- Associated Press - Thursday, July 15, 2010

MARQUETTE, MICH. (AP) - A Michigan couple were convicted Thursday of trying to extort $680,000 from actor John Stamos by threatening to sell old photos of him with strippers and cocaine to the tabloids unless he paid up.

Allison Coss, 24, and Scott Sippola, 31, both of Marquette, were found guilty in federal court of conspiracy and using e-mail to threaten a person’s reputation _ charges that could land them in prison for up to five years.

Police arrested the two in a sting in December at an Upper Peninsula airport after Stamos reported being the victim of an extortion attempt.

Defense attorneys told the jury it wasn’t a crime to offer the images to Stamos before going to the celebrity media. FBI agents, however, testified that a search of the couple’s home, vehicles and computer failed to turn up any evidence of embarrassing pictures.

Stamos, 46, was too late to the courtroom to hear the verdict but was present minutes later when the judge polled each juror, a common step in trials. He smiled, looked relieved, and shook hands with the prosecutors.

Sippola was expressionless while Coss wiped her eyes. Sentencing was scheduled for Oct. 8.

Dozens of fans waited to congratulate the former “ER” and “Full House” star as he left the federal courthouse. In a written statement, Stamos said he was “shocked and perplexed” by the “false stories” offered by Coss and defense lawyers.

“These slanderous allegations to smear my reputation were part of their defense to redirect attention away from the federal crime of extortion,” he said.

U.S. Attorney Donald Davis praised Stamos for cooperating with authorities.

“Too often victims are afraid to report such crimes for fear of becoming involved in a drawn-out prosecution, and of being re-victimized by the process,” Davis said.

There is no dispute that Stamos met Coss in Orlando, Fla., in 2004, shortly after he had separated from his supermodel wife Rebecca Romijn _ or that Coss, then 17, attended a party in his hotel room. But their accounts of what happened there differed sharply.

Coss testified that Stamos snorted cocaine, sat nude in a hot tub with the scantily clothed teenager, and made sexual advances as they kissed while lying on a bed.

“There was no hot tub, no drugs, no nudity and nothing sexual in nature involved in my friendship with this woman,” Stamos said in his statement. “They lied about everything.”

Coss and Stamos kept in touch by e-mail over the years. Coss admited hatching a plot to bilk the actor after her boyfriend Sippola found photos of them in Florida.

At first, she sent two messages with a pseudonym claiming to be a girl Stamos had impregnated at age 17. His attorney responded with a lawsuit threat.

Coss then told Stamos a man was harassing her about having incriminating photos of the pair. Stamos said there was nothing to worry about.

“I’ll bust him up. … We didn’t take any bad pics. I’m too smart,” he said in one e-mail.

Coss and Sippola finally posed as “Brian L,” a man who claimed he had pictures of Stamos with drugs and strippers and had been offered $780,000 in a tabloid bidding war. They offered to sell him the pictures for $680,000 but never produced them. Stamos _ and prosecutors _ say they never existed.

“I don’t think Shakespeare could write a story to set up a fake blackmail scheme to set up a real blackmail scheme. But that is exactly what they did,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Maarten Vermaat said in closing arguments.

“This is completely 100 percent made up,” he said of the “get-rich-quick scheme.”

Defense attorney Sarah Henderson told jurors Coss and Sippola were “in over their heads” but didn’t commit a crime and believed they were transacting a legitimate business deal.

“What happened to the pictures? I don’t know the answer to that. I wish I did,” Henderson told the jury, adding that it would be a “stretch” to believe Coss and Sippola would craft a plot but have nothing to sell to Stamos or the tabloids.

The defense contended the compromising photos were lost or destroyed during the FBI raid. Agents repeatedly denied that under questioning by Henderson.

Defense lawyer Frank Stupak Jr. said the verdict was disappointing but the trial was fair.

The four-day trial created a sensation in Marquette, a city of 20,000 on Lake Superior. Fans waited hours outside the courthouse to get Stamos‘ autograph and pose for photos with him as he came and went.

“He seems like a really decent guy,” Lisa Pohlman, 44, said while waiting for a glimpse of the actor. “I really feel bad that he got dragged into this.”