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Attorney: Extortion trial will be a "bloodbath'

Published Oct. 1, 2005

The burly bait shop owner from Odessa crumpled his baseball cap in his hands, turned his face to the courtroom wall and sobbed as a prosecutor recited the sordid accusations against him Monday.

Later, outside the courtroom, an attorney for Joseph Mondeau predicted "a bloodbath" of a trial that would involve the Catholic Church, a 70-year-old priest and a litany of dirty secrets.

"Get ready," defense attorney Norman Cannella told reporters outside the courthouse.

Mondeau, a 36-year-old single father, was formally charged with extorting more than $200,000 from a Lutz priest between 1994 and 1996 by threatening to expose their sexual relationship. Prosecutor Anthony Arena said some of the money the Rev. Simeon Gardner stole from St. Mary's Catholic Church in Lutz to give to Mondeau even came from the "Helping Hands" collection for the poor.

After Mondeau was told to turn himself in to jail on grand theft and extortion charges Monday, he ran from the TV cameras that pursued him outside the courthouse, not even stopping when his baseball cap flew from his head.

Cannella, however, had some fighting words for the prosecutor, the church and the now-retired priest, who is charged with grand theft but is expected to get a plea deal for his testimony against Mondeau.

"The Catholic Church will lose its integrity. They will be disgraced," Cannella said. "They will regret the day this man was taken into custody."

"It's going to be a bloodbath," Cannella promised. "Stand by."

Later, prosecutor Arena agreed the case "involves sensitive issues that ultimately won't look good for any of the people involved."

"I'm going to handle this thing just like any other case," he said.

Gardner told investigators that Mondeau, whom he had never met before, approached him in 1994 to ask for money for overdue bills. The two later had a sexual encounter, and their affair lasted more than a year, with meetings at Mondeau's Odessa home.

The priest told investigators Mondeau demanded larger amounts of money and threatened to expose their relationship, even calling the Diocese in St. Petersburg, identifying himself as "Kevin" and talking of sex with an unnamed priest.

Investigators said Mondeau also threatened Gardner with audio and videotapes he said he made of their sexual encounters.

Investigators said Mondeau also threatened Gardner with messages about being "on my way to St. Pete," presumably to meet with church officials there. Arena offered to play a tape recording of a message left on the priest's answering machine in court Monday, but the judge declined to hear it.

Defense attorney Mark Ober said the men did have "a relationship" and Mondeau did take money, but that it was given to him as a gift.

"I think the evidence is going to show that he did not know Father Gardner did not have the authority to give it to him," Ober said.

"It's the priest who was the extorter, not Mr. Mondeau," Cannella said.

Gardner's attorney, Eddie Suarez, later dismissed that allegation.

"It's like being called stinky by a skunk," he said. "There's overwhelming evidence that Father Gardner and the church were the ones being extorted."

Mondeau's lawyers asked that he be treated no differently than the priest, who in December was released on his own recognizance after Judge Walter Heinrich first made him promise "before God" to show up for court hearings.

Heinrich set bail for Mondeau at $10,000. Mondeau posted bail and left the jail Monday afternoon at about 4:30 p.m.

No trial date has been set.