EUREKA POLICE/DOYLE MURPHY
Blake Laubinger helped kidnap a Maplewood man and held him at his Pacific house.
A federal judge took pity on a young kidnapper this morning, agreeing that he was manipulated by a St. Louis tanning mogul to take part in a "horrible and ridiculous scheme."
Blake Laubinger, 25, had pleaded guilty last fall
along with three others involved in the bizarre ransom plot. The four held a Maplewood man — formerly a fellow drug dealer — as a hostage during three days of stunning violence in November 2016.
The man was repeatedly shocked with a Taser, beaten and threatened with murder as retribution for stealing a cache of marijuana and other valuables from Laubinger's house in Pacific, according to court documents. He was only released after his parents paid a $27,000 ransom.
"It is up there with the worst conduct I've had to deal with in my time as a judge," U.S. District Judge Audrey Fleissig told Laubinger, before sentencing him to six and a half years in prison.
She had previously sentenced the group's alleged ringleader, 53-year-old entrepreneur Todd Beckman
, to twenty years. Laubinger had agreed to a plea deal that left him exposed to a similar punishment, but defense attorney Scott Rosenblum asked the judge to consider a number of factors.
Laubinger, along with his brother and mother, had been physically and mentally abused for years by his father, Rosenblum said. That left him vulnerable to coercion by his flashy new father figure. (Laubinger's father, who was in court, later said they needed a "fall guy" before declining to comment further.)
Beckman is the founder of BAM Brands, parent company to a suite of lifestyle chains, including TanCo tanning salons, MassageLuXe, lifeXist Life Management and Xist Fitness.
Rosenblum says Beckman dazzled Laubinger with his "sparkling tan," money, cars and women. Before long, the young protege was enthusiastically talking to his family about various business ventures with his new friend, his attorney says.
He had also become involved in Beckman's sideline of selling large quantities of marijuana
. The Fenton-based businessman was importing crates from California containing 50-80 pounds of weed. Laubinger stored a lot of it at his house and helped sell it, prosecutors say.
The problems began when 24 pounds of marijuana and $15,000 went missing in late 2016. Laubinger quickly suspected a drug-selling partner, Ellis Athanas of Maplewood, according to court records.
Prosecutors say Laubinger and Beckman devised a plan to "get" Athanas. Rosenblum says his client was under "intense" pressure from his mentor to recover the stolen proceeds. He looked up to Beckman, Rosenblum contends, but "there was always an element of fear."
After a weeks-long manhunt, Laubinger and his younger brother snatched Athanas from his home in Maplewood and hauled him back to the house in Pacific, where they bound him to a pole in the basement.
In the beginning, Laubinger believed they were simply making a citizen's arrest for the drug theft and would turn Athanas over to police, Rosenblum says.
"It sounds ludicrous, but that was his belief," the defense attorney told Fleissig.
Athanas was tortured in Laubinger's basement and later at Beckman's secluded property in Fenton, where Athanas was locked in a metal shipping container. Beckman admitted to shaving his captive's long hair but has never admitted taking part in the worst of the physical abuse.
He eventually negotiated the ransom, and they released Athanas in a strip mall parking lot.
"I would truly like to say sorry for what I did," Laubinger said, sounding near tears as his family watched. "I wish I could take it back."
Rosenblum had asked for a sentence of five years. Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Casey noted Athanas had suffered the "terror of being tied to a pole" and abused for days but said prosecutors had no further sentencing recommendation.
Fleissig said she holds Beckman more responsible for the crimes than the others. She said she gives credit to Laubinger for cooperating with investigators from the very beginning of the case.
"I don't believe that the three days of horror that constituted the events here are characteristic of your nature," she said.
Beckman and his longtime friend Kerry Roades, 56, were arrested in December 2016 along with Laubinger and his brother, Caleb. All four have pleaded guilty. A fifth defendant who played a lesser role, Zachary Smith, has also pleaded guilty to concealing the crime and was sentenced to fifteen months
Caleb Laubinger is scheduled to be sentenced on March 14. Roades, whose case was delayed after he switched attorneys, is the only other defendant yet to be sentenced.
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