A Jersey therapist gets 6 months’ home detention
inquirer.com, February 16, 2021
A South Jersey therapist was sentenced Tuesday to six months of home detention after she paid $4,000 to an undercover FBI agent who posed as a hit man willing to beat up an ex-boyfriend she said took her money and kept her “in a constant state of fear.”
Diane Sylvia paid the would-be enforcer, but the plan never went through. On Tuesday, the 60-year-old Somers Point woman told U.S. District Judge Joseph Rodriguez in Camden that she recognized her crime and “never truly wanted” to hurt the ex-boyfriend, Tom Houle.
But, she said, “it seemed like the only way to be safe and to make sure he did not hurt anyone else.”
Sylvia, who has a history of mental illness, told the judge that she met Houle years ago when they both were patients in an Atlantic City psychiatric hospital. He asked to stay at her place because he was depressed, and she let him, she said. She then learned he was a gambler, and she was a gambling counselor, and thought she could help him.
But over the next seven years that they were together in an on-and-off relationship, “he became manipulative, explosive, and blackmailed me by threatening to tell the social work board I was impaired because I had bipolar disorder,” she said. “… He kept me in a constant state of fear.”
Her attorney, Thomas Calcagni, told the judge that the boyfriend had over the years extracted $300,000 to $400,000 from Sylvia, as financial records showed.
(Efforts by The Inquirer to contact Houle on Tuesday were unsuccessful.)
Sylvia reported the extortion to law enforcement authorities and also expressed her concern that he was preying on other women, but they failed to help her, Calcagni said. In June 2016, she called the FBI’s Newark office and reported that she was being abused by the man, and also filed a report with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, he said.
“Despite Diane’s painfully apparent duress and desperation in those pleas to the FBI for help and protection, the FBI never responded,” Calcagni said.
Sylvia also filed complaints with two other agencies, but they did not help, he said.
In 2018, Sylvia, who had a practice in Linwood, N.J., turned to a patient of hers, a former gangster, asking for his help. The patient was also an FBI informant, and told the FBI that Sylvia asked for his help to kill the man. An undercover FBI agent who pretended to be a hit man and member of the Pagans gang then met with Sylvia.
Laura Leahy, Sylvia’s therapist since 2011, told the judge that the recordings between the undercover agent and Sylvia show she “never expressed a wish for the gambler to die throughout those interactions.”
Sylvia told the judge she ultimately felt trapped between the two men. “In the end, I paid the money because I was afraid to say no to the man I thought was a dangerous member of the violent Pagans motorcycle gang,” she said. “I was scared, hurt, and angry.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Askin agreed that Sylvia was under duress at the time of her crime, that Houle had essentially defrauded and blackmailed her, and that she suffered mental-health issues. He also said it wasn’t disputed that Sylvia reported the alleged exploitation to authorities. But the extortion was “viewed as difficult to establish” and Sylvia “had sort of compromised her credibility,” Askin said.
Askin also said it was “unfortunate” that the FBI and other authorities didn’t act on Sylvia’s complaints, but noted they deal “with a ton of complaints.”
After Sylvia was arrested in November 2018, she spent three days behind bars. She pleaded guilty in September to solicitation to commit a violent crime.
Calcagni said that Sylvia has voluntarily surrendered her social work license and will never practice again.
That Houle blackmailed, extorted, and caused Sylvia duress “is undeniable,” the judge said. He also recognized that she had been “constantly sought out” by authorities during times of need and that even while facing threats by Houle, she was able to counsel others in need.
Rodriguez noted that her offense was serious, but also said of Sylvia: “It’s hard to think in view of this record that this defendant would be a danger to the public.”
By Julie Shaw