2 accused of torture

Gunther Blancke, owner of Blancke Martial Arts in Mount Pleasant, is accused of binding and torturing businessman Steven Sarkela.

MOUNT PLEASANT -- A debt-ridden developer and his black-belt buddy from Belgium are accused of binding and torturing a businessman to get him to sell a Folly Beach condo.

The incident allegedly took place on June 3 in the sprawling Snee Farm home of 64-year-old developer Thomas F. True. FBI agents arrested True this week, along with pal Gunther Blancke, owner of a martial arts studio on Johnnie Dodds Boulevard, authorities said.

The pair are accused of strapping the victim to a chair with duct tape and repeatedly punching and threatening him with a broken bottle, a knife and scissors, according to an affidavit submitted by FBI Special Agent Joseph Hamski.

The affidavit does not identify the businessman, but a Mount Pleasant police report lists the man as Steven Sarkela, 37, of Greer. True called police to his home that night and accused Sarkela of trespassing, but said he didn't want to press charges. Sarkela didn't say anything that night about being abducted, police records show.

The episode reportedly stemmed from True's belief that he had been cheated out of a $200,000 condo he had been promised in the Pelican Pointe development on Folly Beach, the affidavit stated. Sarkela, who owns the condo in question, was freed after signing documents to sell the unit and hand over the proceeds to True, the FBI said.

Agents moved in to make the arrests after secretly recording phone calls in which True threatened the victim, the affidavit stated. During a June 5 call, True told the man he "better be damned scared" and should follow through with their deal or "you won't have one sleepful night for the rest of your life because I'll be looking for you," the affidavit stated.

True and Blancke, owner of Blancke Martial Arts, are charged with interference with commerce by threat or violence. True was released after posting $200,000 bail, and he is now under house arrest, court records show. Blancke, a native of Belgium, remains in custody in south Florida, where he was arrested, authorities said.

No one answered the door at True's home on Chersonese Round Friday afternoon. His lawyer, Andy Savage, called Sarkela's claims "suspicious," pointing out that Sarkela didn't tell Mount Pleasant police about the alleged abduction.

Mount Pleasant Police Chief Harry Sewell said his officers saw no visible wounds on Sarkela that night and had no reason to suspect anything else had happened other than what True had reported. They gave Sarkela a trespass warning.

Sarkela could not be reached for comment Friday. But the FBI affidavit noted that agents found several cuts and bruises on his body and face when he was examined June 4. He told agents he had been too scared to talk with True and Blancke present.

Back in March, Eastern Harbor Realty Trust, led by True, filed for bankruptcy organization to save its proposed subdivision in Ladson from foreclosure after piling up more than $5.6 million in debts. Eastern Harbor took ownership of the 105-acre property from an Upstate group that included Martin Seppala, a principal in Greer-based Henry Martin Investments Inc.

True had worked with Seppala and Sarkela in lining up the Pelican Pointe condominium project, authorities said. At some point, relations soured and True believed he was being cheated out of the proceeds of a $200,000 condominium that Seppala had promised him, the affidavit stated.

True slapped a lien on the condo before it went up for sale on June 4, records show. When Sarkela inquired about the lien, True invited him to his house on June 3, the FBI stated.

They finally met up around 9:21 p.m., and their discussion soon blossomed into an argument, authorities said. The FBI's arrest affidavit states the episode unfolded this way:

True became enraged and called for Blancke, who was upstairs. Blancke, who is said to be a fourth-degree black belt in several martial arts, punched Sarkela in the head. Blancke and True then punched and kicked their visitor repeatedly before tying him to a chair.

Sarkela told agents his captors threatened to cut off his face, fingers and testicles. He was so scared he defecated in his pants and, thinking he was about to be killed, spit on a wall to leave his DNA.

While broken glass or a knife was held to his throat, the victim was forced to sign several documents giving True the proceeds of the condo sale. After four hours, he was unbound and True promised to leave him alone if paid the condo money.

Between June 4 and 7, the FBI recorded a series of phone calls between True and the victim, who repeatedly expressed his desire to avoid being beat up and threatened again. True told him he would have nothing to worry about if the man followed through on their deal, according to the affidavit. The document details the following exchange on June 4:

"How do I know this guy is not going to be threatening me?" the victim said. "I am scared of him. He says he's going to kill me and cut my throat and I am to take your word for it?"

"That's it," True responded. "That's all you got."