A judge on Friday ruled there is sufficient evidence for the owner of a Modesto bail bonds business to stand trial on accusations of holding clients against their will to extort additional payments from them.
Aleo John Pontillo, owner of AJ's Bail Bonds, has been charged with conspiracy to kidnap for the purpose of extortion, conspiracy to commit grand theft and violating state insurance regulations.
Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Scott Steffen dismissed one count of insurance fraud against Pontillo, saying there wasn't enough evidence presented to support that allegation. The judge scheduled Pontillo to return to court April 18 for an arraignment hearing.
Frank Carson, Pontillo's defense attorney, has argued in court that his client was acting within the law. He has said the defendant and other bail bondsmen have the authority to detain people who fail to comply with their bail agreements.
The judge said the bail bonds business had the right to arrest and bring clients to the office for a brief moment before they are turned over to police. They cannot be held to be extorted, he said.
If convicted, Pontillo would face a maximum sentence of life in prison, Chief Deputy District Attorney Dave Harris said in court.
To explain his ruling, the judge noted the incident involving Walter Scott Osborne, one of the claimed kidnapping victims.
Osborne told a 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. He owed money on his bail bond, and he had to make a payment or he wouldn't be released, Osborne told the detective.
The judge also mentioned Alicia Gutierrez and Estevan Montanez, who told investigators they were held at the business and told by employees to come up with money or Montanez would go to jail. The judge said Gutierrez was shown a stun gun at the business and that she recalled the experience as "the worst day of her life."
Two co-defendants in the criminal case, Janelle Marie Llorens and Mark David Davis, are scheduled to return to court Thursday for a pretrial hearing. They're awaiting their preliminary hearing. Llorens was the business's office manager, and Davis worked as a bail agent for the business.
Authorities say Pontillo and Llorens were responsible for handcuffing their clients and threatening them at the Yosemite Boulevard business from 2006 to 2008.
The three defendants are accused of conspiring to steal more than $250,000 from the county by submitting fraudulent bail bond claims. When discussing his ruling in the grand theft charge against Pontillo, Steffen said the evidence shows that the acts claimed to have occurred "go beyond mere carelessness."
Carson argued for his client's bail to be reduced from $1.3 million to $250,000 or $300,000. He said Pontillo is indigent and is having a difficult time continuing to make payments on his bail.
"This is devastating bail to have to keep supporting," Carson told the judge.
He said the court knows that Pontillo is not a danger to the community and will continue to show up for his scheduled court dates.
"My client is not going anywhere," Carson told the judge. "He's a father of eight children and he's taking care of them. He's played by the rules."
The prosecutor argued that reducing Pontillo's bail was not appropriate because he faces a life prison sentence if convicted.
Steffen was researching the bail issue when Carson decided to withdraw his request. Pontillo informed his attorney that he likely would have to take out another bail bond, which could create other difficulties.
Carson told the judge he did not want his client to deal with a tougher financial burden, but that he was going to do more research and would make the bail reduction request again if needed.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2394.