Dec. 18--A defense attorney on Monday told a judge that his client was acting within the law when, according to authorities, the defendant's Modesto bail bond business was holding clients against their will for hours to get additional payments from them.
A preliminary hearing is under way for Aleo John Pontillo, owner of AJ's Bail Bonds, in Stanislaus County Superior Court.
Authorities say Pontillo, along with bail agent and office manager Janelle Marie Llorens, were responsible for handcuffing their clients and threatening them for hours at the Yosemite Boulevard business from 2006 to 2008.
Frank Carson, Pontillo's defense attorney, said his client and other bail bondsmen have the authority to detain people who fail to comply with their bail agreement.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Dave Harris responded to Carson's opening statement by saying that bail agents cannot threaten to arrest someone to force them to make payments. That, he said, is extortion, which is what the evidence will show.
He said employees at AJ's Bail Bonds have the right to detain people and hand them over to the authorities, "not to chain them up in your office until family members show up with money."
Testimony in the preliminary hearing was expected to continue today. At the end of the hearing, Judge Scott Steffen will determine whether there is enough evidence for Pontillo to stand trial.
Llorens' preliminary hearing is scheduled for Feb. 25, along with Mark David Davis, another bail agent from the business who is accused of conspiring with Pontillo and Llorens to commit grand theft.
The three are accused of conspiring to steal more than $250,000 from the county by submitting fraudulent bail bond claims, according to a filed criminal complaint.
Monday morning, Carson asked the judge to consider how the investigation into Pontillo's business was, at one point, handed over to federal investigators. The defense attorney said federal officials were looking into the possibility that an investigator with the Stanislaus County district attorney's office had links to Pontillo.
Feds declined case
When the U.S. attorney's office declined to prosecute Pontillo, Carson said local prosecutors and state officials sought to file criminal charges against his client.
Harris told the judge that it's irrelevant whether federal officials were investigating a possible connection between Pontillo and an investigator with the district attorney's office.
State investigators have said the scheme was for the sole purpose of extorting a bail bond "premium debt," or additional payment, and that the clients who could not make the payments were sent back to jail without cause.
The three defendants, all of Modesto, also are charged with one count of insurance fraud on suspicion of making false statements to the court or a public official for the purpose of preventing forfeiture of bail and having set aside a forfeiture.
Sheriff's Detective Frank Soria testified Monday that he interviewed Walter Scott Osborne, one of the six claimed kidnapping victims. Osborne told the detective that he was taken from his home to the bail bond business and handcuffed to a weight bench until his father arrived with a $100 or $200 payment.
Osborne owed money on his bail bond, Soria testified, and he had to make a payment "or he wouldn't be released."
During cross-examination, Soria said Osborne did not know exactly how much his father paid AJ's Bail Bonds so he could be uncuffed. He didn't examine bail bond records to determine whether Osborne had complied with his bail agreement.
Soria said he knew Osborne was in prison on a child molestation charge, but Soria didn't look into Osborne's criminal background.
The detective testified that he does not have an expertise in bail bonds and only received some briefings on the law pertaining to bail bonds.
Soria questioned Patricia Ramos, who started with data processing and eventually earned a license as a bail solicitor for Pontillo's business. Ramos told Soria that she saw clients brought back to the business and detained until they made payments on the bail accounts.
Taken from jail?
Ramos told Soria that Llorens would drive a crew from AJ's Bail Bonds to the courthouse to do "court checks," where they would pick up clients who failed to keep up with payments. The clients were brought back to the business and told to call relatives to bring money for the payments, Soria testified.
Another woman, who worked as the business's bookkeeper, told the detective she would see about two clients each week brought back to the business and detained until they could make their payments.
Soria testified that Pontillo would threaten them with jail time. "He would belittle them, use profanity toward them, basically intimidate them."
The detective said he was aware that Ramos, who had worked for Pontillo for two years, was applying for a job at a Modesto bail bonds competitor when she was interviewed.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at [email protected] or (209) 578-2394.
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