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Man accused in Winfrey extortion bid

January 07, 2007|Matt O'Connor | Chicago Tribune

A suburban Atlanta man has been charged with trying to extort $1.5 million from Oprah Winfrey by threatening to release tape recordings he claimed would hurt her reputation.

Keifer Bonvillain, 36, was arrested Dec. 15, a day after a Winfrey representative, working with the FBI, wired him $3,000, according to court records.

A criminal complaint lodged in Chicago's federal court last month identified Winfrey only as Individual A, "a public figure and the owner of a Chicago-based company." A knowledgeable source confirmed that Winfrey's company, Harpo Productions, was the target.

The U.S. attorney's office and Harpo Productions could not be reached for comment.

Bonvillain first e-mailed Winfrey in mid-October and then wrote a letter in November to Harpo about taped conversations with an unnamed employee of Winfrey's that would "not destroy but hurt" her reputation, according to the charges.

Authorities did not reveal the contents of the tape recordings.

In late November, a Winfrey lawyer demanded the tapes. An attorney whom Bonvillain later fired responded that his client was "a desperate man" who had been offered a lot of money for the tapes, the complaint said. Winfrey's representative responded that she wouldn't be held for ransom.

The FBI then secretly recorded conversations between Bonvillain and Winfrey's representative. In one, Bonvillain allegedly said "the tabloids" wouldn't care if the tape recordings were filled with lies.

"[W]hat I am saying to you is my tapes are worth money," the complaint quoted him as saying.

Bonvillain is free on $20,000 bail, said his attorney, Kent Carlson.

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