By Rick Cundiff, Staff Writer, Ocala Star Banner
OCALA — Less than three hours after prosecutors showed a videotape Tuesday in which Dr. James Scott Pendergraft IV pledged to put a statue of himself in the center of Ocala, the federal extortion conspiracy trial of Pendergraft and Michael Spielvogel came to a second unscheduled halt.
Prosecutors showed the 69-minute tape just before the trial broke for lunch. During the lunch break, a woman juror fell and struck her head on the sidewalk or the curb outside a downtown restaurant. The woman was knocked unconscious and was taken by ambulance to Ocala Regional Medical Center for examination.
At 2 p.m., Senior U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges recessed the trial for the day to see if the woman would be able to continue as a juror this morning. If she cannot continue, Hodges will designate one of two alternate jurors to take her place.
“This is beginning to be a star-crossed case, I’m afraid,” Hodges said.
The incident marked the second time in less than a week that a fall has affected the trial. Pendergraft defense attorney Jacob Rose fell last Friday during a courtroom power outage and re-injured his left knee, on which he had surgery in September. Hodges recessed the trial Friday for a half-day.
A faulty circuit breaker caused the Friday blackout in the windowless courtroom. On Tuesday, that circuit breaker’s replacement tripped twice while Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Devereaux played the videotape, secretly recorded by the FBI, of a meeting between Pendergraft, his then-attorney Roy Lucas, Spielvogel and Virgil “Bill” Wright III, the lawyer representing Marion County.
Although brief, each outage triggered gasps from the courtroom audience. Like last week, the courtroom emergency lights didn’t work, but, unlike last week, marshals in the courtroom had high-powered flashlights.
After the second incident, Hodges instructed U.S. marshals to turn off half the lights in the courtroom to prevent the video equipment from tripping the breaker. The videotape then played to its conclusion.
On the tape, Lucas told Wright at one point that the county would have to pay a substantial settlement or risk bankruptcy if a lawsuit filed by Pendergraft in December 1998 went to a jury.
“We got a serious case. We’re going to go for a verdict of a hundred million dollars, and they (had) better come up with some money or they’re going to get burned,” Lucas said. “We’ll try to bankrupt the county.”
“Not try. We will bankrupt the county,” Pendergraft said on the tape. “And I promise you, I will put a statue of myself in the middle, once we get the county, that says that Dr. Pendergraft brought freedom to Ocala.”
The videotaped March 1999 meeting came about after Pendergraft filed a lawsuit against the county, the city of Ocala, Sheriff Ed Dean, former Sheriff Ken Ergle, Ocala Police Chief Morrey Deen and a dozen anti-abortion activists. The lawsuit alleged the city and county failed to provide adequate protection for the Ocala Women’s Center.
Pendergraft and Spielvogel were indicted last June in a five-count indictment charging they conspired to extort millions of dollars from Marion County government by making false and fraudulent statements in that lawsuit. Hodges dismissed the lawsuit a year later, after Pendergraft and attorney Roy Lucas did not pursue it.
The indictment alleges Pendergraft and Spielvogel lied in the lawsuit by saying Cretul threatened Spielvogel and the clinic. The indictment also alleges Pendergraft and Spielvogel, through attorney Lucas, threatened to bankrupt the county by asking for a $100 million judgment.
Wright testified Tuesday that Lucas sent him copies of affidavits by Spielvogel and Pendergraft saying Cretul threatened Spielvogel by telephone on Jan. 29, 1998. Spielvogel’s affidavit said Cretul threatened the clinic, Spielvogel and Spielvogel’s wife, a clinic employee.
The call took place about 12 hours after an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Ala., was firebombed, killing an off-duty police officer and critically injuring a nurse. According to Spielvogel’s affidavit, Cretul said it wasn’t a matter of “if” but “when” the Ocala clinic was firebombed and that “what happened in Alabama would be nothing compared to what would happen in Ocala.”
Pendergraft’s affidavit said he believed Spielvogel was telling the truth because he was present when the call took place and that Spielvogel repeated Cretul’s remarks to him immediately after Cretul said them.
What Spielvogel and Pendergraft, and later Lucas, didn’t know was that the FBI was secretly recording conversations between Cretul and Spielvogel or Pendergraft as part of an investigation that began after Spielvogel first called Cretul in October 1997. Audiotapes played earlier in the trial give no indication that Cretul made the threats that Spielvogel alleged.
Wright, acting as the county’s attorney in the matter, was briefed about the investigation by FBI Special Agent Pamela Piersanti. With Lucas seeking a meeting with Wright to negotiate, Wright agreed to cooperate with the FBI and allow the agency to videotape that meeting. The meeting took place March 22, 1999, in a conference room at Wright’s office, with a video camera hidden behind Wright’s chair, facing Lucas, Pendergraft and Spielvogel.
Cretul was not named in the lawsuit. At the meeting, Lucas told Wright that he would be filing an amended complaint that listed Cretul. Lucas also mentioned a $107 million verdict against some Oregon abortion foes who had advocated violence against abortion providers.
“We have every intention to try to get a verdict that size or larger,” Lucas said.
Both Pendergraft and Spielvogel are charged with conspiracy to commit extortion, lying under oath and mail fraud. Spielvogel faces additional charges of offering false testimony and making false statements to FBI investigators. If convicted, Pendergraft faces up to 30 years in prison and $750,000 in fines, while Spielvogel could face up to 40 years and $1.25 million in fines.
Since Pendergraft and Spielvogel were indicted, Lucas has resigned his Washington, D.C., Bar Association membership and disappeared.
Tuesday’s recess means the trial is likely to extend into late January. If jurors don’t get the case by Friday, it will be continued to Jan. 22.
The trial was scheduled to continue this morning.