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Many questions remain in kidnapping case // A MYSTERY

Their relationship strained by family troubles, Circuit Judge Patricia Thomas had not seen or heard from her youngest sister in two years.

Then Friday, Citrus Sheriff Jeff Dawsy called the county's chief judge with a startling update: Thomas' sister, Stefanie June Butler, had been arrested and accused of kidnapping a prominent widow at gunpoint in an apparent extortion attempt.

Thomas' reaction to the news?

"You mean after I quit crying?" she said Monday.

"I'm devastated," Thomas said. "My whole family is devastated. My family is very concerned about Mrs. (Margaret) Rooks' well-being."

Mrs. Rooks is the 76-year-old widow Butler is accused of kidnapping from her vast Floral City ranch. Authorities said Butler attempted to extort $20,000 from Mrs. Rooks by threatening to blow up her home and the homes of family members.

Butler, 38, led deputies on a chase on U.S. 41 and Stagecoach Road before wrecking the stolen car. She was tackled by deputies after fleeing the car.

On Monday, a shaken Thomas spoke to the media on behalf of her family. She also called Mrs. Rooks to see how she was doing.

"What happened Friday is definitely incomprehensible to us," Thomas said. "My sister is 38 years old, and she must be held accountable for her actions."

Thomas would discuss few details about her family's history, except to say that a serious rift had developed in the Butler family.

"My sister (Stefanie) and I have not been close the last couple of years," Thomas said.

Thomas, 45, was born and raised in Clearwater. After graduation, she went to Florida State University in Tallahassee, and the rest of the family moved to Orlando, where Butler was raised.

Butler followed her sister to Florida State, graduating with a degree in communications. Soon after, she enlisted in the Army and traveled with a military band. After her military stint, she worked on computers and sound equipment.

Butler has lived and worked in California, Virginia and Florida. She has no prison record in Florida. Her last known address is in Orlando, in a home across the street from her parents, Robert and Charleton Butler, both 68.

Her neighbors were stunned by the accusations against the youngest sibling.

"The Butlers are a very fine family and very fine neighbors," said Malcolm Marsh Jr. "You couldn't ask for better. I find it hard to believe Stefanie could do anything like that."

Several questions from Friday's incident remained unanswered, including whether there were accomplices and what the $20,000 was needed for.

Thomas said she thinks the Sheriff's Office suspects her sister had an accomplice. She declined to discuss her sister's financial history.

Investigators also wondered how Butler got to Floral City from Orlando, since no vehicle was recovered near Mrs. Rooks' residence.

Saying her car had broken down nearby, Butler forced her way into Mrs. Rooks' home at 10:30 a.m., authorities say. She then drove her at gunpoint to the Floral City branch of the Bank of Inverness, with instructions to withdraw $20,000 or Butler would "blow" her home and the homes of family members.

Bank employees learned of the scheme and called 911. Deputies arrived at the bank and after a car chase on U.S. 41 captured Butler. Mrs. Rooks was unharmed.

Butler is being held in the Citrus County Detention Facility in lieu of $44,750 bail, charged with extortion, armed kidnapping, armed burglary, fleeing and attempting to elude, resisting arrest without violence, reckless driving and grand theft auto.

She is scheduled to be arraigned April 7.

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