Bail set at $150,000 for accused Pasco card-skimmer

Kristin M. Kraemer, Tri-City HeraldSeptember 7, 2011 

— A judge set bail Tuesday at $150,000 for an Issaquah man accused of attaching a card-skimming device to a Pasco bank's ATM, and said he wouldn't go lower because of the number of affected citizens.

Mihai Elekes' alleged actions since late July compromised more than 500 Chase bank accounts, a majority of those likely Tri-City residents.

He pleaded innocent Tuesday -- his 35th birthday -- to one count of unlawful factoring of transactions, with the special allegation that the crime was a major economic offense or series of offenses. His Franklin County Superior Court trial is now set for Oct. 26.

Bail originally was set at $250,000 when Elekes first appeared in court Aug. 29, a day after his arrest outside the Road 68 bank.

State and federal prosecutors allege Elekes and Janos Chertes installed the device on the bank machine at least nine times between July 24 and Aug. 28. It was done early in the morning on weekends and removed late at night, according to court documents.

Chase officials got surveillance images of the suspects from the ATM.

The device reads and stores information encoded on the magnetic strips of debit or credit cards that are used at the bank machine. A miniature camera also is mounted on the ATM or concealed within the light panel to capture customers entering their PIN codes, documents said.

That information reportedly then is used to make counterfeit cards, which allows the suspects to withdraw money from the bank accounts with the copied PIN codes.

Chertes, 40, is scheduled to appear today in U.S. District Court in Yakima for a probable cause hearing. He is accused of possessing device-making equipment, which affected interstate and foreign commerce.

On Tuesday, defense attorney Scott Johnson pointed out that bail had been dropped last week to $150,000 for the co-defendant Chertes, before Chertes was picked up by federal authorities.

The big difference between his clients, Johnson said, is that Chertes is a Hungarian citizen here on a tourist visa while Elekes is a legal resident.

He later clarified for the judge that Elekes is not a U.S. citizen, but has lived in Western Washington for more than 20 years, is married with children, owns a business and has no felony record.

If convicted on the new case, the most time Elekes could be ordered to serve under standard sentencing guidelines is 90 days in jail, Johnson argued. "We're not talking about the crime of the century here," he said.

Johnson agreed that bail is appropriate for the case, but said a more reasonable amount for Elekes would be $50,000.

Deputy Prosecutor Frank Jenny asked for bail to remain at $250,000, saying Elekes has no contacts in the Tri-City community and no incentive to stick around to face the charges.

Elekes "was caught in the act of tampering with an ATM," such a sophisticated crime with so many victims that it would be hard to find other cases like this one in the community, he said.

Jenny added that federal authorities still are reviewing their investigation against Elekes and there is "a very strong possibility" he too could end up with a case in U.S. District Court.

Judge Cameron Mitchell said he was concerned about the extent of the alleged event and the number of citizens who have been affected.

"I still think a substantial amount of bail is still necessary," he said in setting the $150,000 amount.

If Elekes posts bond, he is allowed to travel across Washington while his trial is pending.

Lawyer still waiting to hear about mental testing for accused killer

The lawyer for a 29-year-old man charged with killing his younger sister said she is waiting to hear back from an expert about an independent mental evaluation of her client.

Karla Kane wants a second opinion on whether Aaron Velasco really is competent to stand trial.

Velasco, of Pasco, is charged with second-degree murder for the June 9 death of Magdalena Velasco-Garcia.

The 22-year-old woman was found dead in a neighbor's driveway. Her brother allegedly used a machete to repeatedly strike her.

Velasco has not yet entered a plea in the case because Kane immediately asked for the mental evaluation. She said he had been withdrawn, depressed, incoherent and nonresponsive while visiting him in jail.

However, a psychologist who observed Velasco during his stay at Eastern State Hospital, said the defendant may be depressed while sitting in jail, but has the capacity to understand court proceedings and help lawyers Kane and Sal Mendoza Jr. with his case.

On Tuesday, Prosecutor Shawn Sant informed the court of the defense delay, saying they want an expert to review the state psychologist's findings. Sant also told the court he learned Tuesday that Judge Carrie Runge has been assigned to preside over the case.

Velasco returns to court Sept. 20.

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