Five years ago, a Guatemalan immigrant named Oliver Ortega sought help from Jesus Lozano.
Lozano's business card advertised a range of legal services next to a picture of the scales of justice. His bookshelves were lined with two sets of the California Penal Code.
Lozano told Ortega he was an attorney and promised to help him file a wage claim against a former employer, according to a lawsuit filed against Lozano. Ortega said he paid Lozano $400 in cash to begin work.
But soon, Lozano stopped returning calls and showing up for meetings, Ortega said. When Ortega went to the state Labor Commissioner, he found out no claim had been filed — and that Lozano wasn't actually a lawyer.
Lozano, it turned out, had been taking money from immigrants for years, falsely claiming to be an attorney who could represent them in an array of court proceedings, including labor, personal injury and immigration cases, according to court records and interviews.
In December, two undercover Los Angeles County investigators went to Lozano's office and recorded him agreeing to help on an immigration case, according to criminal charges filed this year by Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer. This spring, Lozano pleaded no contest to three misdemeanor criminal counts: practicing law without a license, acting as an immigration consultant without registering with the state, and violating an earlier injunction.
Investigators say fraud targeting immigrants is widespread in California. In the last decade, for example, the L.A. County Department of Consumer Affairs received 328 complaints about people illegally giving immigration advice. More than 30 of those cases resulted in prosecutions, according to the department.
Language and cultural barriers make immigrants susceptible to scams, said Onica Cole, who works in the consumer protection unit in the city attorney's office. Those who are in the country illegally are especially vulnerable because they may be afraid to report wrongdoing, Cole said, making it "in some ways the perfect crime."
Lozano took advantage of such fears, records show, sometimes threatening to report unhappy clients to immigration agents if they complained.
His conviction was the result of a new city-county task force targeting those who prey on immigrants. Rigo Reyes, chief of investigations for the county's consumer affairs department, said the task force fills a hole, since there is no state agency focused on prosecuting crimes against immigrants.
Lozano, Reyes said, simply exploited an opening.
"People trusted him," Reyes said. "And he told them what they wanted to hear."
First ordered by a judge to stop providing legal services in 2003, Lozano continued to pose as an attorney for more than a decade, court records show. He was twice found in civil court to have violated that injunction. In court settlements, he agreed to pay back 10 victims, including Ortega, although he has yet to fully repay any of them.
Ortega, who said he lost out on the recovery of two years of back pay because of the delay in filing his Labor Commission claim, said it was an injustice that Lozano was able to continue operating for so long, even after he came on the radar of the legal system.
"It's a tragedy," Ortega said. "I almost lost my house. I hope this time he has to pay."
Under a plea deal, Lozano agreed to serve at least 90 days in jail and be placed on three years' probation. Sentencing is scheduled to take place this month after investigators tally the restitution owed to victims. The state bar, which is notifying Lozano's clients of the case against him, has seized files on nearly 200 clients in two raids on Lozano's office, according to bar spokeswoman Laura Ernde.
Lozano was ordered to stay away from his office, in a third-floor corner suite overlooking Van Nuys Boulevard, as part of the deal. But on a recent morning he was there, seated at a large desk strewn with tax documents and what appeared to be legal paperwork.
Short and wide-waisted, with gold rings on both hands, Lozano seemed tired and aggrieved. "There's a big injustice being done to me," he began. "I'm being picked on."
Lozano said he had settled with the victims and agreed to the plea deal with the city only because he didn't have the resources to fight the cases against him. He said he wasn't out to hurt anybody, and was simply meeting a demand for legal services in Spanish.
He said he recognized the need for such services early, at age 12, when an uncle brought him along to traffic court to help translate. Back then, the courts weren't required to provide Spanish interpreters.
Born in Mexico and brought to the U.S. at a young age by his parents, Lozano said he had picked up English quickly at his Van Nuys elementary school. He said the judge complimented his language skills. So he returned to court the following week, offering to translate for other Spanish speakers for 50 cents or a dollar.
Later, he went to work for lawyers, he said, interpreting and bringing them Latino clients. Lozano said he thought about law school, but by then he had a wife and two children. "I didn't have the money," he said.
Eventually Lozano opened his own business, West Coast Legal Services. He said most of his work was referring people to legitimate lawyers, but said he also filed out various legal forms, including immigration documents, for people who couldn't afford professionals. He wasn't licensed to do so. California's Immigration Consulting Act requires consultants to be bonded and to pass a background check conducted by the secretary of State.
Delfina and Faustino Donato, an immigrant couple who lost some of their possessions in a 2001 apartment fire, said Lozano told them he was a licensed attorney. In a civil lawsuit filed on their behalf in 2002 by Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County, they said they gave Lozano $800 to sue their landlord, but that he did nothing for their case.
Rosalio Solis, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, said he had paid Lozano to seek damages after he was involved in a car accident. According to the lawsuit, Lozano told Solis to appear in court six times for trial, but each Lozano did not appear.
In 2003 a Superior Court judge permanently barred Lozano from doing any legal work, including "assisting individuals to fill out pleadings, motions, and court forms or other documents and providing counsel or advice related to any legal matter." Lozano settled, agreeing to pay the Donatos $15,000 and Solis $10,000.
But even after being found in contempt of that order a year later and serving 10 days in jail, Lozano continued his operation, according to a second contempt case filed against him by Neighborhood Legal Services in 2012.
That year, Lozano showed up in a Northern California courtroom and presented himself as an attorney working for the family of a man who was facing drug charges, according to court statements by Jessica Delgado, a Santa Clara County public defender who was representing the man on trial.
Delgado said she became angry when she found out that the drug defendant's mother had paid Lozano about $4,000 for help on the case.
"There is an absolute shortage of bilingual criminal defense attorneys," Delgado said. "This is a vulnerable population. You have people who are disadvantaged, and on top of that you have someone who is predatory. It's just adding an injustice."
In 2013, Lozano was found in contempt of court again, and he agreed to serve more jail time and to pay restitution to seven additional victims, including more than $16,000 to Ortega.
But instead of paying back his former clients — or showing up to serve his jail time — Lozano filed for bankruptcy later that year. In filings, he reported a monthly income of $800 and few possessions besides a 1991 Mercedes-Benz. He sought to discharge the debts he owed his victims.
The victims, including Ortega, Solis and the Donatos, have argued in bankruptcy court that the debts should not be dismissed.
Lozano said he plans to support his family and pay back his debts with monthly Social Security payments. He insisted that he is closing his office.
"I'm gonna lock up shop and that's it, forget it," Lozano said. "I'm retired, I'm getting my check."