A prosecutor on Monday told a jury that a Modesto bail bonds business owner orchestrated a conspiracy to extort money from clients and defraud more than $200,000 from the county.
“This is a case about greed and the abuse of authority,” Chief Deputy District Attorney Dave Harris argued.
Aleo John Pontillo, owner of AJ’s Bail Bonds in Modesto, is accused of conspiring in holding clients against their will to extort additional payments from them. He also is accused of stealing money in the claimed bail forfeiture fraud.
Frank Carson, Pontillo’s attorney, told the jury that none of the clients from AJ’s Bail Bonds were kidnapped. He said the people signed contracts with the business that allowed for their capture if they failed to comply with the bail bond agreement.
“What he did was professional and by-the-book,” Carson said about Pontillo.
The defendant is charged with conspiracy to kidnap for the purpose of extortion, conspiracy to commit grand theft and violating state insurance regulations. His trial began Monday with opening statements from the attorneys.
Carson told the jurors that Pontillo’s business, at one point, was handling about half the bail bonds in Stanislaus County, worth an estimated $50 million in financial guarantees that clients would show up to court when ordered.
“That’s how big it was,” the defense attorney said. “The way he rose to the top was he treated people decently, respectfully and professionally.”
The prosecutor painted a different picture of the defendant and how he ran his business. He said the defendant controlled every aspect of the business, and that Pontillo told investigators that about 90 percent of the bonds were based on credit he extended to clients.
“People who owed AJ money were brought back to the business, it’s a simple fact,” Harris told the jurors.
Authorities have said Pontillo and office manager Janelle Marie Llorens were responsible for handcuffing the clients and threatening them at the Yosemite Boulevard business from 2006 to 2008. Six people believed to have been victims are listed in court documents.
A third defendant in the case is Mark David Davis, who worked as a bail agent for the business. Davis is accused of conspiring with the other two to steal more than $200,000 from the county by submitting fraudulent bail bond claims. He is being prosecuted separately.
Llorens has agreed to testify against her co-defendants in exchange for a plea deal that will result in a sentence of 180 days in jail, three years of probation and restitution. Harris argued that Llorens was Pontillo’s enforcer in the office, making sure other employees followed his policies.
The prosecutor showed the jury the business’s written policies, which included that clients could be arrested by bail bonds employees only if it was authorized by Pontillo. “Everyone who came in there with handcuffs were there because AJ wanted them to be,” Harris said in court.
Investigators who searched the Modesto business found client files, and one of them had a photo of a client handcuffed to a weight bench. “Not because he was a fugitive, not because he failed to appear (in court), but because he owed AJ money,” Harris argued.
Carson told the jurors that most of these claimed victims didn’t report these incidents until investigators found them and told them they had been victimized. When these clients failed to comply, they would plead for a chance to settle their debt at the bail bonds business rather than returning to jail, Carson argued.
“Everybody in the bail bonds business extends credit. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that,” the defense attorney said in court.
One client was brought into the business in the middle of the night and handcuffed to gym equipment, forcing him to remain standing for hours until he paid money owed to Pontillo, Harris argued.
The scheme was for the purpose of extorting a bail bond “premium debt,” or additional payment, state investigators have said. The clients who could not make the payments were sent back to jail without cause, investigators said.
Harris said when another client was brought into the business, employees immediately demanded money from him. Harris said Pontillo grabbed the client and ushered him down the stairs into a dark, windowless basement. “AJ said (to the client), ‘I f------ own you. I can do whatever I want with you,’ ” Harris told the jury.
The client was handcuffed to a pole in the dark basement until he was taken to jail because he couldn’t make the payment, Harris argued.
The prosecutor said former employees will testify in the trial about how Pontillo ran his business with strict authority. He told the jury that one of those employees gathered the courage to tell her managers that what they were doing was “kidnapping.”
Carson told the jury that some of the prosecution’s “star witnesses” were fired by Pontillo. He said one of them was fired for embezzling money from the business. He urged the jury to consider their credibility as witnesses.
Pontillo will testify in his trial about how he ran his business. Carson said his client is a former Marine military police officer and widower with eight children.
Pontillo is a “gruff” guy who created strict business policies that adhered to state insurance regulations, his attorney said. But Carson also said his client wasn’t around all the time to know exactly what his employees were doing.
The defense attorney is expected to finish his opening statement when the trial resumes Wednesday in Stanislaus Superior Court. Pontillo remains free on bail as he awaits the outcome of his trial, which is estimated to last five weeks.