Several grand theft allegations against Modesto bail bondsman dismissed

A jury was informed Monday that several allegations of grand theft against a Modesto bail bonds business owner have been dismissed.

Nearly half of the criminal allegations against Aleo John Pontillo are now gone after evidence surfaced during his trial. Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Scott Steffen dropped seven grand theft allegations against Pontillo during a hearing Sept. 29.

The jury was not present during last week’s hearing, so the judge notified the jurors about the dismissed allegations Monday afternoon. Steffen also told the jury that Pontillo, owner of AJ’s Bail Bonds, still faces two remaining grand theft allegations.

Pontillo’s trial began in mid-August. He is accused of stealing money in a bail forfeiture fraud. He also is accused of conspiring in holding clients against their will to extort additional payments from them.

Before the jury was called into the courtroom Monday afternoon, the attorneys and the judge discussed what the judge would tell the jurors about the dismissed grand theft allegations. They did not discuss what evidence led to the judge’s ruling.

While arguing over what to say to the jury, Frank Carson, Pontillo’s attorney, said the allegations were dismissed based “on the failure of the prosecution.” Chief Deputy District Attorney Dave Harris did not respond to that portion of Carson’s argument in court.

Steffen said the jurors would be informed about what led to the ruling during jury instructions that focus on the evidence attorneys are required to provide to their opponents before trial.

The prosecutor suggested the jury be told about the dismissed allegations after testimony has concluded, but the judge decided to tell the jury Monday.

Carson argued that the prosecution has had an unfair advantage because it used information from those now-dismissed allegations in opening statements to the jury and testimony. “It’s time to stop it as soon as possible,” Carson told the judge.

Also Monday, Ray Sarkis testified about what he saw at AJ’s Bail Bonds while working there. He handled recovery and collections when he started working for Pontillo. He later became one of the bail agents at the business.

Sarkis testified that he saw “plenty” of bail bond clients handcuffed to gym equipment in the back of the business on Yosemite Boulevard. The clients were brought back to the business because they failed to make payments, Sarkis said in court.

Typically, the clients were instructed to call family or friends to bring money for their late payments. Sarkis testified that the clients could make a payment immediately, go to jail or wait for Pontillo to arrive.

Sarkis was asked how long the clients would remain at the business. “It could be four or five hours, it could be a day,” he said on the witness stand.

He remembered one client who was handcuffed to the gym equipment about 1:30 a.m. and remained there until about 6 a.m. Sarkis testified that the client told him he was cold, so he gave the client a tablecloth to wrap himself. He said he was never there when Pontillo arrived and spoke with the handcuffed clients.

Before the former employee testified, Robert Forkner was called to the witness stand. Forkner is Modesto-based criminal defense attorney. He was questioned about a client he represented in 2008 who also was one of Pontillo’s bail bond clients.

Gonzalo Rigoberto Lopez Lizarro failed to appear in court Oct. 15, 2008. The judge issued a bench warrant for Lizarro but stayed it, giving Lizarro a chance to return to court to explain his absence. Forkner testified that a court document shows the judge also forfeited Lizarro’s bail bond.

On Oct. 29, 2008, Lizarro returned to court and explained that he failed to appear previously because he was in a San Joaquin County courtroom. The judge recalled Lizarro’s bench warrant and stopped the bail forfeiture.

Forkner testified that there is no mention in the court transcript that the court waived a $50 administration fee that has to be paid by the bail bond business or the defendant.

Testimony in trial is expected to continue Tuesday.