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Extortion Conspirators Sentenced to Prison

CHARLESTON, S.C. (CN) - A South Carolina developer and a Belgian karate expert got stiff prison sentences for trying to extort a rival real estate developer.

Thomas F. True, 69, was sentenced this week to 9 years in federal prison.

His co-conspirator Gunther Blancke, 40, of West Palm Beach, Fla., a fourth-degree black belt, was sentenced to 2 years, to be followed by deportation.

True pleaded guilty in July 2012 to conspiracy to commit extortion.

Blancke was convicted at trial of conspiracy to commit extortion and attempted extortion, the U.S. Attorney's Office said.

All the details of the story that follows come from the U.S. Attorney's Office statement.

True, a home and condo developer, became enraged with rival Steven Sarkela after their plan to jointly build an 84-unit condominium project near Folly Beach, S.C. soured in 2010.

Sarkela, then 49, got several condo units as part of the deal; True claimed he deserved some of them. Believing he'd been stiffed by Sarkela, True hired a lawyer to place liens on the condos, but that, evidently, was not enough to slake his rage.

On June 3, 2010, True invited Sarkela to his home to discuss it. The conversation quickly grew ugly. True demanded money and said if he didn't get it, he would kill Sarkela and his family members, according to the U.S. attorney.

Sarkela told True that making death threats was going too far, and as he got up to leave, Blancke, a two-time European martial arts champion, attacked him from behind.

The defendants subdued Sarkela, forced him into an upstairs closet, and duct taped him to a chair. They threatened him with a knife, scissors and broken glass until he signed papers allowing True to receive $200,000 from a condo sale.

Throughout the attack, Blancke pretended to be a Russian gangster named Ivan.

In a bizarre twist, after holding Sarkela for some time, True called the Mt. Pleasant Police Department to report a burglary in process at his home. When the police arrived, they found the by-then unbound Sarkela and issued him a notice of trespass after True declined to press charges.

The next day, after spending the night in a hotel, Sarkela called the FBI and told them what happened. Armed with a government recording device, Sarkela taped several threatening telephone conversations with True over the next five days. During these conversations True threatened to "use 'Ivan' again" if he didn't get paid.

On June 8, 2010, Sarkela met True at a Ruby Tuesdays restaurant and, as FBI agents conducted surveillance, wrote two checks totaling $200,000. True was arrested in the restaurant parking lot as he left the meeting. Blancke was arrested later that evening in Florida.

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