The former butler of Anne Bass, ex-wife of oil tycoon Sid Bass, was found guilty of plotting to extort $8.5 million by injecting her with a fake “deadly virus” and demanding money for the antidote.
Emanuel Nicolescu was convicted of attempting to interfere with commerce by extortion, conspiracy and possession of a stolen vehicle today by a jury of five men and seven women in federal court in New Haven, Connecticut, after about five hours of deliberation. He faces as long as 50 years in prison.
The defendant, dressed in the gray pinstripe suit he wore each day of the weeklong trial, buried his face in his hands when the verdict was read. Nicolescu, who was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs, is scheduled to be sentenced June 14.
During the trial, Bass, 70, described how three armed, masked men broke into her 14-room home in South Kent, Connecticut, the night of April 15, 2007, and injected her and her boyfriend, painter Julian Lethbridge, with what they said was a lethal virus.
Bass, who the Federal Bureau of Investigation said has a net worth of “well over $100 million,” testified that the men stormed her house in “what seemed like a military formation,” making “war cries and terrifying sounds” before seizing her and Lethbridge.
Record of Philanthropy
“I thought that they were going to blow the house up,” said Bass, whose foundation has donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Joyce Theater Foundation and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, according to tax records.
The plot collapsed when the assailants learned that the ransom wasn’t readily available and that Bass’s 3-year-old grandson was sleeping in the house. The men gave Bass and her boyfriend the “antidote” and fled in a stolen Jeep, investigators said in court filings.
The “virus” turned out to be an antifungal found in athlete’s foot treatments, and the “antidote” was a sleeping aid, according to investigators.
An accordion case that washed up in New York and a Cadillac that belonged to the founder of an energy-drink company helped link the incident to Nicolescu, 31, a Romanian-born U.S. citizen who had worked for two months as Bass’s $70,000-a-year butler, according to an FBI agent’s affidavit.
Suspect in Romania
Another suspect, Michael N. Kennedy -- also known as Nicolae Helerea -- is in Romania, prosecutors said. A third man, Stefan Barabas, was named as an unindicted co-conspirator. Police and airline officials testified that he left for Bucharest on Sept. 28, 2010, after he was subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury investigating the case.
“We’re disappointed in the verdict, obviously,” said Audrey Felsen, one of Nicolescu’s attorneys. “I don’t think this will be the last defendant.”
Prosecutors declined to comment on the verdict.
Bass said in a statement e-mailed by her spokesman, Allan Mayer, that she and Lethbridge “are very grateful for the authorities’ ongoing commitment to solving the case.”
Bass and Lethbridge said they “remain hopeful that everyone responsible for this crime will eventually be brought to justice.”
Bass’s 11,200-square-foot home stands on land appraised at $3.7 million in 2008, according to the Town of Kent Assessor’s Office. Her Rock Cobble Farm is listed as the owner of 26 properties in Kent, some of which were bought for more than $2 million, according to the assessor.
Bass testified that the night of the attack, the intruders bound her and Lethbridge with plastic restraints and one of the men “theatrically” donned latex gloves and administered what Bass said was a painful injection.
‘You Will Die’
“You have just been injected with a virus which will be fatal within 24 hours,” she said he told her. “We want $8.5 million. If you don’t produce it, you will die.”
They said they had an antidote, she testified.
“I was terrified,” she said.
“I said, ‘Where do you think I’m going to get $8.5 million?’ He said, ‘That’s your problem,’” Bass testified.
Bass said she didn’t keep that kind of money at the residence and said she would have to contact associates out of state to get it, according to the FBI affidavit.
Bass said the men threatened to kidnap her grandson, whom she was caring for and who was asleep in the house and ill with strep throat. Bass said she warned the intruders that her household staff would become suspicious when they arrived in the morning.
After about five hours, the men “appeared to become concerned with various factors” including the presence of the child, the health of their captives and the inability of the Bass and Lethbridge to get the money immediately, according to the FBI affidavit.
Before they left in her Jeep, the men gave Bass and Lethbridge a drink, she said. They told her it was the antidote, according to the FBI affidavit. Bass said she awoke the next morning, and freed herself and Lethbridge.
Investigators said the syringe the intruders used contained an antifungal used to treat ringworm and athlete’s foot, not a deadly virus. Diphenhydramine, the active ingredient in Sleepinal, an insomnia treatment, was found in the blood of Bass and Lethbridge.
Nicolescu, a resident of the Queens section of New York, was Bass’s butler and was in charge of her household staff from March to May of 2006, according to the affidavit. He and Kennedy contacted each other repeatedly the night of the invasion through mobile-phone calls and text messages, according to the affidavit.
An accordion case washed ashore in Broad Channel, Queens, five days later, according to the affidavit. It contained a stun gun, an air gun, a knife, syringes, a latex glove, Sleepinal and a laminated card with Bass’s address. Kennedy’s father told investigators that both he and his son play the accordion.
The Jeep was found abandoned in the parking lot of a Home Depot Inc. home-improvement store in New Rochelle, New York. Security-camera footage, blurred by distance and rain, showed a light-colored Cadillac Escalade pulling up next to the Jeep early on April 16, 2007.
The day of the invasion, Nicolescu was working as a driver for J. Darius Bikoff, the founder of the company that makes Glaceau Vitaminwater. Bikoff’s wife, Jill, testified that she owned a light-colored Escalade and that her drivers “took them home.”
Paul Kuhn, general manager of Rock Cobble Farm, testified that he fired Nicolescu for using a Jeep without permission. He said the vehicle was “totaled” in a crash while Nicolescu had it. Kuhn said he had previously warned Nicolescu against using the Jeep for personal reasons.
“I was told by Ms. Bass to terminate him” on May 8, 2006, Kuhn recalled. Kuhn testified that he didn’t see Nicolescu on the property after he was fired and the Jeep was replaced.
Eric Carita of the Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection testified that DNA samples from the stolen Jeep were a partial match to Nicolescu.
The case is U.S. v. Nicolescu, 11-cr-00024, U.S. District Court, District of Connecticut (New Haven).