After a delay one month ago, a controversial case against three Collier County bail bond agents is one step closer to trial.
A Collier County judge hearing the cases of the agents, all charged with soliciting inmates to drive business their way, allowed the defense attorneys to call one of those inmates to the stand Tuesday as part of a motion to dismiss.
The motion was eventually turned down, but the inmate’s testimony at Tuesday’s hearing may eventually confirm the contention by defense attorneys that the three defendants are the only ones being prosecuted out of a widespread net of bail bonding agents using similar tactics every day.
Collier Circuit Judge Frank Baker listened to arguments from both sides for roughly an hour before reluctantly allowing the defense to call Patrick Rosemellia, currently housed at the Collier County Jail, to testify about his involvement with Liberty Bail Bonds of Naples and Express Bail Bonds of Immokalee.
The bail bond companies are headed up by Juanita Williams, 52, and Joe Houston, 37, known as “Teflon Joe” for successfully fighting other, similar charges over the last decade. Houston owns both companies and Williams manages the Immokalee office. Zenova Abrahams, 40, another employee, is also set to stand trial as part of the same investigation that netted charges against Williams and Houston.
All three are charged with permitting a convicted person to be a bail bond agent, allowing someone without a license to act as an agent and soliciting business in a jail; two third-degree felonies and a first-degree misdemeanor, respectively. Their bonding licenses have been suspended, which prevents them from executing bonds, but allows them to be in their offices.
It is against Florida law for a bail bond agent to directly or indirectly solicit business in or around a jail or prison. Requests to post bond must be initiated by an inmate, an inmate’s attorney or a family member.
Since being charged two years ago this month, Williams and Houston have vociferously denied any wrongdoing. Williams has organized protests in front of the Collier County Courthouse, calling the Collier County Sheriff’s Office prejudiced against women and African-Americans. The case has attracted the attention of the NAACP, which in January began its own investigation into allegations of racial discrimination against Williams and against Houston, the only African-American bail bond company owner in the county.
The charges stemmed from a Collier County Sheriff’s Office investigation in which inmate commissary accounts were tracked and inmate phone calls taped, which investigators said showed extensive phone conversations with agents at Express and Liberty. The commissary accounts, used by inmates to purchase snack foods and toiletry items, showed deposits of money orders, which the state prosecutor’s office has said can be tracked to agents from Express and Liberty.
The three defendants all have different attorneys, and are being tried separately, but Baker is hearing the pre-trial motions all at once.
Williams’ attorney, Robert Pelier, filed the motion to dismiss in October. He based his motion on allegations that the Collier County Sheriff’s Office has selectively pursued the investigation against Williams, Houston and Abrahams on the basis of race, and alleged conflict of interest inside the sheriff’s office.
Attorneys for Houston and Abrahams joined the motion to dismiss. Pelier’s main argument, which attorneys Donald Day and David Agoston echoed, center on the allegation that the same inmates who have admitted to plugging Liberty and Express also worked with other bonding companies.
That selective prosecution, Pelier said, would be grounds to dismiss the case.
Rosemellia answered the judge’s questions about his involvement with other bonding agencies, choosing at times to decline to answer some questions.
He said he called other bail bond agencies in addition to Liberty and Express while in jail and confirmed he received money in his account from at least one agency — though he said he could not remember which one. He confirmed acting on behalf of Liberty and Express in 2006 or 2007.
“Prior to this, I’ve done some things for other bail bonding agencies, but not in the last few years,” Rosemellia said.
Along with one other inmate, Rosemellia pleaded no contest in 2008 to acting as a bail bonds agent without a license, part of a plea agreement in exchange for his testimony against Liberty and Express. During that hearing, he told a judge he had solicited business for Houston in exchange for hundreds of dollars worth of honeybuns. The pastry can be used to barter for other items or favors in jail.
Under further questions Tuesday, Rosemellia said his actions on behalf of other firms occurred sometime between eight and 10 years ago.
With a loose date of Monday to reconvene, Baker directed the three defense attorneys to conduct depositions of Rosemellia, if they choose, to ask more specific questions about his involvement with other bonding agencies, including any compensation he may have received from other agencies.
Baker denied the request to dismiss — there was not enough evidence to show, without a doubt, that the three defendants were singled out among a slew of other bail bond companies. However, Baker acknowledged the weight of the allegations before the hearing ended.
“It may be that we have a person here who has done a lot of stuff for other people,” Baker said, referring to Rosemellia. “And maybe no one knew about it. But, there may be an issue out here ... and it may be relevant for trial.”
Among a handful of motions, Day asked Baker to consider bond for Houston. Baker had denied bond to Houston after he turned himself in on separate charges in September and a plea deal later fell through. He has been in jail without bond since October, stemming from a charge of employing a bail bond agent — a secretary — without a license at the Immokalee office. That charge is not part of this trial.
Baker denied the motion, but said he would hear it again Monday if it turns out that another continuance is in order. Before being led back to the jail, Houston, who was dressed in a suit and tie, hugged family members and wiped tears from his cheeks.
Pelier, for his part, said he was buoyed by Rosemellia’s testimony.
“We’re encouraged that the truth about the motivation and the investigation is coming out,” said Pelier. “I think it opens up the window for the court to see what’s going on here: this county never, ever initiating any investigation into similar actions by other bail bonding firms.”
Connect with reporter Leslie Williams Hale at naplesnews.com/staff/leslie_hale