A defense attorney said a case against a Modesto bail bondsman is filled with tricks to mislead the jury and is a result of a vindictive prosecution.
“We shouldn’t have had to do this trial,” said Frank Carson, who represents Aleo John Pontillo. “This trial is a vendetta, that’s what it is.”
Pontillo, owner of AJ’s Bail Bonds in Modesto, is on trial. He is accused of holding clients against their will to extort payments from them. The defendant also is charged with conspiring with employees in an alleged bail-forfeiture fraud.
Carson had his turn to speak to the jury Thursday. Closing arguments were expected to continue Monday before the jury begins its deliberations.
Pontillo’s attorney argued that the prosecution created a lot of smoke with tales of the bondsman intimidating clients and mistreating his employees. But Carson said there’s no fire underneath that smoke, only law enforcement leaders and investigators with the sole intent of ruining Pontillo.
He told the jurors that Pontillo criticized the Stanislaus County sheriff and district attorney, reporting claimed misconduct to the state bar association, the state insurance department and the county civil grand jury.
Pontillo’s criticism, Carson said, turned the businessman, Marine veteran and father of eight children into a target of law enforcement. “If you do those things, you won’t survive,” Carson said in court.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Dave Harris argued that Pontillo was the leader of a conspiracy to unlawfully detain clients at his Yosemite Boulevard business for hours until they came up with the money they owed. He told the jury that Pontillo’s greed and abuse of power led to lying to the court to get out of paying when clients skipped bail.
The defense attorney said the prosecution brought in an array of witnesses who couldn’t remember dates or other important and relevant information to the case. “They coached their witnesses and rehearsed their perjury,” Carson argued.
Pontillo and his employees were authorized to detain clients who owed payments on their bail bonds, failed to provide truthful information on their bail contracts or had not provided updated contact information. These all increase the risk of a client skipping bail.
Carson said 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 said.
“They’ve moved heaven and earth to get out of jail,” he told the jury. “They moved heaven and earth to stay out of jail.”
Pontillo’s business, at one point, was handling about half the bail bonds in the county, worth an estimated $50 million in financial guarantees that clients would show up to court when ordered.
So, Carson asked the jury, why weren’t there more than just a few claimed victims of this systematic conspiracy at AJ’s Bail Bonds? “If this is the business model, this courtroom, this courthouse should be full of people victimized,” the defense attorney argued.
He also asked, if there was a criminal conspiracy at AJ’s Bail Bonds, why would Pontillo have installed security cameras at his business that produced footage the prosecution used as part of its case? Why would Pontillo institute strict rules for employees and extensive paperwork and notes on each case file?
“Crooks don’t want a paper trail,” Carson argued.
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 thousands of dollars 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.
The prosecutor has argued that Llorens was Pontillo’s enforcer in the office, making sure other employees followed his policies. In his closing arguments, Harris said Llorens’ loyalty to Pontillo was evident in her reluctance on the witness stand.
Carson said Llorens was the prosecution’s star witness, and that now Harris is implying she lied during testimony. He argued that should be a clear example of the manufactured story the prosecution is trying to get the jury to believe.
“The deal is to destroy him,” Carson said about his client. “To bring him down, that’s why we’re here.”