By Rick Cundiff, Staff Writer, Ocala Star Banner
OCALA — The extortion trial of Dr. James Scott Pendergraft IV, which was scheduled to start in federal court Monday, instead was postponed due to the death of Pendergraft’s grandmother.
Pendergraft’s lawyers, Jacob Rose and Larry Colleton filed an emergency motion for a 10-day continuance Monday morning with Senior U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges. In their motion, the lawyers said Pendergraft’s grandmother, Sally L. Pendergraft, died at 5 a.m. Sunday in a North Carolina Hospital. The motion also said Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Devereaux opposed the motion.
With prospective jurors waiting in the courtroom, prosecutors and attorneys for Pendergraft and co-defendant Michael Spielvogel met in Hodges’ chambers to argue the motion. Hodges entered the courtroom at 9:37 a.m. and dismissed the jury pool.
“This is regrettable, but unavoidable,” Hodges told the prospective jurors. The judge elected to postpone the trial until after the holidays, setting a new trial date of Jan. 2.
Pendergraft, Spielvogel and their attorneys left the courtroom without comment.
“We’re gratified by the judge’s compassion,” said Marti Mackenzie, Pendergraft’s spokeswoman.
Pendergraft owns the Ocala Women’s Center on Pine Avenue, which provides women’s health services, including abortions. He also operates four other clinics in Tampa, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale.
Steve Cole, spokesman for the Middle District of Florida U.S. Attorney’s office declined to say what Devereaux’s reaction was to the motion for continuance.
“We’re not going to discuss what was said in chambers,” he said. “We are just preparing for trial in January.”
The motion noted that Pendergraft was needed in North Carolina to direct funeral arrangements and handle other family matters. It also stated that he was close to his grandmother, “who assisted greatly in his upbringing.”
Sally Pendergraft had been hospitalized since suffering a stroke last month. That event prompted an earlier emergency continuance, to give Pendergraft an opportunity to travel to North Carolina to help his family make medical decisions at that time.
James Pendergraft and Spielvogel were indicted in federal court June 13. The five-count indictment alleges that the two men conspired to extort millions of dollars from Marion County government by making false and fraudulent statements in a civil lawsuit Pendergraft filed in December 1998. Hodges dismissed that suit last December.
The indictment alleges Pendergraft and Spielvogel lied in the civil suit by saying County Commissioner Larry Cretul threatened Spielvogel and the clinic. The indictment also alleges that Pendergraft and Spielvogel, through attorney Roy Lucas, threatened to bankrupt the county by asking for a $100 million judgment.
Both men 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. Both Pendergraft and Spielvogel have pleaded not guilty.
Hodges has not yet ruled on two defense motions. The first motion is to move the trial to Orlando, and the second is to question prospective jurors individually, instead of in a group, to determine any bias on the issue of abortion.
A press conference at the Ocala Women’s Center that had been scheduled for the court’s lunch break Monday was canceled after Hodges granted the continuance.