By Rick Cundiff, Staff Writer, Ocala Star Banner
OCALA, FL — Jurors in the extortion trial of Michael Spielvogel and Dr. James Scott Pendergraft IV heard the details of Spielvogel’s life Tuesday, going back as far as high school.
Spielvogel and his wife, Mary, testified for the defense Tuesday. In doing so, they bared details of their life and marriage in open court.
Speaking softly, and in a near-monotone for nearly two hours, Spielvogel spoke of being threatened and persecuted throughout much of his life, starting when he was one of only five Jewish students attending a predominantly Catholic high school on Long Island.
Spielvogel also testified that when he was a teen-ager, federal agents temporarily relocated his family from New York to California after his father, a pharmacist, reported what turned out to be a hijacked truck full of medical supplies.
He later spoke of having a gun pointed at his head while trying to renovate a hotel, and of a 1970s kidnapping threat against his four children.
Under questioning by his attorney, Daniel Brodersen, Spielvogel also told jurors about his work history, ranging from having his own insurance agency to the real estate development career that began when he met Robert Wood Johnson III, an heir to the Johnson and Johnson medical supply fortune.
Pendergraft and Spielvogel are charged with conspiring to extort millions of dollars from Marion County government by making fraudulent statements in a lawsuit Pendergraft filed in December 1998.
Pendergraft owns the Ocala Women’s Center on Pine Avenue and four other Florida clinics that perform abortions.
The case stems from an investigation the FBI opened in October 1997, after Spielvogel called Marion County Commissioner Larry Cretul.
Earlier in the trial, Cretul testified Spielvogel said the county could expect “violent protests and firebombings” if the Pine Avenue clinic opened, but the problems could be avoided if the county bought the clinic property.
At the time, Spielvogel had started working as an adviser to Pendergraft while he and his wife were in the middle of a three-year separation. Mary Spielvogel is a clerical employee in one of Pendergraft’s Orlando clinics.
“My original goal in going to work with Dr. Pendergraft was to get my wife back,” Spielvogel testified. “To me — that was my goal.”
Unknown to Spielvogel, Cretul, at the FBI’s direction, secretly taped calls between Spielvogel and himself after that first call.
Spielvogel’s recollection of that first, unrecorded call was substantially different from Cretul’s.
Spielvogel testified he called Cretul in October 1997, about two weeks after Marion County commissioners sent a one-paragraph letter to Pendergraft asking him to reconsider his plans to open the Ocala clinic.
“I couldn’t comprehend a county official writing such a letter to this business,” Spielvogel said. “I took great offense to the letter.”
Even before making the call to Cretul, Spielvogel believed Marion County was not a good place for Pendergraft to place a clinic, he said.
“I thought it would be a very bad idea to open up after getting a letter like that,” he said. “I said to (Pendergraft) that it would not be a good idea to go and open a practice where you’re not welcome.”
Referring to Ocala twice as a “village,” Spielvogel testified he also was concerned about the conservative nature of the county, the distance from a major city, and that “I just thought it was an area of the state that was not friendly to his race.” Pendergraft is African American.
Spielvogel volunteered to call Cretul, who, as County Commission chairman, had signed the letter.
“My only objective was to see if he would retract the letter, just by seeing what kind of man Dr. Pendergraft was,” Spielvogel said.
Spielvogel testified that Cretul said the clinic would bring controversy to the county and he denied it would. After Spielvogel told Cretul that his wife worked for Pendergraft, Cretul allegedly said he wouldn’t have his wife working in the Ocala clinic.
Cretul also told Spielvogel the community would rally the churches to protest the clinic, Spielvogel testified.
“I was appalled a county official would say those things would happen,” he said.
According to Spielvogel, Cretul brought up the 1989 firebombings that destroyed an earlier abortion clinic in Ocala.
Cretul, the trial’s first witness, testified that Spielvogel was the one who brought up the firebombings and violent protest.
Toward the end of the call, Cretul allegedly asked what could be done to prevent the clinic from opening. Spielvogel suggested that someone buy the property.
“I had not talked to Dr. Pendergraft about anything,” Spielvogel said Tuesday. “The first thing that came to mind was have someone, a friend of the county, to buy the property. It just came out.”
Two days after that call, Cretul reported it to the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, which referred him to the FBI.
Earlier in the day Tuesday, Mary Spielvogel contradicted statements her husband made during a meeting the FBI videotaped in March 1999. At that meeting, Spielvogel told the county’s lawyer, Virgil “Bill” Wright, that Mrs. Spielvogel heard him repeat threats Cretul allegedly made in a phone call to Spielvogel.
The FBI audiotape of the only known call between Spielvogel and Cretul on Jan. 29, 1998, contains no such threats. Mrs. Spielvogel testified Tuesday that she could not remember being in the room during any conversation between her husband and Cretul, let alone one that happened on Jan. 29 — her birthday.
Over repeated objections from Pendergraft’s and Spielvogel’s lawyers, Senior U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges allowed prosecutor Judy Hunt to ask whether Mrs. Spielvogel knew her husband had relationships with other women during the couple’s separation. Mrs. Spielvogel quietly answered yes.
Hunt said the question raised the issue of how much Mrs. Spielvogel knew about her husband’s day-to-day life, including the nature of the work he did for Pendergraft, during the separation.
At the end of Mrs. Spielvogel’s testimony, attorney Brodersen asked Hodges to allow Mrs. Spielvogel to remain in the courtroom for the rest of the trial, to support her husband. Hodges left the decision to Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Devereaux, who refused.
Devereaux declined to comment on the decision after court recessed for the day. Pendergraft spokeswoman Marti Mackenzie condemned the prosecutor’s action.
“The prosecutors were perfectly willing to delve into every painful aspect of their marital life and that they have reconciled and that they are obviously going through a very difficult time,” she said. “When the judge gave Devereaux the power to allow Mary to stay in the courtroom . . . he refused the Spielvogels that decent, kind allowance. There’s nothing legal about that. That’s just mean.”
The trial is scheduled to continue this morning, with Spielvogel again on the witness stand.