PEABODY — For a moment yesterday, Anthony “Tony the Fruit Guy” Polsonetti Jr. wasn’t sure whether what he’d done amounted to extortion.
During a hearing in Salem Superior Court, where he pleaded guilty to extortion, loansharking, attempting to suborn perjury and drug distribution, Polsonetti quibbled with the judge when asked if the allegations were true.
“I might have called him up and yelled at him,” said Polsonetti, 54, of Gloucester, about a debtor who hadn’t paid.
The prosecutor had just described how Polsonetti sent an associate, Christopher Sherry, to collect on a high-interest debt owed by a Peabody man, a collection effort that ended with Sherry firing 14 bullets into the borrower’s home early one morning in 2011.
Polsonetti didn’t order the shooting, but did make his own efforts to get the man to pay up on a $3,000 loan.
After a brief discussion with his attorney, Robert Goldstein, Polsonetti admitted he had tried to extort the Peabody man, though he insisted he was just looking for $400, not $3,000.
“What did you say to him?” asked Judge John Lu.
“I told him I was gonna break his head,” Polsonetti replied.
The Peabody man was one of at least three North Shore residents who had borrowed money from Polsonetti over the last several years, said Prosecutor John Dawley, who described how those borrowers would owe Polsonetti interest of 21/2 to 3 percent per week, well beyond the state’s limit of 20 percent annual interest on loans.
But when the Peabody man began dodging him, Polsonetti sent Sherry, 42, to see the debtor. Sherry, however, didn’t know what the debtor looked like, and was duped into leaving.
He returned later and opened fire on the Lowell Street home, sending bullets into several rooms, including a bedroom. Sherry, who pleaded guilty last year, is now serving a six-to-eight-year prison term.
The shooting sparked a police investigation that let to search warrants being issued for Polsonetti’s home and business. Those searches turned up a ledger containing information on loans made by Polsonetti, as well as a bag of oxycodone pills, enough to charge Polsonetti with drug trafficking.
Investigators learned of a Beverly man who had borrowed $5,000 at an interest rate that amounted to 150 percent per year, and a Manchester man who had borrowed $3,000, also at a usurious interest rate.
Then, as the case was being presented to a grand jury, Polsonetti leaned on the Beverly man, Dawley said. He wanted the man to deny to the grand jury that he’d borrowed money from Polsonetti.
The drug charge was reduced yesterday to possession with intent to distribute, partly as a result of the fact that the state chemist who tested the pills was Annie Dookhan, who has pleaded guilty to falsifying drug test results and lying about her credentials.
Polsonetti is also facing an attempted murder charge, as well as a charge of conspiracy, but prosecutors expect to drop those counts once the plea agreement is completed next month.
Sentencing in the case is scheduled for Jan. 27. Polsonetti is expected to receive a 31/2-to-seven-year prison term.
Lu warned Polsonetti that while he is free on bail awaiting sentencing, probation officers will have the authority to conduct random searches of his home and business and conduct random drug tests.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.