Lawyer Andy Savage on Tuesday asked U.S. Magistrate Robert Carr to recuse himself from an extortion case, saying the judge's "cantankerous" attitude toward him threatened his client's right to a fair hearing.
The request came an hour into a preliminary hearing for Mount Pleasant developer Thomas True, who is accused of torturing a business rival over the proceeds from a condominium sale. Savage is True's attorney.
FBI Special Agent Joseph Hamski had testified that True, 64, and martial arts master Gunther Blancke, 37, held Greer developer Steven Sarkela prisoner in True's home for more three hours on June 3.
Sarkela told the FBI that the pair strapped him to a chair with duct tape in a small, wooden room and repeatedly punched and threatened him with broken glass, a knife and scissors, Hamski said.
Savage was trying to question Hamski about a visit Mount Pleasant police paid to True's home that night when prosecutors objected to his line of inquiry. Savage quietly listened, awaiting his turn to speak.
Preparing to rule, Carr questioned why Savage had not challenged the objection. Savage said he was waiting for Carr's invitation to respond.
"That never stopped you before, Mr. Savage," the judge said.
Savage bristled at the comment and said it was typical of Carr's acrimonious attitude toward him in court over the years. He said he had hoped that the judge would be more civil toward him in the six months before Carr is to step down from the bench.
Instead, he said, Carr has continued to be "cantankerous" and behave "beyond the realm of civility."
Savage asked the judge to recuse himself to ensure that True can get a fair hearing. Carr told Savage to file a written motion and he would consider the request. Carr added that he was disappointed that Savage had waited until so far into the hearing to make his concerns known.
The judge recessed the hearing until further notice. Preliminary hearings determine if sufficient probable cause exists to proceed to trial.
The alleged abduction 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.
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. A knife was held to his throat while he signed, Hamski said.
Sarkela, sporting several bruises and cuts, reported the incident to the FBI the following day, Hamski said. Agents then secretly recorded several phone calls in which True threatened the victim if he didn't follow through on their deal, Hamski said.
On June 8, Sarkela wore a wire to a noon meeting with True at Ruby Tuesday's restaurant on James Island, Hamski said.
Several FBI agents posed as diners and more were listening outside as True pressured Sarkela to hand over two checks totaling $200,000, he said.
When Sarkela alluded to the assault, True told him "that was nothing" and "you can't even imagine how bad it could get," Hamski said. Sarkela handed over the checks, he said.
Agents arrested True in the parking lot. A search of his car produced a copy of the agreement Sarkela signed on June 3, witnessed by True and Blancke, and photocopies of Sarkela's driver's license and credit cards, Hamski said.
Agents also searched True's Chersonese Round home and seized knives, scissors, broken glass, duct tape, samples of what appeared to be blood and remnants of saliva where Sarkela said he spit to leave DNA evidence behind, Hamski said.
Savage tried to question Hamski about Mount Pleasant police being called to the home early on June 4 by True, who told officers he caught Sarkela burglarizing his home. Sarkela appeared nervous, timid and out-of-sorts, but he didn't tell police about the alleged abduction, Hamski said.
It was when Savage tried to dig deeper into that police visit that prosecutors objected and the hearing ground to a halt.
True and Blancke, owner of Blancke Martial Arts, are charged with interference with commerce by threat or violence.
True posted $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.