Appeals judge rejects decisive acquittal in fraud case

Hazeltine gained fame of sorts when he went public on YouTube with his case in February.

The expat property owner and his lawyer who are named in a criminal case have had another reverse.

An appeals judge in Puntarenas voided their acquittal in their second preliminary hearing and ordered yet a third.

This is the case of Sheldon Hazeltine, who has been accused by a prominent businessman of falsifying a document. The document is key in a civil case that revolves around Hazeltine’s fight to keep land he owns near Los Sueños on the central Pacific coast.

Others claim the property based on occupation by a squatter.

This is the second time that an appeals judge has voided a decisive acquittal of Hazeltine and his lawyer, Horacio Mejias Portuguez. In the first preliminary hearing in the Puntarenas court, the government’s prosecutor went so far as to side with the accuseds. That acquittal was voided by a Feb. 2 appeals verdict that said the judge had failed to read into the record the full identifications of one of those involved.

In the second preliminary hearing March 29, the judge strongly sided with the accuseds, said the businessman and others bringing the allegation acted in bad faith and awarded the defendants $60,000 as a civil penalty, the maximum allowed by law.

The well-known Costa Rican businessman, Armando González Fonseca, and the other individual making the allegation, Marta Sandova Fernández, appealed.

The appeal hearing was Monday and in a decision released Wednesday, Judge Leonardo Pereire Valerín said the judge in the second hearing also made technical mistakes. The appeals judge remanded the case back to the trial courts and said that a new judge should hear the case all over again.

Both preliminary hearings were conducted orally, which is a relatively new process in Costa Rica.

Although the trial proceedings are on a CD, there also is an accompanying written file.

Judge Pereire said that the trial court judge neglected to read into the acquittal verdict the allegations by González and Ms. Sandova and only read the charge by the public prosecutor. The judge cited what he said was lack of observance of the forms and conditions in the Código Procesal Penal.

Pereire addressed a special comment to the trial judge in the verdict: “Take note, Sr. Judge, that the use of the oral criminals process does not imply omitting essential aspects of a verdict.”

Hazeltine understandably was upset Wednesday afternoon when he spoke with a reporter about the verdict. “At best, this latest nonsense shows that the judges have no hesitation in blaming their colleagues for ‘technical errors’ and, at worst, are dragging this out for obvious reasons of currying favor which appears to be going well as we have now had two hearings, two appeals and, one nullification, and now we have to go back for a third hearing,” he said later.

Hazeltine’s 16-year battle to keep the property is well-known for two reasons. First is that he has become the poster boy for expats battling against the entrenched Costa Rican power structure. In addition, he released a video on YouTubeFeb.27, which has generated more than 6,000 viewings and has been copied to dozens of other Web sites. The video is titled “Costa Rica land fraud.”

In his video Hazeltine uses only published sources and makes a point of saying that the lawyer who represented González through many of the proceedings is Otto Giovanni Ceciliano Mora, the former Barva mayoral candidate, had been in preventative detention in an unrelated marijuana smuggling and money laundering case. For the latest appeal, González got a new lawyer, Alexander Rodríguez Campos.

The case centers on a document that was validated by a Costa Rican consul in Nassau, The Bahamas. The document clarifies that Hazeltine is the party responsible for the corporation, Ivanhoe Investment S.A., that owns the Los Sueños land. Only González and his associates question the authenticity of the document.

A prosecutor, Dixiela Madrigal Mora, as well as the judge at the first hearing said there is no substance to the forgery allegation. The prosecutor conducted her own investigation and even talked to the consul who confirmed signing the document, according to hearing testimony.

At the first hearing, González was accompanied by international commercial developer Fuad Farach Abdalah and Ricardo Jiménez Montealegre, a well-known contractor. Ms. Sandova at one time occupied the land.

“All quite Kafkaesque and disappointing,” was Hazeltine’s summary Wednesday night.

The recent chronology

Jan. 12: Expat wins small victory in prolonged property case

An expat and his Costa Rican lawyer prevailed this week in a criminal case that was the latest development in a long-running saga over disputed properties on the Central Pacific coast.

Jan 24: It’s back to square one for British expat involved in forgery case

The case of a British expat and his lawyer facing a forgery charge has been remanded back to the trial court.

Feb. 27: Embattled expat landowner takes to YouTube to air case

Expat investor Sheldon Haseltine has taken to YouTube to air in public his 14-year battle to keep his Pacific coast property.

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