Multimillionaire philanthropist Anne Bass, ex-wife of Texas oil tycoon Sid Bass, said she was sure she was going to die the night her estate was invaded by armed, masked men who injected her with what they called a “deadly virus” and demanded $8.5 million for the antidote.
The three men who broke into the 14-room home in South Kent, Conn., on April 15, 2007, blindfolded Bass, promising to save her once the money came through, U.S. prosecutors told jurors in federal court in New Haven. The plot collapsed when the assailants learned the ransom wasn’t readily available.
The “virus” turned out to be an athlete’s foot treatment and the “antidote” the assailants provided before they fled was a sleeping aid, according to testimony in the trial of Bass’s former butler, who is accused of taking part in the scheme.
Bass, 70, who the FBI said has a net worth of “well over $100 million,” testified on Tuesday that the men stormed into her house in “what seemed like a military formation,” making “war cries and terrifying sounds” before seizing her and boyfriend Julian Lethbridge, an artist.
“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.
An accordion case that washed up in New York and a Cadillac that may have belonged to the founder of an energy-drink company helped link the incident to Emanuel Nicolescu, 31, a Romanian- born U.S. citizen living in New York City who had worked for two months as Bass’s $70,000-a-year butler, according to an FBI affidavit in the case.
Nicolescu is charged with interfering with commerce by extortion, conspiracy and possession of a stolen vehicle. He has pleaded not guilty, according to court records. If convicted, he faces as long as 50 years in prison.
Prosecutors told U.S. District Judge Mark R. Kravitz they would rest their case on Wednesday. They said they expect the jury to begin deliberations no later than Thursday.
Bruce Koffsky, a lawyer for Nicolescu, declined to comment on the case.
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 yesterday that he left for Bucharest on Sept. 28, 2010, after he was subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury investigating the case.
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 known as zip ties. She said yesterday that one of the men “theatrically” donned latex gloves and administered what Bass said was a painful injection.
“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 $8.5 million at the residence and said she would have to contact associates out of state to get it, according to an affidavit by an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. She testified yesterday that she said she kept some cash, jewelry and chocolate in her safe.
“Basically, they said, ‘Chocolate?’” she recalled.
Bass said the men threatened to kidnap her 3-year-old 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 grandchild, 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 Grand Cherokee, the men gave Bass and Lethbridge a drink, she said. They told her it was the “antidote,” according to the FBI affidavit.
Bass, worried that she would go into allergic shock, said she asked for her epinephrine injector. She said one of the intruders placed her on her bed and gave it to her, saying “We don’t want to lose you.”
“Shortly after that, everybody left and I fell asleep,” she testified. She said she awoke the next morning, still bound by the zip ties. She said that she freed herself and Lethbridge, whom she asked to check on her grandson.
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 FBI 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. He sold the company, Energy Brands Inc., to Coca-Cola Co. in 2007 for $4.1 billion. 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, a DNA expert for the Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, testified that DNA samples from the stolen Jeep were a partial match to Nicolescu. The defendant “cannot be eliminated as a contributor,” Carita said. He said the DNA sample on the steering wheel matched one in 990,000 Caucasians.
Prosecutors introduced evidence from the EZ-Pass automated highway toll-payment system showing that the Bikoff Escalade made trips in and out of Queens early on April 16.
Nicolescu’s mother, Donia, who brought her son to the U.S. in 1993, has been following the trial in the courtroom.
“He’s innocent,” she said in an interview. “He couldn’t do such a thing. I don’t see why this is happening.” Her son hasn’t testified.
She said he’s “not capable” of violence “but his friends — I don’t know about them.”
The case is U.S. v. Nicolescu, 11-cr-00024, U.S. District Court, District of Connecticut (New Haven).
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