August 28, 2014

Bail agent describes handcuffing clients at Modesto business

A bail agent on Thursday afternoon described for a jury how he handcuffed clients in the back of a Modesto bail bonds business because they owed money.

A bail agent on Thursday afternoon described for a jury how he handcuffed clients in the back of a Modesto bail bonds business because they owed money.

Fred Stephens testified that he was authorized to handcuff clients to gym equipment by AJ’s Bail Bonds owner Aleo John Pontillo, who is on trial. Pontillo is accused of conspiring in holding clients against their will to extort additional payments from them. He also is accused of stealing money in a bail forfeiture fraud.

As bail agent, Stephens said he wasn’t “asking” clients to pay what they owed. “I was telling them they better get some money to the office, or I was going to take them back into custody,” Stephens testified.

Frank Carson, Pontillo’s attorney, has told jurors that most of the claimed extortion victims didn’t report these incidents until investigators found them and told them they had been victimized. These clients would plead for a chance to settle their debt at the bail bonds business rather than return to jail, Carson argued.

Stephens used to own a gym, where Pontillo would work out. When Stephens’ gym went bankrupt, Pontillo called him and offered him a job. He started working at AJ’s Bail Bonds in 2005, initially collecting payments and verifying clients’ addresses.

Like most of the other employees, Stephens became a licensed bail agent about a year later. He would get a list of clients who owed money on their bail bonds. Stephens would pick clients up at their homes or at the courthouse as they showed up for court hearings.

He told the jury the clients would be picked up at the courthouse because they owed money, not because they were failing to appear for their court dates. Stephens said he would tell these clients they needed to make arrangements to pay what they owed, “or you’re going back to jail.”

He testified that he wasn’t “asking” the clients to return with him back to the AJ’s Bail Bonds office on Yosemite Boulevard. If the clients refused, “Well, then we were going to have a difficulty,” Stephens said.

Carson has told 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.

The defense attorney also said his client wasn’t around all the time to know exactly what his employees were doing.

Pontillo’s business had a lot of specific instructions listed in its written policy, Stephens said, and the defendant ran the business every day.

Some of the policy rules instructed employees that clients were not to be left unattended in the front of the office, and clients never were to be taken to the back of the office where the gym equipment was without Pontillo’s approval. The jury was shown a copy of that work policy listing those two rules.

Bail agents could ask the clients to find a new co-signer who could ensure their payments were made on time. They also had the option of returning them to jail for failing to comply with a bail bond agreement. In general, the bail agents wanted to do whatever they could to get the clients to make their payments, Stephens testified.

Stephens told the jurors he would handcuff clients to a “squat rack,” which is gym equipment used for strength-training exercises. He said sometimes the clients would have to remain standing while handcuffed, because there wasn’t a bench for them to sit on.

He said he would tell the clients that they needed to figure out how to pay what they owed. Stephens said Pontillo would sometimes do the same with the handcuffed clients.

Another bail agent and the head of the business’s fugitive recovery team, David Nelson, also would handcuff clients to the gym equipment in the back of the office, Stephens testified.

Testimony in the trial is expected to continue next week in Stanislaus Superior Court.

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