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O.C. Bail Bonds Family Steels for Downsized Trial

April 17, 2005|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

Last September, when authorities rounded up the family who ran Southern California's largest bail bonds firm, the story that emerged bordered on the sensational.

The Palestinian clan that ran American Liberty Bail Bonds, police said at the time, diverted tens of millions of dollars to the Middle East, money they made through drug sales and hustling cons and jail inmates through intimidation and kidnapping.

Known on the street for its easy-to-remember phone number -- (800) BAILGUY -- the firm pulled in as much as $30 million a month, police said, which helped explain the $700,000 in cash police said they found in the family's La Habra home.

In a search warrant, the police suggested the Yousef family had ties to terrorism and mentioned Al Qaeda, Hezbollah and other groups.

But as both sides prepare for a court hearing this month, the charges listed in a criminal complaint suggest police greatly exaggerated the family's alleged activity.

Despite a nine-month investigation by a task force of 150 officers, there is no mention of terrorism in the complaint, and the single remaining kidnapping charge stems from an allegation already investigated -- and rejected -- by law enforcement officials in Los Angeles County.

Meanwhile, the Yousefs say their business is in collapse and their reputations damaged by the suggestion that they had terrorist ties.

"In less than one day, the police tore down what took me 15 years to build," said Adnan "Dan" Yousef, referring to the day authorities arrested him and his three sons and put his company out of business.

Still, the charges against the Yousefs and six American Liberty employees are substantial and could result in prison terms. The family's attorney, Mike McDonnell, said he doubted that any of the charges would still be standing if his client weren't of Middle Eastern descent.

Yousef, 56, was born in the Palestinian territories and grew up in Jordan. He and his brother, Hisham Rashid, arrived in Puerto Rico in 1977. There, Yousef said, they sold clothing door to door for three years before saving $50,000, moving to Southern California and purchasing a liquor store.

Over the years they branched out, together or separately, into about two dozen business ventures, including a check-cashing business. Rashid has not been charged with a crime.

Last fall, law enforcement officials painted Yousef and his sons -- Monther, 18, Ameer, 19, and Tarek, 21 -- as the heavies in a criminal enterprise that ran what they considered to be a street-level army. They gave discounts to inmates in exchange for criminal favors, sold drugs, laundered money and shipped $140 million to the Middle East, authorities said.

But the 45-count criminal complaint against the Yousefs and their employees tells a different story.

There is no mention of drug sales, illegal money shipments overseas, illegal weapons or terrorist connections among the charges. Thirty-nine of the counts allege that American Liberty used unlicensed agents to post bail and that the Yousefs and their employees falsified records.

"I can only tell you," said Michael J. Pear, the Orange County deputy district attorney who took over the case in December, "the charges we've filed are related to the operation of American Liberty and its employees and involve, among other things, allegations that they used unlicensed bail agents and people with prior criminal records as bail agents."

Based on his knowledge of the case, Pear said, "I wouldn't have made any such statements" about terrorism, drug trafficking or suspicious money shipments overseas.

The case was marked with confusion from the moment the arrests were announced. Adnan Yousef was listed in Yellow Pages ads as the owner of American Liberty. But officials at the Department of Insurance, which licenses bail bond companies, said they did not know who owned the business. Later, they said Yousef was the owner.

The Department of Insurance revoked American Liberty's license, but in March a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ordered it reinstated.

In September, the Fullerton Police Department, which headed the investigation, said $700,000 was seized from Yousef's home. But in November, police said that the money was actually seized from Rashid's office and home, a point they conceded after he sued to have the money returned. McDonnell said that the money was used for Rashid's check-cashing business and that about $250,000 of it was kept in a home safe as "financial security" for Rashid's family.

Yousef also disputed police claims that he earned as much as $30 million a month posting bail bonds. During an interview last week at his attorney's office, he said his 19 offices posted between $15 million and $18 million in bonds monthly, earning about $1.5 million. He said he spent about $500,000 on advertising each month, and used most of the rest of the income to pay 62 employees and overhead.

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