stay at True’s home that night, he said, and knew nothing of the money feud.
Blancke was described as a fourth-degree black belt and European champion, operator of a martial arts studio on Johnnie Dodds Boulevard in Mount Pleasant as well as in Florida.
The trial is expected to last several days. True will be sentenced later. He faces up to 20 years in prison but is expected to cooperate in the government’s case against Blancke.
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551, and follow on Twitter at skropf47.