'Perry Mason Moment' in federal court in Orlando favors defendants in Daytona-area mortgage-fraud trial

Fort Lauderdale Attorney defending woman in Jacksonville stand your ground case that made national headlines has fired a torpedo into the fed govt's case here early on

Attorney Bruce Zimet of Fort Lauderdale appears on CNN / represented stand your ground / Headline Surfer®Stephanie Musselwhite / Headline Surfer®Ramara Garrett & Jim Sotolongo of Waverly Media / Headline Surfer®Photos for Headline Surfer® / High-profile defense attorney Bruce Zimet, shown here with CNN's Anderson Cooper is representing Marissa Alexander in an upcoming re-trial ordered after her conviction in 2012, for firing a gun in her estranged husband'sdirection, citing Florida's stand your ground law as a defense. Zimet also is representing Stephanie Musselwhite in the Daytona-area mortgage fraud trial under way in Orlando,  where she and co-defendants Jim Sotolongo and Ramara Garrett, are accused of defrauding several banks.

ORLANDO -- Even though she held her own and then some in opening statements to the jury in U.S. District Court in Orlando against three of Florida's top defense attorneys in a complex mortgage fraud trial two days earlier, Thursday was not a good day for prosecutor Tanya Williams.

The prosecutor seemed to have the attention from the 12 jurors from the onset, telling them that she would do map out for them in closing arguments having demonstrated a paper trail the government had amassed as well as the testimony of several several un-indicted co-conspirators cooperating with the government, which would prove to them beyond a reasonable doubt that the three defendants on trial -- Jim Sotolongo, Ramara Garrett and Stephanie Musselwhite -- had "skin in the game" and that the only verdicts that would come back would be guilty ones.

Of course, the respective attorneys each asserted their individual client's presumption of innocence throughout the trial and that they would show the government had not made its case.

Williams appeared to be on her charted course during the first two days of direct testimony and well into Thursday.  And then the shocker known as a "Perry Mason Moment."

Just like that, Williams' case was hemorrhaging.

The prosecutor was shown up big time in front of the jurors, who suddenly came to life after several hours of tedious, but necessary cross examination for more than two hours by the first of the three defense attorneys, John Bergendahl, doing the painstakingly slow, but necessary dotting of the i's and crossing of the t's bin getting the defense's framework started.

This was followed by more peppering from Garrett's attorney, A. Brian Phillips, and then the bombshell from Musselwhite's attorney, Bruce Zimet.

Like his colleagues, Zimet began with process questions. He asked government witness Brett Hellstrom, a loan officer JP Morgan Chase who testified as to a $2.35 million mortgage back on Oct. 27, 2006 initially under a prior mortgage provider, Washington Mutual, for an upscale home at 4249 S. Atlantic Ave., Port Orange.

Hellstrom had led the jury earlier to believe through his testimony that Musselwhite had not provided the requisite $50,000 escrow in the form of a cashier's check, which indicated she was complicit in the conspiracy. But Zimet in a deliberate monotone fashion, asked the loan officer if her could read off small verbiage on the corner of a page.

Zimet asked him to read aloud what was continued there and the witness answered "1st of 2 pages." The defense counsel then asked Hellstrom how many pages were in the document marked as a government exhibit.

"Just the one here," he answered.

Marissa Alexander in Stand Your Ground defense is represented by high-profile attorney Bruce Zimet / Headline Surfer®Marissa Alexander, 33, is out on bond while awaiting a new trial on charges of firing a gun at her estranged husband and his two children four years ago. Alexander was convicted of three counts of aggravated assault in 2012. But a new trialwas ordered last fall after an appeals court determined jury instructions in her original trial were erroneous. If convicted again,  Alexander could face up to 60 years in prison. The Stand your ground law was the centerpierce og George Zimmerman's claim of self defense in the fatal shooring of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, though it was not used in his defense when he was acquitted at trial. Instrad, his attorneys presented evbidence cionvincing a jury that Martin was the aggressor and he was defendsing himself when he shot and killed him in a Sanford gated neighborhood where Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch commander.

