A jury Wednesday acquitted Modesto bail bondsman Aleo John Pontillo of all criminal charges against him after a five-month trial and an investigation that went on for several years.
But Pontillo said he didn’t feel any sense of vindication. Since federal and local investigators began to probe into his business, AJ’s Bail Bonds, Pontillo’s wife died, he says he lost his business and he used up a lot of his financial assets to mount a legal defense.
“I’ve lost everything,” Pontillo said in the courthouse hallway after the verdict was announced. “It cost me everything to get a trial.”
His 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, according to Pontillo’s attorney. The defendant said Wednesday that the business no longer exists as it did because of the financial burden involved in defending himself in court. He said he now works as a secondhand bail bond dealer.
The jury of seven women and five men began its deliberations Tuesday morning. The jury returned to the courthouse Wednesday and continued deliberating until about 2 p.m., when it informed the court it had reached a verdict.
The jurors found Pontillo not guilty of conspiracy to kidnap for the purpose of extortion and conspiring with employees in an alleged bail-forfeiture fraud. They also found the defendant not guilty of less serious charges of false imprisonment, attempted false imprisonment and extortion, which were offered as options to the jury.
The trial started in mid-August, but the jury selection process began a few weeks before then. The owner of AJ’s Bail Bonds was accused of holding clients against their will at the business on Yosemite Boulevard to get payments from them.
Frank Carson, Pontillo’s defense attorney, argued that his client was acting within the law, offering clients behind on bail bond payments opportunities to pay what they owed and avoid returning to jail. He told the jury that the trial was the result of a vindictive prosecution by local law enforcement executives intent on ruining Pontillo.
“This is a nightmare that’s just over,” Carson said in the courthouse hallway. “Nobody ought to forget what went on.”
In late September, nearly half of the criminal allegations against Pontillo were tossed after some evidence was presented during his trial. Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Scott Steffen informed the jury that the court had dropped seven grand theft allegations against Pontillo, but that a few grand theft claims remained.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Dave Harris told the jury that the case was about Pontillo’s greed and abuse of power. He argued that the longtime business owner created the policies and work environment that led to forcing clients to pay up by using force or fear.
Carson 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.
Authorities have said Pontillo and office manager Janelle Marie Llorens were responsible for handcuffing the clients to gym equipment and threatening them at the business on multiple occasions from 2006 to 2008.
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 money from the county by submitting fraudulent bail bond claims. He is being prosecuted separately, and his case is still pending.
Llorens 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.
A federally funded countywide gang task force took on the investigation into Pontillo’s business. The investigation became public when the task force raided the business Dec. 23, 2008.
Carson argued that Pontillo became a target after a federal grand jury refused to indict the defendant and federal authorities refused to prosecute him. He said there was a vendetta against his client.
“It’s inexcusable that they had to bring this man and his family to their knees,” Carson said of the prosecution.
District Attorney Birgit Fladager on Wednesday afternoon said the defense attorney’s assertions are totally baseless.
Harris told the jury that Carson’s claims of a vindictive prosecution were “tin-foil-hat” conspiracy theories. The prosecutor argued that Pontillo took advantage of his clients and his employees to corner the local bail bond market at all costs.
Carson and his client were emotional in the courtroom immediately after the verdicts were announced. Pontillo hugged his attorney tightly at the counsel’s table as Judge Steffen thanked the jurors for their service.
Pontillo’s family and his supporters had tears of relief, knowing the case had resulted in an acquittal. The defendant said he couldn’t have fought these allegations without help from his family and friends.
“It’s absolutely vindictive,” Pontillo said about the prosecution’s case. “Clearly, the jury saw through that.”