Jury Clears 3 of Trading Cars for Drugs

By Mike Oliver | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted October 26, 1989

A federal jury on Wednesday found bail bondsman Sheldon Polakoff not guilty of drug charges, the second time in four weeks a jury has cleared Polakoff of a crime.

Along with Polakoff, his business associate, Mark Collini, 31, of Winter Springs, and Juan Alcantaria, 22, of Miami, were cleared of drug charges by the jury after more than four hours of deliberations.

" We did exactly as we were instructed - we took the evidence and weighed it," jury foreman Jackson Brewton said after the verdict in an Orlando courtroom. "We didn't go with our gut feelings; we went with the evidence."

U.S. District Judge G. Kendall Sharp told jurors he believed they rendered the proper verdict in light of the government's case, which relied mostly on the testimony of convicted criminals.

" Just to set your minds at ease, I agree with your verdict," Sharp said. "Convicted felons have various degrees of credibility. You had a unique collection of slimy creatures testify and a lack of corroborating evidence. "

Court employees told defense lawyers that the acquittal was believed to be the first by a jury in a drug case over which Sharp presided since taking the bench in 1984.

Polakoff, 59, Collini, Alcantaria and Antonio Mata of Miami were charged in a conspiracy to trade cars from Polakoff's former used car lot for more than 6 pounds of cocaine. The case against Mata was thrown out Tuesday by Sharp for lack of evidence.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ron Hayward said little after the verdict.

" That's it," he said. "I'm not going to disagree with the jury's verdict."

The type of case presented by the government is called a "historical drug case." Such cases are the most difficult to prosecute because no cocaine has been seized, and no audio tapes or videotapes are available to capture a suspect in a criminal act for the jury to see.

Instead, historical cases rely primarily on testimony from witnesses who often have criminal backgrounds.

In this trial, the defense hammered the government's three key witnesses, all of whom had drug convictions.

" A cast of characters . . . a host of con men," Polakoff's lawyer, Mark NeJame, called the witnesses in closing arguments.

" Slithering reptiles . . . who spew forth their venom," Collini's lawyer Joerg Jaeger said of the witnesses.

Prosecutor Hayward told the jury that witnesses to drug deals do not usually sing in the choir. "These people they call snakes - they are the same people dealing with the defendants."

Jaeger said it was government documents that detailed the extensive plea bargain arrangements for the witnesses that eventually tripped the government.

It was the second acquittal in a row for NeJame, who defended Polakoff on state racketeering charges in Orange County circuit court in September. NeJame said he was gearing up to defend his client again in circuit court on loan sharking charges. That trial is scheduled for December.

" The public should be outraged," NeJame said. "We have a conspiracy of law enforcement who have targeted my client. They are letting criminals off to get one person."

Polakoff, who has turned his bail bonding and car business over to his wife, said afterward he just wanted to get on with his life.

" This has been a nightmare, " he said.

NeJame said Polakoff has been targeted because he is a successful businessman who deals with criminals as part of his business. The criminals make accusations and police jump at the chance to nail a successful businessman, NeJame said.

Polakoff, who lives in Altamonte Springs, admits that a previous felony conviction from New York and a rough, gruff demeanor has not endeared him to law officers.

Jaeger summed it up when he told the jury in his closing, "If you're going to find Sheldon Polakoff guilty because you don't like him then I'll vote with you, because I don't like him either."

Source: Orlando Sentinel