Dead student's family awaits judgment


Listen closely, and you can hear it.

Unless I'm mistaken, it's the distant sound of the wheels of justice turning, if ever so slowly, for the family of the late Michael Ponzio.

Ponzio is the 26-year-old college student who was killed March 17, 2007, when the car he was driving was struck head-on by a vehicle going the wrong way on the interstate. That car was driven by Afroditi Eliades-Ledstrom, daughter of longtime local topless cabaret and cab company owner Pete Eliades.

Although she was suspected of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, all criminal charges against her were eventually dropped. But then Ponzio's family sued Eliades-Ledstrom.

Her civil liability was established on March 16, 2009, when the Ponzio family won its summary judgment motion. A jury eventually would award damages that, with interest, court costs, and attorney's fees, now top $11 million. The judgment is under appeal at the Nevada Supreme Court.

In what appears to be an attempt to avoid paying that judgment, Eliades-Ledstrom on Feb. 14, 2012, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection following a hastily arranged divorce from her husband, James Ledstrom. Working on behalf of the Ponzio parties, veteran bankruptcy trustee attorney Lenard Schwartzer argues that she "engaged in significant fraudulent asset transfers - including a 'sham' divorce - in a deliberate attempt to shield nonexempt assets."

In an order entered Nov. 16, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Thad J. Collins forwarded Schwartzer's assessment of the facts of the Chapter 11 and granted his motion to appoint a trustee. The judge also knocked down her application to receive "ordinary expenses" of $15,170 per month, noting that, "The Court has serious doubts whether the expenses listed on Schedule J and their amounts are reasonable and necessary."

Now a trustee will work to further establish the facts of the bankruptcy to better determine whether fraudulent transfers of assets have taken place. In other words, he'll follow the money.

Schwartzer's motion to the court leaves little to doubt. It appears Eliades-Ledstrom took some very bad advice when she decided to file for divorce while the Ponzio civil trial was going on.

Judge Collins wrote, "Naturally, Ms. Eliades contends she did not engage in a sham divorce. However, the timing and circumstances of the divorce give reasonable cause for suspicion."

Consider the judge an experienced practitioner of the art of understatement.

It probably would have helped her argument if either party in the divorce had bothered to move out of the marital home.

Maybe it would have looked better if they'd actually used more than one attorney in the divorce action. They also could have gone to the effort of equally dividing their assets and community property instead of handing over the lion's share to James Ledstrom.

And talk about awkward timing. On Nov. 1, 2011, a jury in the civil case heard testimony to establish damages. Eight days later, the jury determined that $8.8 million in compensatory damages was owed the Ponzio family.

Meanwhile, the Ledstroms, residents of Clark County, quietly filed for divorce in Nye County on Oct. 20, 2011. The divorce was finalized two weeks later - while the trial was still in progress.

Judge Collins noted that it appears millions in suspicious asset transfers were made.

This further complicates matters for Eliades-Ledstrom . Any assets transferred into trusts in which her estranged sister, Dolores Eliades, is a trustee aren't likely to remain beyond the reach of the bankruptcy court.

Dolores Eliades made it clear in an interview that she wants justice to be served in the Ponzio litigation. She said she believes the Ponzios should be paid.

Eliades-Ledstrom has mounted a vigorous defense in the bankruptcy proceeding and surely is hoping to have the Ponzio judgment overturned at the state Supreme Court.

So far, the bankruptcy court isn't buying her version of the facts.

John L. Smith's column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal .com or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.

 

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