Former member of Santa Clara County Sheriff's Advisory Board and prominent car dealer Ron Battistella could face 5 to 16 years in a California prison after pleading no contest, the legal equivalent of guilty, to nine felony counts of grand theft, securities fraud and for selling unqualified securities. Battistella has been the focus of several NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit reports after investors claimed $1.3 million of their investments disappeared in a Ponzi scheme Battistella operated.
Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Vishal Bathija told The Investigate Unit he doesn’t feel the legal process is complete with Battistella’s decision not to contest the charges. “I won’t be satisfied until each one of those victims gets every dollar that they have lost in this scam,” he said. “So we will be pursuing the restitution of $1.3 million towards these victims.”
Batttistella ran an investment scheme intended to help fund his used car dealership. As part of the business plan, pink slips for vehicles on his lot were given to investors as collateral on their investments. According to the District Attorney’s office, evidence indicates the pink slips were fraudulent. Many were for cars that didn’t exist.
“White collar crime is a simple process and it’s not that different than any other sort of theft,” Bathija told The Investigative Unit. “If you lie to someone to get them to invest or if you fail to disclose material facts to get them to invest, you are stealing.”
Asked to speculate on why Batistella entered what is essentially a guilty plea, Bathija said, "I think he looked at the evidence against him and he said, 'I can't defend this.'"
“Be still my beating heart,” said one of Battistellas investors when The Investigative Unit informed her of Battistella’s plea and potential prison time. She lost money doing business with Battistella and asked for her identity to be hidden for fear of retribution. “There can never be any satisfaction in a situation like this. It's just been heartbreaking. We are really saddened by it" She added, "I think he thought he was invincible."
The Investigative Unit began to unravel Battistella’s business operations in May of 2012 when Flor Madsen from Santa Cruz said the car dealer failed to pay her $70,000 he owed her on a consignment vehicle. On The Investigative Unit’s hidden camera, Battistella claimed the money, “went into a black hole.” Madsen eventually got her money back, but victims of Battistella’s Ponzi scheme started to contact The Investigative Unit in phone calls and emails. They claimed the “black hole” was even larger than expected.
Battistella promised nearly two dozen victims 10 percent returns on their investments. Over time, Battistella accrued more than $1.3 million of debt to his investors in his Ponzi scheme. He also had more than $1 million of tax debt owed to the state of California and the IRS, debt he tried to escape from in bankruptcy filing.
In January, the Santa Clara District Attorney filed charges against Battistella, a year after the Investigative Unit first started reporting on the story. See our interactive timeline of Ron Battistella’s crimes for the full saga.