IOWA CITY, Iowa — An Iowa woman pleaded guilty today to attempting to extort the parent company of cable network TLC by threatening to reveal an alleged affair involving a cast member of the popular reality show "19 Kids and Counting."
Teresa Hunt, a 49-year-old Bettendorf photographer, entered a guilty plea to one count of extortion during a hearing in federal court in Davenport. Sentencing was scheduled for Nov. 9.
"The government had sufficient evidence to establish her guilt," defense attorney David Treimer said after the hearing, adding that she likely would face a recommended sentence "in the neighborhood of 8 to 12 months" in prison.
Prosecutors say Hunt told TLC's parent company, Discovery Communications Inc., that she had photographs of a cast member of "19 Kids and Counting" that would reveal an inappropriate sexual relationship with a 56-year-old singer from Branson, Mo. The show follows Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar and their 19 children.
A criminal complaint says Hunt sent a letter to Discovery in January threatening to release the photos to tabloids unless TLC either canceled the show or paid her $10,000.
The network contacted the FBI, which had an agent pose as a network representative and call Hunt. During the phone call, Hunt told the network to wire $10,000 to her bank account and agreed to share three photographs and claimed to have more. She was arrested in February.
Investigators have not revealed the identity of the cast member. But Duggar cousin Amy Duggar, a 25-year-old aspiring singer, and Branson singer James Garrett said they were the targets of the plot, which they called laughable.
Duggar and Garrett, who are family friends and know each other from occasionally performing together in Branson, have denied any romantic relationship. They have even released copies of a benign photo they say Hunt used in the plot that shows the two smiling together — a picture available on Facebook taken by Duggar's grandmother.
Amy Duggar, of Fayetteville, Ark., said in a telephone interview Wednesday that she has already forgiven Hunt and was praying she "gets the help she needs."
"I'm saddened for her that she's going to be in prison and will be sentenced. But at the same time, justice is to be served and I think it's necessary for her," she said. "I have no hard feelings at all. I laughed about all of this. There's no truth behind it at all."
Garrett, who performs a John Denver tribute show, said Hunt worked as his personal photographer for two years. He said the two had a falling out when she claimed he owed her $2,500 when he returned from a vacation last winter. He said he was shaken by the extortion plot.
"I don't know why she did it, but I'm glad that she took responsibility for it today," he said. "I hope she gets the help she needs. Clearly what she did was not the thinking of a rational person."
In her letter to Discovery, Hunt claimed to have photographs of Duggar and Garrett from the hallway of Garrett's condominium. She complained that the Duggars "claim to be so Christian so they keep popping out more babies to keep their ratings up."
"You need to get (her) off of '19 & Counting.' Cancel that show or pay me off from exposing this story to the national magazines," Hunt wrote. "$10,000.00 and I keep my mouth shut. Other-wise this story — with exact details and photographs — will hit the tabloids very soon."
A week later, she left a voice message for Discovery saying Duggar should not be on the show because she was falsely portraying herself as a "right-wing Christian." Discovery declined comment.