Baccala accepts plea deal, victims unhappy with sentence

UPDATE: During Wednesday's court hearing, Petaluma real estate agent Aldo Baccala accepted the plea deal, and could serve as few as eight years since he will get credit for the two year's he's already spent behind bars.

Aldo Baccala, whose Ponzi scheme bilked dozens of Petaluma residents of an estimated $20 million, may serve a maximum of 20 years, or as few as 10 if he behaves himself in prison. It's a sentence that doesn't sit well with his victims or the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office.

"That's nothing," said one victim angrily, who asked not to be identified. "My life was uprooted because of this man and all that's worth is 10 years?"

On Monday, Judge Gary Medvigy offered the 73-year-old Petaluma resident a choice: plead guilty to every single charge, all 141 of them, and receive a maximum sentence of 20 years. But, with good behavior, he could serve as little as 10 years. If he rejects the deal, the case will proceed to trial on March 28, where he could face as many as 160 years behind bars. He has until the trial's start date to decide whether he'll accept the offer.

"The people objected to that offer," said Robin Hammond, who is prosecuting the case for the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office. "We had offered Mr. Baccala a 20 year deal before the preliminary hearing, and he rejected that."

Baccala has remained behind bars, unable to pay the $2 million bail, since criminal charges of fraud, grand theft and elder abuse were filed in 2012. The longtime real estate agent is accused of luring investors with the promise of large returns on real estate projects, money he then spent paying back other investors, until the entire scheme ran out of funds. Many of his 55 victims were elderly and sunk large portions of their retirement savings into the scam.

"We thought we were doing what we should be doing, setting ourselves up for retirement," said Barbara Moller, a longtime Petaluma high school teacher who with her husband, Charles, lost thousands to Baccala. She agreed that 10 years was not a long enough sentence considering the harm Baccala caused. "We certainly lost a lot of money, but not as much as some people. We had good friends in this who actually lost their home."

Several of his victims spoke about the sense of security they felt from the fact that Baccala was a hometown figure in Petaluma. He was at least casually acquainted with many of his victims.

"His children were the same age as our kids, they were all in school at the same time," Moller said. "We knew a lot of people who were investing with him, who were doing quite well."

The scam came crashing down in 2008, when Baccala quietly notified his investors through a letter that there was no more money to make payments.

His victims responded by immediately filing a civil lawsuit in 2009, which they won, although the three victims the Argus-Courier interviewed have not received any money from that suit to date.

"Not one penny," said another investor who declined to be identified. "I'll be dead before that money appears."

Criminal charges followed in 2012, when both the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office and the Office of the Attorney General filed charges against Baccala. He was originally represented by Santa Rosa attorney Steve Gallenson, but recently has been represented by Lynne Stark-Slater, a public defender.