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Baccala: Petaluma's Bernie Madoff?


Petaluma real estate agent Aldo Baccala was arrested Tuesday for a $20 million-plus scheme that affected more than 50 investors and left a stream of local victims in his wake.

For those believed to be victims of the scheme, the news came as a sign of long overdue justice.

"There is joy in Mudville tonight," said Petaluma resident and longtime acquaintance of Baccala's, Lou Neve. "He is a financial parasite and has ruined a lot of people's lives."

Neve said he and his family lost about $1 million in the scheme.

Baccala, 71, was charged with 167 felony counts of grand theft, securities fraud and elder abuse, District Attorney Jill Ravitch said Tuesday, adding that he had engaged in a pattern of theft and fraud related crimes.

"This Ponzi scheme caused dozens of investors to lose the money they thought they would be securing and investing," stated Attorney General Kamala Harris, whose office collaborated in the three-year investigation.

Baccala was a longtime real estate agent in Petaluma with an office on G Street, and many of the investors were local, living in Petaluma or a neighboring area, said Neve.

"He started with a group that was close to him, friends and relatives," said Neve, who owns a flower growing business in Petaluma. "He built out from that."

Vincent Montanelli, who now lives in Los Angeles, met Baccala around 10 years ago through a mutual friend and invested after hearing Baccala's pitch that he would get returns on his investments, then doing research to make sure it seemed viable.

"This has caused a lot of people's lives to be really difficult when they shouldn't have been," he said, though he didn't disclose how much he lost personally.

"I'm looking forward to being able to tell my story in court and ultimately, to justice being served," he said.

Still, the news came as a surprise to some Petalumans who were friends with Baccala's children or had fond childhood memories of the longtime Petaluma resident and former youth sports supporter, with some Facebook commenters saying they were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt until proven guilty.

But for one local real estate broker who wished to remain anonymous, Baccala's alleged activities came as no surprise. He was a "high-flyer" the broker said, who "made it and lost it several times."

Indeed, in 1994, Baccala and his wife Karen were sued by people they recruited to invest more than $3.2 million to convert a bourbon distillery into an ethanol production plant, according to previous Argus-Courier reports. Lawyers for the investors said that the Baccalas falsely told them that the plant was in production.

Officials said Tuesday that many of the victims of the recent scheme were elderly and had known Baccala and his family for many years. Through his business, Baccala Realty, Inc., Baccala raised millions of dollars from investors for East Coast nursing homes and a car wash, among other things, officials said.

He promised them returns of 12 percent or more to invest in a specific project, which was supposed to be secured by a first or second deed of trust on the property. In fact, none of the promised deeds of trust were ever recorded, and the funds raised were not used as promised, officials said.

He also allegedly used investors' money to buy stocks, losing about $8 million in the stock market from 2003 to 2008.

With growing debts, officials said, Baccala began promising a new round of investors annual returns of as much as 27.5 percent.

It appears to be a classic example of the Ponzi scheme made famous by Bernard Madoff. In a Ponzi scheme, organizers offer investors big returns on their investments, often not actually investing in the promised activity. Then they solicit a new round of investors and use their money to pay off the first round of investors. Due to little or no real earnings ever flowing in, the schemes typically collapse.

In 2008, more than 75 investors sued Baccala after he sent them letters saying he could no longer make promised payments. They settled in 2009 for $21 million.

In 2009, the investors' complaints led the District Attorney's office, assisted by the Attorney General's office, to launch an investigation into Baccala's dealings, which in turn led to Tuesday's arrest.

"We intend to seek justice for Sonoma County residents who suffered tragic losses in a fraudulent scheme," Ravitch said. The case will be jointly prosecuted, though it's unlikely that the investors will ever regain all the money they lost.

Still, said Neve, "All the people still suffering financial pains (from this), at least the guy that put them through that will be called onto the carpet before a court of his peers."

As of Tuesday, Baccala was being held on $2 million bail at the Sonoma County Jail. A call to his and his wife's home went unanswered.

Victims can get more information by visiting the Sonoma County district attorney's website at http://bit.ly/NJkcz5.

(Contact Jamie Hansen at jamie.hansen@argus courier.com)