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Spotlight Report

Couple facing extortion charges

By Matt Carroll, Globe Staff, 1/25/2003

A Springfield couple were arrested and charged yesterday with extorting money from a Catholic priest whom they had allegedly blackmailed with ''embarrassing'' sexual information, Lowell police said.

Dominic Martin, 32, and Brianna Martin, 39, were arraigned in Lowell District Court on one count each of extortion and larceny.

The Rev. Joseph A. Ruggeri, pastor of St. Margaret's Church in Lowell, had been communicating for three weeks with a person through e-mail, instant messaging, and the phone, the Middlesex district attorney's office said. On Jan. 11, Ruggeri's correspondent told him he had kept copies of the conversations, which had become sexual, and demanded $3,000 to keep them secret.

Ruggeri paid a ''courier'' $1,500 inside the entrance to the 99 Restaurant at the corner of Chelmsford Street and Industrial Avenue in Lowell, authorities said. Last Sunday, Ruggeri, facing a threat that the conversations would be revealed to parishioners at this Sunday's Mass unless he paid another $1,500, contacted police, Lowell Police Superintendent Edward F. Davis III said. Police then set up a sting on Thursday.

The priest told ''Jim,'' the name used by the alleged extortionist, that he would leave $800 in a plain white envelope on top of a newspaper box outside the 99 Restaurant. Instead, police stuffed the envelope with one $100 bill and a wad of paper. When Ruggeri left the rectory on Thursday for the 1-mile drive to the restaurant, he was secretly followed by the couple - who were in turn followed by police. The police also had staked out the restaurant.

''It was like a movie,'' said Davis.

Ruggeri dropped off the money and walked away. A minute later, Brianna Martin allegedly walked up, grabbed the envelope, and hopped into a red 2001 Grand Am, driven by her husband, Davis said. They were arrested a short distance away.

The sexual information used to blackmail the priest did not involve children, Davis said. Police, seeking evidence, took computers from Ruggeri and the couple. Ruggeri also turned over telephone messages on his answering machine allegedly left by the Springfield pair.

The Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, an archdiocesan spokesman, said the church is investigating where Ruggeri's $1,500 came from, but he remains pastor of the church where he has served since 1991. Ruggeri, 68, who could not be reached for comment, is taking time off.

The Martins pleaded not guilty, and bail was set at $2,500. Dominic Martin was freed after posting the bail. State officials could not determine whether Brianna Martin had made bail last night. A pretrial conference was set for Feb. 21.

Dominic Martin is listed on a website of independent churches as a bishop in the Traditional Western Rite Archdiocese, an independent Christian denomination, and pastor of Holy Family Old Catholic Mission in Springfield. He also lists his birth name as Tod F.X. Biltcliffe, but legally changed it about two years ago, said his attorney, Lynda Dantas. She said the couple are married.

Walter V. Robinson contributed to this story.

Matt Carroll can be reached at mcarroll@globe.com.

This story ran on page B7 of the Boston Globe on 1/25/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.


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