A lawyer recruited 29 people, including some from a Bible study class, to stage more than 60 automobile crashes on Los Angeles freeways and collected millions of dollars in bogus insurance claims, authorities said Wednesday.
Personal injury lawyer Bernard Laufer, 52, of Huntington Park was arrested Tuesday morning at his office on suspicion of leading the ring, state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi said.
Although no one was seriously injured in the accidents, one victim was forced to close his business after his truck was totaled, officials said.
“This is extraordinarily important to every citizen who’s on the freeways,” Garamendi said. “Purposely stopping a car on a freeway can lead to death. These schemes are dangerous, they are reckless and they are deadly.”
The ring operated for at least 18 months, targeting sport utility vehicles and commercial trucks on several Southland freeways, including the 101, 60, 10 and the 15, authorities said.
Typically, suspects in two cars boxed in a victim’s car. The maneuver would cause the victim to rear-end the front car, which was often filled with people in an attempt to get the highest potential insurance payout.
The driver and passengers in the rear-ended car would fake neck, back and soft-tissue injuries for which they would file phony insurance claims, Garamendi said.
Among those involved were members of a Bible study group from the Inland Empire, said Marty Gonzales, chief investigator for the California Department of Insurance.
Humberto Carlon, 22, of La Verne recruited friends and family members to participate, Gonzales said. Most of them came from the San Gabriel Valley, including residents of an apartment complex where Carlon once lived, Gonzales said.
Members of the Bible study group appeared to get involved through word of mouth, he added.
“The church seemed to be one of the places [Carlon] recruited from,” Gonzales said. “That was something new to us. That wasn’t one we had seen before.”
State officials did not give the name of the church.
Many of the suspects were illegal immigrants who were promised they would earn hundreds if not thousands of dollars, Gonzales said.
In reality, some were paid nothing.
All will face felony charges of insurance fraud, and the drivers in the collisions could face additional charges of assault with a deadly weapon.
Carlon is serving a two-year state prison sentence for his role in the ring. Laufer could not be reached for comment.
Authorities learned of the ring more than six months ago, when someone tipped them off that Carlon was allegedly recruiting people to take part in the crashes.
According to the insurance commissioner’s office, Carlon set up the accidents and Laufer paid him a fee to represent the phony victims in claims against insurance companies.
Laufer was charged with insurance fraud, conspiracy and grand theft.
“Everybody who purchases auto insurance is paying for the fraudulent costs,” Garamendi said. He estimated that 25% of insurance costs go to fraud.
Officials did not have the names of all of the arrested suspects, but authorities identified:
Ontario residents Daniel Hernandez, 26; Karinna Valenzuela, 22; Martha Deniz, 19; Veronica Santillan, 26; and Carlos Meza, 34.
Chino residents Sonia Alburto Alvarez, 35; Alberto Espinoza, 29; Jorge Covarrubias Jimenez, 31; Angelina Alverez, 56; Jorge Jimenez, 31; Cesar Salas, 29; and Sofia Hernandez, 34.
Riverside residents Juan Cervantex, 24; Maria Gonzalez, 23; Ernesto Navarro, 18; and Armando Gonzalez, 22.
South Gate residents Luis Alberto Lopez, 25; and Fernando Ramirez, 30. Lakewood resident Lorena Campos, 21, Bell Gardens resident Bertha Villa, 55, and Pomona resident Veronica Contreras, 26.
Such crash rings are not new to Southern California.
A family of three burned to death on the Long Beach Freeway in 1996 in an accident linked to a crash ring.