Two people suspected of being members of an insurance fraud ring have been charged with staging an accident on the Long Beach Freeway that killed a Santa Ana family of three, officials said Friday.
Isidro Gomez Medina, 37, and Griselda Bojorquez, 29, were arrested on suspicion of causing a chain reaction of fiery collisions on the freeway near Bell the afternoon of Feb. 1. Killed in that crash were Maria Lopez, 24, her husband Juan Antonio Lopez, 26, and their 2-year-old daughter, Joanna.
Investigators from the state Department of Insurance and California Highway Patrol arrested Medina at his Long Beach home Tuesday and charged him with three counts of second-degree murder.
Bojorquez, 29, was arrested at the L.A. County-USC Medical Center while hospitalized for surgery unrelated to the accident. She was charged with one count of being an accessory to murder after the fact and six counts of insurance fraud.
Medina was driving a Mercury Cougar that triggered the crashes, investigators said. Officials did not detail Bojorquez's role in the alleged plot.
More than a dozen law enforcement agencies investigated the accident and the alleged insurance fraud, officials said. Medina and Bojorquez were part of a ring that stages car collisions in Southern California and Arizona, profiting from fraudulent insurance claims, officials said.
Investigators said they were tipped off when the driver of a Ralphs trailer-truck involved in the accident said he noticed suspicious hand signals between Medina and a driver of a reddish-brown car next to him. The unidentified driver swerved in front of Medina, who stopped abruptly, forcing the Ralphs big rig to crash into him.
The Lopezes, who were behind the Ralphs truck, were rear-ended by a gravel truck, pushing their station wagon under the big rig and causing their car to explode.
"It was absolutely tragic," said Keith Newman, deputy commissioner of the Department of Insurance's fraud division. "The entire family was gone, just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Medina and the unidentified driver who allegedly planned the accident fled the scene when it took a deadly turn, authorities said. Officials still are looking for the other driver.
On Friday, at the home the Lopezes shared with Juan's parents, his mother relived her grief after police told them of the arrests.
Teresa Lopez said she wants justice, but doesn't want to know the details of the investigation.
"I don't want to know anything about them, because nothing will bring back my children," she said. "But if they're creating problems like this, they have to pay."
Juan Lopez, one of five children, worked for the last two years of his life in the Compton shipping and receiving business of his brother, Jose. On Friday, Jose Lopez, 28, said the news that the accident allegedly was staged changes everything.
"I'm very shocked," he said. "Someone killed for money. That's what they did."
His sister, 22-year-old Alejandra Lopez, said the family is still reeling from the news. She said she hopes law enforcement will "do something" to prevent future staged accidents.
"I don't want another family to go through what we are going through," she said.
Staged auto accidents are increasing in Southern California, with as many as 10 a day, said Moses Gomez, an investigator with the Department of Insurance who supervised the case.
The collisions cost insurers about $300 million annually in California, according to statistics from the state Department of Insurance and the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
Newman would not comment on the number of accidents the ring might have caused, saying the investigation is ongoing.
Medina was being held at Los Angeles County Jail on $3-million bail. Bojorquez remained under arrest in the jail ward at L.A. County-USC Medical Center on $1.5-million bail.
If convicted, Medina could face life in prison. Bojorquez could be imprisoned for two to five years. A preliminary court hearing is scheduled for July 9.
Other search warrants have been issued in connection with the ring, and more arrests will be made in the next few months, Newman said.
"These are very sophisticated rings, and it's all driven by money," Newman said. "This is not a victimless crime."
The accident that killed the Lopez family was one of the deadliest allegedly staged crashes in Southern California.
In June 1992, Jose Luis Lopez Perez, 29, died when he intentionally swerved in front of a big rig on the Golden State Freeway in Sun Valley. A personal-injury attorney involved in the scam was sentenced to six years in prison.
The rings involve "stagers" who recruit people to participate in the accidents, investigators said. Usually, one party will swoop in front of another, triggering an accident and then fleeing. Attorneys and doctors prepare fraudulent reports about injuries and damages, which are submitted to insurance companies, investigators said.