NEW HAVEN, Conn. — A former butler was sentenced to 20 years in prison Friday for being part of a gang of home invaders who held the ex-wife of Texas oil man Sid Bass hostage on her Connecticut estate in a horrific, $8.5 million extortion attempt.

A jury in March convicted Emanuel Nicolescu of leading a conspiracy in which he and a gang of home invaders burst into Anne Bass’s home on her 1,000-acre Litchfield County estate on a rainy Sunday night in April 2007.

During the hours-long ordeal that followed, Nicolescu and the others injected Bass and her boyfriend, artist Julian Lethbridge, with what they said was a virus that is fatal within 24 hours. There would be no antidote, the victims were told, unless Bass produced $8.5 million in cash.

In a long, rambling and emotional plea for leniency to U.S. District Court Judge Mark R. Kravitz, Nicolescu continued to deny his involvement in what federal prosecutors called a kidnapping and extortion attempt that was planned and carried out with “military precision.”

Nicolescu pleaded not guilty to extortion charges but was convicted by a jury in March.

“I’m sorry for what they went through, but I didn’t do it,” he said. “Please give me a chance to show the world I am not the criminal they portray I am.”

A lawyer for Bass and Lethbridge read a letter to the court in which they said they continue to live in fear that they may be victimized again by members of the gang — none of whom has been apprehended — who held them hostage with Nicolescu.

“The terror they instilled was real and clearly perceived to be such,” the lawyer Alex Hernandez said. “Ann and Julian believed that every minute could be their last.”

Federal prosecutor David Novick argued that Kravitz should impose a long sentence in part to persuade Nicolescu to reveal the identities of the other extortionists.

By keeping silent, Novick said, Nicolescu prolongs the suffering of the victims.

“Today is not about the defendant’s suffering, because he has had to sit in jail,” Novick said. “Today is about the suffering of the victims.”

At Nicolescu’s trial, Bass testified that she expected to die, but pleaded with the kidnappers in a futile effort to convince them that it was impossible to raise such a sum in cash. The sometimes violent discussion took place, she testified, while she and Lethbridge were bound to chairs and blindfolded in her bathroom. Her 3-year-old grandson slept in a nearby bedroom.

Bass said she had taken the boy from New York to her country home for the weekend because his mother, her daughter, was expecting another child and was having difficulties associated with the pregnancy. The home invaders, at one point during the ordeal, threatened to kidnap the 3-year-old, Bass testified.

“I spent a lot of time while I was just sitting there thinking about — well, my children and how horrible this was going to be for them, because I was sure I was going to die,” Bass testified. “And I kept thinking that my daughter, who was about to deliver a baby, was going to wake up in the morning and find her mother dead and her child either dead or kidnapped. And I just didn’t see how anyone — I just didn’t see how anyone could survive something like that.”

Eventually, the extortionists forced Bass and Lethbridge to drink a foul, orange liquid, ostensibly the antidote. Then the kidnappers left the house, quietly and empty-handed. The kidnapping and extortion attempt took place over April 15 and April 16 in 2007.

From March to May in 2006, Nicolescu had been Bass’s $70,000-a-year butler and general household helper. He was fired for misusing one of the trucks Bass bought for the estate and eventually crashing it on an unauthorized trip to his home in Queens, N.Y.

So far, he is the only suspect in the Bass extortion to be apprehended.

Nicolescu emigrated to New York from Romania with his mother in 1993 and leads a suspect list with a Romanian flavor. He was captured at O’Hare airport in Chicago on Jan. 23, 2011. He had fled to Romania earlier, after learning that associates were being called as witnesses to a grand jury investigating the Bass extortion. He flew to Chicago to visit a girlfriend.

State and federal investigators have charged one other suspect in the conspiracy, a Romanian named Michael Kennedy — but Kennedy remains a fugitive. Authorities are trying to identify as many as three other suspects.

Prosecutors have said that Nicolescu used information about the Bass estate that he collected as an employee to arrange the break-in. Among other things, they said, he and the others sneaked in through a door employees knew was unlocked and initially hid in a large closet.

The invaders, wielding knives and guns and shouting what the victims described as “war cries,” burst out of hiding at about 10:30 p.m. as Bass left her bath to collect some ice to rub on a sore knee.

Calling the crime particularly heinous, federal prosecutors asked U.S. District Court Judge Mark Kravitz for a prison sentence of at least 24 years and as long as 30 years.

To justify such a sentence, prosecutors compiled a list of what they call aggravating factors, among them Nicolescu’s role as a leader of the conspiracy, the use by the extortionists of guns and knives, the injuries to Bass as a result of her injection and the extraordinary amount of the demand.

Nicolescu and his lawyers argued for a sentence of eight years, claiming prosecutors overstated the seriousness of the crime. Among other things, Nicolescu’s team has called the $8.5 million demand a “wholly unrealistic pipe dream.”

Bass formerly was married to a Texas businessman who is part of a family that originated with oil tycoons Sid Richardson and Perry Richardson Bass. Prosecutors said in legal filings that she has accumulated “substantial wealth” of her own, including homes in Connecticut, New York, Colorado, Texas, and Nevis. She trades art and antiques.

At her Connecticut residence, Rock Cobble Farm in South Kent, she raises cattle and tends orchards and gardens.

The estate includes two massive converted barn structures, as well as several other buildings that include Lethbridge’s art studio and a house for staff.

©2012 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)

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