Judge denies appeal by Coss, Sippola in Stamos extortion case

MARQUETTE – U.S. District Court Judge R. Allan Edgar dismissed the appeals Tuesday of two Marquette residents who claimed they had ineffective legal counsel during their July 2010 jury trial, where they were convicted of trying to extort $680,000 from actor John Stamos.

Scott Edward Sippola, 34, and Allison Lenore Coss, 27, were convicted and later sentenced to four years in federal prison. An evidentiary hearing was held Oct. 24 in Marquette.

Sippola and Coss alleged their attorneys violated their Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel by advising the defendants to decline a plea agreement and instead go to trial.

“These plea agreements, petitioners claim, would have resulted in sentences less severe than the sentences they received after their trial,” Edgar wrote in his 10-page judgment.

Sippola was represented at the trial by attorney Sarah Henderson of the law firm of Casselman and Henderson of Marquette.

“As a consequence of her bad advice, upon which I relied, I did not accept the plea offer and went to trial,” Sippola said in an affidavit.

Coss’ trial attorney was Frank Stupak Jr. of Escanaba.

“I feel that if my attorney truly had my best interest at heart, he would have explained the long odds I faced at trial, the severe sentencing exposure and counseled me to accept the plea offer,” Coss said in an affidavit.

The ineffective counsel claim was the sole issue remaining to be decided from motions filed last November by Coss and Sippola asking to have their sentences vacated and that they be resentenced or released from prison.

In July, Edgar dismissed additional ineffective counsel claims from the motions, reserving ruling on the final claim until the Oct. 24 evidentiary hearing was held.

Edgar said the framework for evaluating ineffective counsel claims is found in the 1984 case Strickland versus Washington from Dade County, Fla. Strickland establishes a two-part test for deciding claims of ineffective assistance of counsel.

“First, the petitioners are required to demonstrate that attorneys’ performance was deficient. This requires showing that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as ‘counsel’ guaranteed a criminal defendant under the Sixth Amendment,” Edgar wrote. “Second, petitioners must demonstrate that their attorney’s deficient performance caused them to suffer actual prejudice.”

Edgar sided with Stupak and Henderson and doubted claims made by Coss and Sippola.

“Sippola now says that Henderson advised him to reject the proposed plea agreement, and told him that based on the facts, he (Sippola) had not committed a crime; that what he had done was morally, but not criminally, wrong,” Edgar wrote. “The court does not find this credible. Henderson, an experienced and capable attorney, denies making such a statement, and in the Court’s view, would never have told Sippola that he had not committed a crime. Moreover, Sippola’s veracity, just based on his undisputed actions that led up to this case, is suspect.”

Edgar said Coss’ relationship with Sippola was the main problem in her not being able to take a plea deal offered by the government.

“They lived together; hatched the extortion plot together; and evidently decided to go down together,” Edgar wrote. “Stupak was told by Coss that she and Sippola did not want to conflict. She couldn’t bring herself to tell the truth, which she knew could likely result in her testifying against Sippola. She took the hit. She prevented herself from receiving the misdemeanor plea offer despite Stupak’s best efforts.”

Edgar said neither Coss nor Sippola satisfied the necessary provisions of the Strickland test and denied the two appeals.

Coss had met Stamos at a club in Florida in 2004. She and a girlfriend attended a party in Stamos’ hotel room. Photographs of Coss, Stamos and others were taken at the party.

Coss and Stamos exchanged email addresses and corresponded over the next several years. She visited Stamos in Chicago in 2005 while the actor was filming a television show.

Coss and Sippola began dating in 2008. Sippola saw the photographs of Coss and Stamos from Florida and suggested the two try to sell the pictures to the actor.

Through the use of two fictitious email personas, the two defendants contacted Stamos and claimed they had some “bad” photos showing the actor with strippers and cocaine. They offered to sell the pictures to Stamos before approaching the tabloid press. No compromising photographs were ever produced.

Stamos reported the situation to his attorney, who contacted the FBI.

Coss and Sippola were arrested in December 2009 after they went to Sawyer International Airport to pick up money from a Stamos-police go-between. The cash they sought was to be used to pay off Sippola’s house in Marquette Township.

The two defendants were indicted in May 2010 on one count of conspiracy to extort money by use of interstate communications (e-mail) and two counts of transmission of interstate communications of threat to injure the reputation of another with intent to extort money.

In October 2010, Sippola and Coss were sentenced to serve four years on the first count and two years concurrently on each of the two remaining convictions.

John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.