NEW YORK – A Florida businessman who once factored in the Smurfs cartoon empire lost a bid Tuesday to withdraw his guilty plea in an $11 million shakedown plot targeting his financier son-in-law.
With that, Stuart R. Ross was sentenced to the five years' probation he was promised when he pleaded guilty in August to attempted grand larceny. But his lawyer said he now plans to ask an appeals court to let Ross take back the plea, which he says Ross entered while pressured by medical problems.
In his plea, Ross admitted threatening to destroy son-in-law David S. Blitzer's professional reputation if not paid $5.5 million. Ross also acknowledged offering to give up any rights to see his grandchildren for another $5.5 million.
Ross, 74, agreed to plead guilty while jailed on $200,000 bond awaiting trial. He was contending with pneumonia, cancer and other health woes that weren't getting adequate care behind bars, and he took the plea deal to gain his freedom, lawyer Matthew Myers said outside court Tuesday.
"He was under tremendous duress," Myers said. "It's the only reason why he pled."
But state Supreme Court Justice Bonnie Wittner rebuffed Ross' request to withdraw his plea. Defendants pleading guilty are routinely warned they can't revisit the decision and are asked to acknowledge they are indeed guilty.
And Ross, the judge noted, has a law degree, though he doesn't practice.
"There's nothing in the (court) record to convince me it was anything but a voluntary plea," she said.
Ross has recently lived in Aventura, Fla. He owned certain rights to the Smurfs years ago, according to civil court papers filed by Ross and Blitzer, who is a senior managing director at the financial services firm The Blackstone Group LP. Ross says he bought North American rights to the sky-blue, gnome-like characters after seeing them in their native Belgium in 1976.
The cartoon creatures rocketed to fame in a 1980s TV series made by the animation powerhouse Hanna-Barbera Productions.
Ross went on to pursue other entertainment ventures, including an unsuccessful lawsuit in which he claimed he had a contract to develop "Trump — the Game" and was due about $215,000 in royalties from the board game. A jury sided with Trump, who denied having a contract with Ross.
Over the years, Ross went through the money he had made and began asking Blitzer to stake him in new businesses, according to Blitzer's lawsuit. Blitzer said the threats began when he cut Ross off after giving him tens of thousands of dollars.
An attorney accused of aiding Ross in the scheme, Stuart A. Jackson, was acquitted last month of all criminal charges. Jackson, 82, said through his attorney he didn't know about any threats.
Ross' sentencing includes alcohol-abuse treatment, though his attorney said Ross had successfully completed inpatient alcohol treatment already.