CHICAGO – A man allegedly tried to extort $1.5 million from Oprah Winfrey by threatening to release taped telephone conversations that he claimed would hurt her reputation, according to a federal complaint.
Keifer Bonvillain, 36, allegedly demanded that a Winfrey representative pay him the money in exchange for 12 hours of recorded telephone conversations he'd had with a Winfrey employee he met two years earlier at a party, according to the criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court.
Bonvillain targeted "Individual A," who was "a public figure and the owner of a Chicago-based company," the complaint said. The Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, citing unnamed sources, reported Saturday that Individual A was Winfrey.
Bonvillain was arrested Dec. 15 in the parking lot of an Atlanta hotel and released on $20,000 bond. He was scheduled for a preliminary hearing in Chicago on Monday.
According to the complaint, Bonvillain asked a California-based Winfrey employee questions about Winfrey and her business. In mid-October he allegedly sent Winfrey an e-mail, telling her an employee said awful things about her.
In mid-November, Bonvillain allegedly sent a letter, saying he had tapes of the conversations. In response, another Winfrey associate called Bonvillain and learned he had taped 12 hours of those discussions.
Over the next few weeks, Bonvillain allegedly told the associate that he wanted to publish a book based on the "shocking" and "newsworthy" tapes and claimed he had received offers of $500,000 to $3 million from tabloids and book publishers.
Bonvillain allegedly said " ... there are a lot of people who would want these tapes and those people would not be ' ... concerned about the truth,"' the complaint said.
The second associate, who was secretly in contact with the FBI, allegedly agreed to a $1.5 million price, wired Bonvillain $3,000 in earnest money and arranged to meet him in the hotel parking lot. He was arrested the next day.
Bonvillain's attorney, Kent Carlson, told the Tribune and Sun-Times he could neither confirm nor deny details in the complaint. Phone and e-mail messages left by The Associated Press for Carlson were not immediately returned.
A call placed by The Associated Press on Saturday to a number listed to a Bonvillain in Atlanta reached a recorded message saying the line had been disconnected. He told the Sun-Times the charges were a misunderstanding.
"There is nothing to it," Bonvillain told the paper. "It's nothing. It was a big mix-up."
Phone messages left for Harpo Productions Inc. and the U.S. attorney's office were not immediately returned Saturday.
Winfrey was in South Africa Saturday, where she welcomed parents of the girls chosen for her new leadership academy.