Arizona man pleads guilty in scheme to falsely accuse Georgia Tech coach of sexual assault

An Arizona man has pleaded guilty to trying to extort the Georgia Institute of Technology by falsely claiming the school's basketball coach had committed sexual assault.

Ronald Bell, 56, and his girlfriend, 50-year-old Jennifer Pendley, have both pleaded guilty to charges of attempted extortion as part of the scheme. Pendley had already pleaded guilty in late February.

According to the indictment and information provided in court, Bell and Pendley allegedly worked with a Georgia Tech security guard to falsely accuse basketball coach Josh Pastner of sexual assault.

Officials say Bell recruited the guard to claim that he saw Pastner assault Pendley, who later filed a lawsuit claiming sexual battery, sexual assault, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Head coach Josh Pastner of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets is seen during the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Purcell Pavilion on February 26, 2017 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

"The defendant tried to extort Georgia Tech and egregiously tarnish the reputation of the university’s coach with a false claim of sexual assault," said U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Buchanan.  "By his guilty plea he acknowledged the lie and his criminal conduct, and will now face the consequences for his crime."

Investigators say that Bell told the security guard the false accusation could be worth $20 million, promising him a share of the money. 

In texts sent to the university, Bell demanded money in exchange for not reporting the alleged assault, saying "This is going to get very ugly.  GT has made no effort … to amicably resolve this … I guess this has to get ugly. I tried to resolve this without damaging GT’s reputation."

After Pendley filed the lawsuit and an investigation into the claims began, officials say the security guard admitted his statements were false.

"Bell sought to severely damage the reputation of the institution and their coach solely for his own financial gain," said Keri Farley, Special Agent in Charge of FBI Atlanta. "The FBI will not tolerate false allegations and will do everything in our power to seek the truth and hold individuals who commit these type of crimes accountable for their selfish actions."

ESPN reports that Bell was a former friend of Pastner and had previously been convicted in Arizona on six misdemeanor counts including attempted tampering with a witness.

He's expected to be sentenced in June.