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Accused Petaluma Ponzi schemer in court

Attorney Steve Gallenson, left, talks to Aldo Baccala prior to his arraignment in Sonoma County Superior Courtroom 9 on Thursday afternoon, June 7, 2012. Baccala, a Petaluma real estate agent, allegedly stole more than $20 million from investors in a Ponzi scheme.

Christopher Chung / PD
Published: Thursday, June 7, 2012 at 4:27 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, June 7, 2012 at 4:27 p.m.

The Petaluma real estate agent accused of a Ponzi scheme involving more than $20 million from his victims made his first court appearance Thursday, delaying a plea until June 15.

Aldo Baccala, 71, stood in a blue jail uniform before Superior Court Judge Robert LaForge and faced 131 counts of securities fraud, 23 counts of grand theft, nine counts of defrauding elderly persons and one count of using a scheme to defraud — all felonies.

The charges carry a maximum of 148 years, eight months in state prison if convicted on all counts, prosecutor Robin Hammond said.

LaForge returned Baccala to jail with bail set at $2 million. Baccala will have to disclose the source of the money should he come up with money for bail.

Baccala was arrested Tuesday in Petaluma after an investigation of more than three-year into his investments involving East Coast senior living facilities, a car wash and other businesses.

Baccala is accused of using his company, Baccala Realty, Inc., to raise millions of dollars from friends and others, most from Petaluma and Sonoma County, prosecutors said. He promised high annual returns of 12 percent or more.

Instead of buying real estate, he used the money to invest in the stock market, cover margin calls and stock trading losses, prosecutors said. Between 2003 and 2008, Baccala is suspected of losing about $8 million in the stock market.

He then began promising higher returns, some reaching 27.5 percent, to get new investors and then use their money to pay earlier investors, prosecutors said.

In November 2008, Baccala told his investors in a letter that he could no longer make monthly payments. Baccala’s investors lost more than $3.2 million, Sonoma County District Attorney officials said.

A group of 75 investors sued Baccala in civil court, which led to a $21 million settlement in 2009.

Some of the victims named in the felony complaint were party to that settlement, which may cause problems with the criminal case, said Baccala’s attorney Steve Gallenson.

“A paragraph in the settlement stipulates there was no fraud, no elder abuse,” Gallenson said. “How that might be relevant to what the district attorney is doing, might be important to the case.”

One victim named in the criminal complaint attended Thursday’s hearing — retired X-ray technician Maribel Chin of Petaluma.

Chin said she and her husband lost the money they had planned to use during their retirement, but did not disclose an amount.

“We thought, when we die we’ll leave that to our two kids,” Chin said. “But that’s gone.”

Chin said she stopped being angry with Baccala, whom she had once believed was a trustworthy person. Still, she wanted to see him in court.

“For some reason I feel bad for him,” Chin said, “but I’m glad he’ll be brought to justice.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com.

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