Police were Out to Get me
If the Orange County jail were a voting precinct, Sheldon Polakoff once boasted, he could carry it in a presidential election.
"My name," he said, "is like a household word there."
Recently, Polakoff has earned even more name recognition at the jail. The Altamonte Springs bail bondsman is being held there, unable to raise $2 million in bail after his arrest last week on criminal charges.
Polakoff, who also runs a used car dealership in Winter Park, has never been one to duck attention -- or trouble, police say. For years, his name has been synonymous with excess to the many lawyers, police and fellow bail bondsmen whose paths he has crossed.
Stout and sporting a goatee, the 58-year-old Polakoff wears flashy gold jewelry (including a necklace with a diamond-studded initial "S"), rarely goes out without a hat (he wore one in his driver's license photo) and always speaks his mind ( "I'll say whatever I think.").
That high visibility, he and his lawyers say, is why police are after him. "Whoever takes down Sheldon Polakoff will get publicity," says Stuart Hyman, one of Polakoff's attorneys. "It's a competition."
The result, Hyman says, is that Polakoff has "been accused of everything short of bestiality."
Authorities find that almost amusing, in light of Polakoff's criminal past. They say they aren't out to get Polakoff.
"We're out to bring lawful charges supported by evidence," says Joe Cocchiarella, Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation director.
In separate cases, Polakoff has been charged with multiple counts of loan- sharking, racketeering, conspiracy to commit racketeering, insurance fraud, grand theft, altering vehicle identification numbers and dealing in stolen property.
In one case, Polakoff and an associate are accused of loaning a Winter Park woman $13,000 at 50 percent interest in March, and $3,000 at 325 percent interest in May. In another case, they are charged with loaning an Orlando woman $10,000 in June and charging her 60 percent interest.
Last week, Polakoff was accused of masterminding a statewide car theft ring that stole and sold at least $300,000 worth of vehicles.
The charges are not the first against Polakoff, who had been indicted or arrested at least six times before. Police and other state authorities have been investigating him for years.
"He's always been of interest to us," says Mike Brock, assistant chief of regional operations at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
"We have suspected him of ongoing criminal activity over the past 15 years of various types. "
"Everyone wants Polakoff," adds Mark NeJame, Polakoff's other attorney. "He's high profile. "
Polakoff developed his swaggering style in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he was born. It's a style that sometimes frustrates his wife and lawyers.
Asked about his 1980 arrest on a charge of battery, Polakoff begins talking excitedly. The man he slapped in a McDonald's had phoned him dozens of times to harass him, Polakoff says. "He was driving me crazy."
"That's enough, Sheldon," NeJame tells Polakoff, trying to quiet his client.
But Polakoff continues his story.
"Stop it, stop it," intones his wife, Rose Marie. "Will you listen to your lawyer?"
Rose Marie then turns to a reporter. "See what he's like? He gets excited."
Polakoff knows he is outspoken.
"You either love me or hate me because I call it like it is. I'm blunt," he says. "I'll say the same thing in front of your face as I'll say behind your back. "
Polakoff says he's worked hard since he was teen-ager, when he put in six days a week at a baking company while going to school in Buffalo, N.Y.
"I'm gifted," he says. "I can make more money legitimately than I can if I steal."
Polakoff moved to Central Florida in the early 1970s. During the next several years, he operated the Safari Club, a topless nightclub now called the House of Babes on U.S. Highway 17-92 in Fern Park. In 1976 Polakoff opened R &S Auto Sales at 2611 Lee Road in Winter Park.
He sold his interest in the nightclub in the early 1980s, he says, but was still operating the car dealership when he was arrested.
In 1980 the Department of Insurance granted him a bail bondsman license after turning him down once before because he failed to share his complete criminal history. In 1981 he opened his bondsman business, which became a success in only a few years. It now operates in Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties.
"You know how I built this business? By working seven days and seven nights a week, 24 hours a day," Polakoff says. "I'd fall asleep in the courtroom because I was so tired.
"I love to work," he adds. "I just wish they'd leave me alone."
Police, however, say their suspicions are warranted. For years, they say, Polakoff's name has come up during criminal investigations.
"But he's been able to escape," says Seminole County sheriff's Lt. Joe Patton. "He's pretty slick."
Polakoff and his lawyers scoff at such accusations, saying police get their information from criminals out to cut a deal to avoid prison.
"They'll say: 'We'll get you out of trouble if you give us Polakoff,' " NeJame says. "They're already dealing with people who broke the law. What better incentive to give them than no jail? "
Polakoff has managed to escape major jail time despite his run- ins with police over the past 26 years.
In 1962, a grand jury indicted him while he was operating a scrap metal business in Buffalo. He was convicted of stealing goods from a railroad car and conspiracy to steal from interstate shipment.
Polakoff was sentenced to five years in prison, but that was suspended and he was given five years' probation.
In 1977, Polakoff was convicted of receiving stolen property and sentenced to 90 days in jail and five years' probation in Seminole County. But a judge later withheld judging him guilty and reduced his sentence to 30 days in jail and three years' probation.
Polakoff was arrested three years later for hitting a man in a McDonald's restaurant in Fern Park. He pleaded no contest and was fined $250 and got three months probation.
He was arrested on charges of burglary in 1976, obtaining property using a worthless check in 1982 and insurance fraud in 1986. In each case, authorities either did not follow through on the charge or dropped it.
Yet even without his criminal record, authorities say, Polakoff still would appear suspicious.
MBI agents say they often make drug busts in areas known to be frequented by criminals. And whom do they see standing on the street corner? Polakoff.
" He's like one of the boys," says Capt. Malone Stewart of the MBI, the agency that arrested Polakoff on the loan-sharking charges.
Polakoff says he goes to such areas to arrest people who have jumped bail. And the only reason he becomes "one of the boys" is to get information about those he's seeking, he says.
"How do I find people I'm looking for if I don't become one of the boys? " he asks.
"That's the way we find people," adds his wife, Rose Marie, 48, also a bail bondsman. "We're bondsmen. It's our business."
"The people he's bailing out don't live in Winter Park," Stuart adds.
Several area bondsmen declined to discuss Polakoff's business dealings or his legal troubles.
One, however, says "most of the bondsmen in this area are ashamed to say he's in the business."
" He's given every one of us a bad name," says the bondsman, who spoke only under the condition that he not be named.
Another bondsman, though, says his colleagues don't like Polakoff because they're jealous.
But, adds bondsman John Von Achen, Polakoff is also to blame for his troubles.
"He's too open at times," Von Achen says. "He doesn't care what other people think of him. "
Yet Polakoff is not likely to change his personality, and he isn't too worried either. He's certain he will be found not guilty.
"I'm not an angel, I'm not saying that," Polakoff says.
But he insists he's not a criminal.
"A thief doesn't work seven days and seven nights a week. Everything I've got I worked for."