Preliminary hearing wraps up for Petaluma man accused of Ponzi scheme

A judge signaled her doubt Friday about prosecutors' ability to prove all 164 charges against a Petaluma real estate agent accused of bilking more than 50 investors out of $20 million.

Judge Shelly Averill said it will be difficult to sort out which money collected by defendant Aldo Baccala from 2004 to 2008 was rolled into legitimate projects and which was used to pay off other investors in a vast Ponzi scheme.

At the conclusion of lengthy preliminary hearing about Baccala's convoluted business dealings, Averill seemed to suggest some of the money may not be traceable.

"Clearly this is a huge proof problem at trial," she said.

Still, Averill said she had "done the math" and would be prepared to rule on the matter Tuesday.

Baccala, 72, is suspected of running one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in Sonoma County history, tapping into the life savings of friends and retired people who invested from $25,000 to $2 million on the promise of double-digit returns.

Prosecutors said he raised millions for a nursing home venture in the Carolinas, a Nevada car wash and a mushroom farm in Colusa, but directed the investments to someplace else.

The scheme started to unravel when he lost about $8 million in the stock market. To compensate, he took on new investors, promising returns up to 27.5 percent, said Ronald Smetana, a senior prosecutor for the state Attorney General's Office.

Smetana said that's when Baccala got on a "treadmill" in which he was paying off old investors with new money, in violation of state laws.

"The only way for Mr. Baccala to stay on that treadmill was to bring in more money," he said.

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