Then Zimet struck gold, introducing the second page, which would be marked as a defense exhibit, of the document originally from Washington Mutual showing that indeed Musselwhite, a title insurance specialist, had indeed provided for the $50,000 escrow instead of pocketing it as she had been accused.

Zimet then raised his voice, asking the loan officer, if he could explain why the government had not fully "prepared" the document for his testimony asking if perhaps they simply forgot? Hellstrom was at a loss of words, saying he couldn't understand why it wasn't there.

And then it became apparent to the prosecutor who turned to the government's key witnesses and mouthed an unpleasantly in his direction. Until that Perry Mason Moment -- when the eyes of the jury, the judge, the defense team and court watchers were all fixated on the prosecution table -- things seemed to be progressing for the government with this particular bank officer seemingly putting a nail in Musselwhite's coffin over the better part of two days.

And then it became apparent to the prosecutor who turned to the government's key witnesses and mouthed an unpleasantly in his direction. Until that Perry Mason Moment -- when the eyes of the jury, the judge, the defense team and court watchers were all fixated on the prosecution table -- things seemed to be progressing for the government with this particular bank officer seemingly putting a nail in Musselwhite's coffin over the better part of two days.

Here was Musselwhite with her back against the wall with why appeared to be damning evidence against Musselwhite, who along with Sotolongo and Garrett, accused in a grand jury indictment unsealed a year ago of conspiring to defraud several lending institutions out of nearly $13 million in capital for seven luxury homes at the height of the housing boom before the bubble burst and the mortgages values dropped precipitously.

At left is one of the seven homes listed in a grand jury indictment handed up last year in U.S. District Court in Orlando, for which Stephanie Musselwhite, Jim Sotolongo and Ramara Garrett are accused of defrauding banks of nearly $13 million. This single-family home at 4249 S. Atlantic Ave., Port Orange, specifically mentioned during the trial under previous ownership, sold on Feb 16, 2010. It has 4 BRs, 5 baths, with a floor plan covering 3,231 square feet. The property has a lot size of 0.32 acres and was built in 1946. 

The government appeared to have the early momentum going its way in the trial expected to go eight to 10 days. Today, things will really begin to heat up when one of several un-indicted co-conspirators, Chris Mencis, who wrote the loans, for the properties, is expected to take the stand.

Mencis copped a plea last Fall to his role in the conspiracy, hoping the presiding trial judge will go easy on him at the time of sentencing. He faces up to 30 years in federal prison, though sentencing guidelines call for him to receive a third of that. He's hoping for less.

The jurors were given a head's up by the defense attorneys in opening statements to be aware that Mencis and several others named as un-indicted co-conspirators may lie through their teeth to save themselves at sentencing.

Stephanie Musselwhite and Ramara Garrett have no criminal records. Sotolongo is a convicted felon, who has not been in trouble with the law for nearly two decades.

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Short Bio

Henry Frederick is publisher of Headline Surfer®, the award-winning 24/7 internet news outlet covering the Daytona Beach-Sanford-Orlando metro area via HeadlineSurfer.com since 2008. A longtime cops & courts reporter focused on breaking news & investigative reporting, Frederick is among the Sunshine State's most prolific daily news reporters, having amassed close to a hundred award-winning byline stories nearly evenly split in print and digital platforms. Frederick earned his Master of Arts in New Media Journalism with academic honors from Full Sail University in Winter Park in February 2019. He was a metro reporter with the Daytona Beach News-Journal for nearly a decade and then served as a city editor for the Taunton Daily Gazette in Taunton, Mass, while maintaining a residence in Central Florida. Prior to moving to Florida, Frederick was a metro reporter for the Rockland Journal-News in West Nyack, NY, for seven years. Headline Surfer was named the Sunshine State's top internet news site by the Florida Press Club in 2018.