An Atlanta man claiming to have potentially damaging tapes about the media mogul is arrested

By Stephen M. Silverman
Updated January 07, 2007 09:30 AM

Oprah Winfrey was the target of a foiled $1.5 million extortion plot, according to the FBI and other published reports.

While the criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court against Keifer Bonvillain, 36, states that he had approached “a public figure and the owner of a Chicago-based company” and threatened to release potentially damaging recorded phone conversations about the person, the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, citing unidentified sources, name Winfrey as his intended victim, the Associated Press reports.

Bonvillain, who is scheduled for a preliminary hearing in Chicago on Monday, was arrested in Atlanta on Dec. 15, the day after he met an emissary with the intention of their exchanging money for the tapes, says the Sun-Times. After his arrest, Bonvillain was released on $20,000 bail.

In a phone conversation with the paper, Bonvillain said of the case, “There is nothing to it. It’s nothing. It was a big mix-up.” His attorney, Kent Carlson, told the Sun-Times he could not “confirm or deny” the specifics in the legal complaint against his client.

There has been no comment from Winfrey, her Chicago-based Harpo Productions Inc., or the U.S. attorney’s office. The 52-year-old media mogul, who on Jan. 2 opened her $40 million Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in Henly-on-Klip, South Africa, was still outside the U.S. on Saturday, says the AP.

According to legal papers, Bonvillain met a California-based “business associate” of a Chicago-based company at a party more than two years ago, then recorded 12 hours of conversations with the employee about the owner and her business.

Although the complaint does not specify if Bonvillain had any direct contact with the business owner (which sources say was Winfrey but legal papers don’t identify), it does say that in mid-October he sent her an e-mail, informing her that the employee said “awful things” about her.

In November, Bonvillain sent a letter saying he had tapes of the conversations, according to the FBI, which also alleges that Bonvillain told the associate he wanted to publish a book based on the tapes.

“There are a lot of people who would want these,” Bonvillain is quoted as saying in the FBI complaint, which also claims he mentioned offers of $500,000 to $3 million he had received from tabloids and book publishers.

The associate, working in cahoots with the FBI, agreed to a $1.5 million price, wired Bonvillain $3,000 in earnest money and planned to meet him in the parking lot, according to the complaint. Agents arrested Bonvillain the next day.