PHILADELPHIA -- A threatened potboiler about a Chester County billionaire is permanently off the burner.
At a hearing Tuesday in federal court in Philadelphia, Agnes "Aggie" O'Brien, 55, pleaded guilty to three counts of extortion against Mary Alice Malone, a Campbell Soup heiress who resides on a 1,000-acre horse-breeding farm in the Coatesville area.
O'Brien worked for more than two decades as Malone's cook, horse trainer, concierge, confidante, and traveling companion before the relationship ended, said O'Brien's attorney, Michael M. Mustokoff.
In July 2009, O'Brien, who had rented a home from Malone near her estate, Iron Spring Farm, was shocked when she received an eviction notice, he said. Having made improvements to the home to facilitate a catering business she ran, O'Brien feared losing her livelihood and "panicked," Mustokoff said.
The result: O'Brien sent an e-mail to Malone titled "When the Soup Boils," detailing a work of fiction with unflattering, thinly veiled portraits of Malone, her friends, and relatives, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Lauren M. Ouziel.
Under the terms of a proposed plea agreement, O'Brien would spend six years on probation for three felony convictions. If the judge accepts the deal, she also would be prohibited from communicating in any form about Malone or any of her relatives.
She had faced a maximum sentence of six years in prison.
Malone, 61, was listed as the 437th-richest person in the world by Forbes magazine in 2010, with an estimated worth of $2.2 billion. She is a granddaughter of John T. Dorrance, a chemical engineer who discovered a new method for canning soup that spawned the Campbell empire.
Asked by U.S. District Judge C. Darnell Jones II about her criminal history, O'Brien said she did not even have "unpaid parking tickets."
The judge expressed hesitation in accepting the guilty plea, creating new intrigue in a case that has already generated speculation about what O'Brien planned to divulge.
Jones said that O'Brien appeared to have been encouraged to commit the crimes by attorneys no longer involved in the case. He pointed to court records stating that an attorney for Malone had tried to negotiate a private settlement with O'Brien in January 2010 without contacting authorities, and that O'Brien's attorney had congratulated her with a "well done" email when she was offered a check for $200,000.
"The court is rightfully outraged," Ouziel told the judge.
After the hearing, Ouziel, Mustokoff, and Malone's attorney, Tom Hogan, all declined to identify the attorneys.
After listening to both sides, the judge accepted the plea.
Mustokoff said that O'Brien's "initial acts all occurred outside the attorneys' advice." He also said other people had warned O'Brien she was breaking the law, but she continued the shakedown.
"It's a sad case," he said later.
Hogan had a different view. He characterized O'Brien as an "occasional employee, sometime friend, sponge," blackmail artist, and deadbeat tenant who took advantage of Malone's kindness.
He said O'Brien had stopped regularly paying her $1,000 monthly rent in 2001 and was $83,000 in arrears when she moved out in 2010.
Hogan said as soon as his firm got involved in the case, the FBI was contacted.
According to court records, the FBI recorded O'Brien's conversations about a payment from Malone with an intermediary -- who was then acting as a confidential informant -- which led to her indictment in August.
The indictment said O'Brien's promised novel "referenced specific instances of alleged conduct by the 'characters' that, regardless of the veracity of the allegations, would prove embarrassing" to Malone.
O'Brien's email said: "Maggie (the fictional Aggie O'Brien) got her feelings hurt when she was wrongly accused and never allowed to defend herself, but this book has been a cleansing of sorts ... It's fast and funny, and opens many new doors. She feels sure she can sell it and write many more."
The judge set a sentencing date of Aug. 30 for O'Brien, who is free on $10,000 bail.
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