Two members of an alleged insurance fraud ring have been arrested on suspicion of staging an accident on the Long Beach Freeway that led to the death of a family of three in February, officials said Friday.
Isidro Gomez Medina and Griselda Bojorquez were charged in the death of a Santa Ana family killed when its station wagon was crushed between two trucks.
Medina was driving a Mercury Cougar that triggered a chain reaction of fiery collisions on the freeway near Bell the afternoon of Feb. 1, investigators said. Officials did not detail Bojorquez’s role in the alleged plot.
Investigators from the state Department of Insurance and California Highway Patrol arrested Medina, 37, at his Long Beach home Tuesday and charged him with three counts of second-degree murder.
Bojorquez, 29, was arrested at the 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.
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.
Juan Antonio Lopez, 26, his wife, Maria, 24, and their 2-year-old daughter, Joanna, were killed when a gravel truck slammed into them, driving their station wagon under a 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. Officials are still looking for the other driver.
At the home the victims’ shared with Juan Lopez’s parents, his mother sobbed Friday, reliving her grief after police visited to tell them of the arrests.
“I wanted to forget my enormous tragedy, and now it has come back and my wound is open,” Teresa Lopez said. She said she wants justice, but doesn’t want to know the details of the investigation.
“I don’t want to know anything about [the suspects], because nothing will bring back my children,” she said. “But if they’re creating problems like this, they have to pay.”
One of five children, Juan Lopez 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 was allegedly 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 of the arrests. 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 on the streets of Los Angeles, said Moses Gomez, an investigator with the Department of Insurance, who supervised this case.
The collisions cost insurers roughly $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 may have caused, saying the investigation is ongoing.
Medina was being held at Los Angeles County Jail in lieu of $3-million bail. Bojorquez remained under arrest in the jail ward at County-USC in lieu of $1.5-million bail.
If convicted, Medina could face up to 45 years to 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 to 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,” he 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.
Often, the rings fabricate reports of additional injured people who supposedly were in the vehicle.
Sometimes the cars used in staged accidents have already been damaged. Some rings involve as many as seven cars working together, Gomez said.
Fraud investigators said they have been training drivers of major fleets and CHP officers to be on the lookout for staged collisions.
In the last two years, investigators have apprehended at least 55 people who staged car crashes in Southern California and prevented $600,000 worth of fraudulent claims, Gomez said.
Times staff writer Lee Romney contributed to this report.