Ferrari trial not as flashy as the car
Eight months later, the cars still have their mystique. A black Ferrari Enzo. A McLaren Mercedes-Benz. And of course the by-now iconic red Ferrari Enzo, the more alluring for having been smashed.
The names of all three cars flew around the courtroom like sparks Monday morning, enlivening an otherwise lusterless discussion of lease terms and payment plans as the trial of Swedish businessman and ex-convict Bo Stefan Eriksson got underway. Jurors heard repeatedly about how rare are the cars, how expensive, how celebrated.
The burly Swede, who has already pleaded no contest to drunk driving charges stemming from the crash of the red Ferrari in February, is fighting embezzlement and auto theft charges stemming from allegations that he fraudulently spirited away the black Ferrari and the Mercedes, bringing them into the United States without the authorization of the British banks that held title to them.
In opening arguments Monday, attorneys offered opposing views on the central issue of just who was bamboozling whom. Prosecutors argued that Eriksson was executing a sophisticated scheme to get the cars away from the unsuspecting banks. Defense attorney Jim Parkman argued that it was some fast thinking by British bankers that finessed what is essentially a civil disagreement into the domain of the Los Angeles County criminal courts.
The allegations are related to a long-running story involving Eriksson, the former executive of a now-bankrupt company who has spent time in prison and who allegedly crashed the million-dollar red Ferrari into a utility pole on Pacific Coast Highway on Feb. 21.
But the substance of the case has long seemed an aside to its exotic flourishes -- not just cool cars and rich people, but actual European rich people, and ones with shady pasts to boot.
Jurors were told they had the dubious privilege of reviewing a case that consists largely of paperwork details. But at least the courtroom scene did not disappoint: Featuring blond Swedish interpreters with elegant red nails, a folksy Southern defense attorney who referred to his “grand-mammy” in opening arguments and a British banker whose glasses kept slipping down his nose, the case offered trappings seldom seen in the workaday courts of Los Angeles.
The trial before Superior Court Judge Patricia Schnegg got underway late after one of the jurors was caught in traffic. Eriksson, 44, sat to one side of his attorneys. He wore a blue suit, a buzz cut and a little frown.
He mostly looked straight ahead during the proceedings, slightly hunched, his jacket binding across his large shoulders. One or twice, he swiveled in his chair to wink at his wife, a dark-haired woman in a close-fitting, flowing black dress sitting in the spectator benches.
Prosecutor Tamara Hall gave jurors a spare description of the case, beginning with the “crash that resulted in worldwide media exposure and also exposed the whereabouts of the cars arrogantly concealed by Mr. Eriksson.”
She said Eriksson had transferred ownership of the cars to employees, then shipped them abroad in violation of lending contracts. Loans on the cars went into default and the banks were trying to repossess them, but “unbeknownst to the banks, Mr. Eriksson was living it up and sporting their vehicles right here in the United States.”
Parkman, the defense attorney from Alabama, strolled over to the jury when Hall was done and uttered a long, theatrical sigh. “Boy!” he began, with a twang seldom heard in Los Angeles outside country music stations. “After hearing all that, doesn’t seem like we have a chance.”
He then quoted his “grand-mammy,” saying, “No matter how thin you make a pancake, it still has two sides.”
Parkman proceeded to argue that Eriksson had considerable equity in both cars, that the lease contracts were like purchase agreements and that the banks had tried to pursue the problem in civil court but had balked at posting a bond to repossess the cars.
The prosecution then called its first witness, Ian Hyett, manager of a banking subsidiary in the United Kingdom.
In an accent out of “Masterpiece Theatre,” Hyett spent much of his time on the stand calculating the conversions between hundreds of thousands in British pounds sterling and dollars.
As his testimony drilled deep into the details of lease purchase agreements, licensing authorities and registered introducers (brokers), jurors settled back in their seats and most of the reporters trickled out.
Near the back of the courtroom, members of a Spanish-speaking family waiting for a lawyer in a low-profile criminal case closed their eyes and appeared to sleep.
They did not stir until the prosecutor placed an enlarged copy of a Ferrari sales invoice on an exhibit stand.
It contained a dealership’s logo, complete with a picture of a sleek, exotic black sports car. The family members sat up and murmured, staring at the car.