An Orange County jury found bail bondsman Sheldon Polakoff not guilty Thursday of charges that he helped run an auto theft ring that sold cars from a Winter Park used car lot.
The verdict followed a three-day trial during which two men, who admitted stealing cars and splitting sale proceeds with Polakoff, testified that the bondsman didn't know the cars were stolen. The two were expected to be the state's key witnesses.
The six-member jury took two hours to find Polakoff, 59, of Altamonte Springs, not guilty of racketeering, grand theft, dealing in stolen property and altering vehicle identification numbers.
Two jurors said later that the testimony of the two men, Scott Chase and Dennis Johnson of Orlando, determined their verdict.
" They never pointed their fingers at him," said Ernest O'Neal of Orlando. "Every time the lawyers asked them about him, they said he didn't know anything. "
The statewide prosecutor's office contended that Chase, 30, and Mark Collini, 32, stole upscale cars such as sedans or Chevrolet Corvettes in 1985 and 1986. The two then stripped them for parts or altered them at a body shop on South Orange Blossom Trail, then gave them to Polakoff to sell at his used car lot on Lee Road. The three would split the profits, prosecutors said.
Both Chase and Collini were charged in the case. But prosecutors dropped charges against Collini and agreed to allow Chase to plead guilty to one count of racketeering in exchange for his testimony against Polakoff.
Chase and Johnson testified that they told Polakoff they bought wrecked cars and repaired them. Polakoff would write checks for the cars and parts, then recover his money when the cars were sold, the two said.
Testimony centered on four cars that prosecutors contended Polakoff knew were stolen. Chase originally testified that he thought he had told Polakoff that the cars were stolen.
But Polakoff's attorney Mark NeJame, painstakingly questioned both men about each car, where they had gotten it, how they had fixed it or stripped it, and what conversations they had with Polakoff about each vehicle. Questioned specifically, both men said they could not remember telling Polakoff about stealing cars.
" When you have a conflict like that, it doesn't help," said assistant statewide prosecutor Jim Schneider.
NeJame also asked Chase extensively about his past alcohol, marijuana and cocaine use. Chase admitted that he used all three daily while stealing cars, and that his memory of the time is hazy. To emphasize the points during closing arguments, NeJame put on the defense table two bottles of whiskey, a bag of baking soda that looked like cocaine and oregano wrapped in rolling paper to look like marijuana.
" It's the guess theory of guilt," NeJame told the jury. "They want you to guess him guilty. If you've got facts, you use them. They don't. "
" We couldn't find the evidence they had, where the defendant actually would have known that these cars were stolen," said Joe DeSimone of Orlando. "They were very lacking in the way of evidence."
Source: Orlando Sentinel