Julian Lethbridge, longtime partner of philanthropist Anne H. Bass, was falling asleep in a sitting room at her Connecticut estate when he was startled by a crashing sound on an April night in 2007.
Then he heard the sound of heavy feet rushing up the stairs and what sounded like a "war cry sound."
Three masked men dressed in black with gloves and shiny combat boots and armed with knives and what appeared to be guns were in the house. They rounded up Bass, the former wife of Texas billionaire Sid Bass, and Lethbridge and brought them to a bathroom while Bass' 3-year-old grandchild slept in another room.
"I thought we were just going to die," Lethbridge said, recalling he told Bass he loved her.
Lethbridge testified Wednesday in U.S. District Court as the first witness at the trial of Emanuel Nicolescu, a former butler at the estate who is accused of participating in the home invasion with others in an attempt to extort $8.5 million from Bass. Authorities say the intruders injected the victims with what they claimed was a deadly virus and refused to provide an antidote unless they turned over the money.
Lethbridge said he initially thought the liquid was a poison or something to knock him unconscious and hoped he would wake up and the ordeal would be over. The substance turned out to be harmless.
Prosecutors say Nicolescu's DNA was found in a Jeep stolen from the property during the crime. Prosecutor Paul McConnell said the case involved circumstantial evidence, but called it compelling.
The crime required inside knowledge such as when Bass would be there and how to access the property, McConnell said. Cell phones did not work in the rural area, so the intruders needed two-way radios, he said.
Nicolescu's attorney, Audrey Felsen, said during opening statements that her client did not plan or participate in the crime, and forensic evidence did not tie him to the scene.
Felsen said everyone should feel safe and secure in their home, and she called the crime horrifying.
"This was their palace. This was their castle," Felsen said. "It's a place of unbelievable beauty and the people who lived in it had incredible wealth."
Some people would do anything to get that wealth but Nicolescu "was not one of them," Felsen said.
Felsen noted that the property has more than 1,000 acres, a sophisticated alarm system and staff such as butlers, cooks and housekeepers, some of whom were at the property the night of the crime. She said the intruders managed to get into the house undetected and were not in a rush to leave.
Lethbridge said staff would have left by the time of the home invasion and said the alarm was not kept on when they were in the house.
He detailed a six-hour ordeal in which he said the men tied up and blindfolded the victims and put hoods over their heads. Lethbridge was given water, but when Bass asked, he said one of the captors threw water in her face, offering no explanation. He said he was hit in the chest so hard it took away his breath.
Lethbridge said he heard clicking sounds and thought the men were preparing to set off an explosive or burn the house down.
He said he explained to his captors that they could not get access to $8.5 million without arousing suspicions. Eventually they gave him and Bass a bitter liquid to drink.
"I kind of thought that was it," Lethbridge said. "It seemed more likely to be a fatal poison than an antidote."
Lethbridge apparently fell asleep and when he awoke, he saw sunshine coming through the window. The house seemed quiet now. He began to try to free himself.
"Suddenly Anne walked into the room, looking very pale," Lethbridge said.
Lethbridge said he checked on her grandchild, who was starting to wake up in a crib.