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FBI: Man asked for hush money, or else he'd reveal 'damning' info on Deen

By Greg Botelho, CNN
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Sat July 6, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: An ex-wife of Paculis says he once had a restaurant in Savannah
  • Thomas George Paculis, 62, is arrested for allegedly trying to extort Paula Deen
  • Paculis allegedly asked Deen's lawyer $250,000 not to go public with information
  • Deen has been scrambling after testifying she had used "N word"

(CNN) -- FBI agents on Friday morning arrested a 62-year-old man who, they say, tried to extort Paula Deen by threatening to divulge "true and damning" information about the embattled celebrity chef -- unless he was paid to keep quiet.

Thomas George Paculis was taken into custody without incident in Ithaca, New York, by FBI agents and deputies from the Tompkins County Sheriff's Office, the FBI said in a press release.

There was no answer later Friday to a phone number linked to him in the FBI's criminal complaint, nor was there an immediate response from an e-mail address in that same document.

In the wake of the recent deposition in which Paula Deen admitted to using racially charged language, many sponsors and partners have re-evaluated their relationship with the embattled chef. Deen's 15th cookbook, "Paula Deen's New Testament: 250 Favorite Recipes, All Lightened Up," was set to release in October 2013. The book shot to the top of Amazon's pre-order list, but has now been canceled by Ballantine Books. In the wake of the recent deposition in which Paula Deen admitted to using racially charged language, many sponsors and partners have re-evaluated their relationship with the embattled chef. Deen's 15th cookbook, "Paula Deen's New Testament: 250 Favorite Recipes, All Lightened Up," was set to release in October 2013. The book shot to the top of Amazon's pre-order list, but has now been canceled by Ballantine Books.
Paula Deen's empire
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Photos: Paula Deen\'s empire Photos: Paula Deen's empire

The former Augusta and Savannah, Georgia, resident appeared before a federal judge Friday in New York before being released on bond at about noon, said Stephen Emmett with the FBI's Atlanta office.

He is scheduled to appear the morning of July 16 at a federal court in Savannah, where the criminal complaint was filed.

That coastal Georgia city is also where Deen built her business and brand into what many consider the folksy face of Southern cooking.

But she's been on her heels in recent weeks after admitting, in a deposition related to a lawsuit brought by a former employee, that she's used the "N word" in the past.

Chat: Comfort food, uncomfortable topics

Lisa Jackson alleged Deen and her brother Bubba Hier committed numerous acts of violence, discrimination and racism that resulted in the end of her five-year employment at The Lady and Sons and Uncle Bubba's Oyster House, two Savannah restaurants run by Deen and her family.

In the media firestorm that followed, Deen lost at least nine lucrative endorsements and her Food Network cooking show, while the publication of her eagerly anticipated cookbook was canceled.

So how does Paculis fit in?

According to a criminal complaint, he interjected himself on June 24, five days after details of Deen's deposition became public.

On that day, he sent an e-mail to Deen's lawyer vowing that he was "about to go public" with information about the chef's use of the "N word" at Lady and Sons, according to a copy of the e-mail cited in the criminal complaint.

Deen's accuser: 'This has never been about the N-word'

"The statements are true and damning enough that the case for Jackson will be won on it's merit alone," Paculis wrote, according to the FBI. "As always ... there is a price for such confirmation.

"You can contact me here if you feel it is necessary," he said, referring to his e-mail address, the criminal complaint states. "Or I can go public and we will see what happens then."

Greg Hodges, Deen's lawyer, exchanged e-mails with Paculis and the two talked over the phone two days later, according to the FBI. It was then that Paculis allegedly asked for $250,000 "net" -- or total, with taxes having already been paid -- in exchange for not talking, the criminal complaint states.

The two conversed a second time by phone June 27 when, "at the direction of the FBI," Hodges negotiated the hush money payment down to $200,000.

The next day, Deen told FBI agents that she didn't recognize Paculis's name or face, based on photographs.

Hodges declined comment on the alleged extortion arrest.

Nancy Aldridge, who was married to Paculis for four months around 1986, told CNN on Friday that he once had his own restaurant in Savannah though she hasn't had much direct contact with him in recent years.

Meanwhile, according to the FBI's criminal complaint, Paculis had also reached out to Jackson's lawyer. In fact, the agency alleges that the 62-year-old first reached out to Matt Billips by e-mail and phone on the same day -- June 24 -- that he contacted Deen's lawyer.

Billips said his staff conducted its own investigation of Paculis.

Paculis asked Jackson's lawyer how much he'd pay for derogatory information about Deen, the complaint claims.

"I have pushed the opposing firm to (give) me an amount of money, in cash to never been heard of again and to never utter Paula Deen's name in public or private ever again," Paculis allegedly wrote, according to an e-mail to Billips excerpted in the FBI complaint.

"Now the burning question is," he purportedly added, "do you want in."

Deen invokes same-sex marriage ruling in lawsuit defense

CNN's Chris Welch and Erinn Cawthon contributed to this report.

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