Three generations of family accused in insurance scam

Times Staff Writers

They say nothing makes a man prouder than watching his children follow in his footsteps.

But one has to wonder how Curtis H. Connor is feeling, now that his alleged career path has led two generations of his brood into handcuffs.

Before dawn Thursday, 200 Los Angeles police officers raided homes throughout the city and across the Southland with arrest warrants for more than 40 people, who, investigators say, were involved in one of California’s largest, longest-running auto insurance fraud scams.


At the center of the ring, police say, is Connor, who already has served several years in prison for a previous auto insurance fraud conviction, and several of his sons, daughters and grandchildren.

For the last two years, Juan Camacho and Ronald Vega, detectives in the Los Angeles Police Department’s Commercial Crimes Division, have been meticulously tracing paper trails of accident claims and payouts through the murky auto insurance world in an effort to build a case against the Connor clan and their accomplices. The documents the detectives compiled tell of dozens of allegedly fabricated accidents since 2000 that amounted to more than $512,000 being bilked from 10 insurance companies. In one claim alone, the ring milked State Farm Insurance for nearly $137,000 for faked injuries and car damage, according to police documents.

And that, insurance industry investigators say, is only a slice of the several millions of dollars the ring is suspected of pocketing over more than two decades of scamming.

The case offers a unique glimpse into automobile insurance fraud, an increasingly sophisticated racket that costs insurers billions of dollars a year.

In California alone, phony auto insurance claims total more than $500 million every year, industry experts say. It is a cost passed directly on to consumers, who have an estimated $300 to $400 tacked on to premiums each year. Nationwide, fraud associated with all property and casualty coverage, which includes auto insurance, amounts to about $30 billion a year, according to the Insurance Information Institute, which is run by the insurance industry.

“To be honest, this case is just a drop in the bucket,” said LAPD Capt. Bill Williams, the head of the Commercial Crimes Division. “But we’re hoping to send a message to the others out there that ‘we’re looking at you and we’re going to do everything we can to get you.’ ”

Connor, 72, police and insurance investigators said, allegedly ran a textbook scam: Buy a cheap, beat-up car at an auction, register it and insure it at multiple companies -- often using aliases or stolen identities. Then, recruit family members or acquaintances willing to pose as passengers in the car. Next, make up a story about a traffic collision, usually claiming that the car was rear-ended and shoved into a parked car. Use photos of the already damaged cars to bolster the tales. After that, send the fake victims to a chiropractor (who happens to be Connor’s daughter), who embellishes treatments for fake injuries. Finally, use lawyers in on the scam to submit claims and demand payments for both injuries and damage to the car.

Repeat. Over and over.

Connor and several family members worked under cover of MB Automotive, a body shop in South Los Angeles that he managed, according to police. (Because of his prior conviction, Connor kept his name off the title of the shop, allegedly using an apparently mentally ill acquaintance as a front man who received little money and lived in a trailer, police said.) After the made-up accidents, the cars were “repaired” at the shop and insurance checks for repair costs were often sent directly to the shop.

From the outset, Vega and Camacho ran into the tangled array of Connor relatives, co-workers and others allegedly involved in the ring -- many of whom allegedly carried out their roles in the scam using several identities. In addition to Connor and his chiropractor daughter, other family members included another daughter and two sons who were accused of fraudulently posing as victims in phantom accidents.

And, as first light broke on a chilly Thursday morning, two of Connor’s grandsons, Mark Johnson and Darell Woodard, who also allegedly were in on the act, tried to escape as more than a dozen LAPD officers descended on a dilapidated, single-story house on Rodeo Road. Listening to a police radio scanner, the two had heard the officers call in their location to supervisors and were walking out the front gate as police intercepted them, authorities said.

“What am I being arrested for? You haven’t told me nothing,” a shivering Woodard complained to officers, as he stood handcuffed on the sidewalk. Woodard had given police a bogus driver’s license, in an apparent attempt to be let go. An officer, however, saw through the ruse, matching his face to a photograph included in a dossier. A tow-truck sat idle in the driveway as they were led away.

All told, police made 20 arrests in Los Angeles and elsewhere Thursday. With four others brought into custody earlier, 18 people were still being sought. Patriarch Curtis Connor, however, remains at large.

“We will keep searching until we get every one of them in custody,” Vega said, as he watched over the operation’s command center in the parking garage of the LAPD’s 77th Street station. “It’s been a long two years, putting this all together.”

Weighing 265 pounds and standing over six feet tall, Connor cut a considerable enough swath that the woman behind the window at the check cashing place where he brought checks from insurance companies knew him as “Big Daddy,” according to court records. He and other relatives appear to have made the most of their con, detectives said, adding that Connor drives a high-priced SUV and lives in an upscale Antelope Valley neighborhood. They said they saw one of his daughters driving a Porsche.

Thursday was hardly the Connor family’s first run-in with the law. All of the relatives accused by police of being involved in the scheme have been arrested before, with several convicted on theft and fraud charges.

And Connor appears to have a fierce streak of loyalty.

When he and three of his children were arrested in 1989 on similar charges, he insisted during their trial that that they knew nothing of his scam.

This time around, Connor and his ring were first brought to Vega’s attention by Anne Luce, a senior investigator for Bristol West Insurance Group, a division of Farmers Insurance. Luce said she began looking into the fraud ring four years ago, when a pattern of unusual claims involving the same body shop and chiropractor emerged.

She took the cases to the California Department of Insurance’s fraud division, but was unable to persuade the agency to do anything but a cursory investigation, she said.

“They just didn’t have the manpower,” Luce said. The agency, funded by insurance companies, budgeted $91 million this year for fraud control.

Frustrated, she turned to the LAPD, which initially declined the case. When Luce made a second pitch, Vega agreed in February 2006 to investigate. Luce worked closely with Vega and Camacho, saying that “the case became pretty personal because I worked on it for so long.”

A big challenge, Luce said, was winnowing down her case files, which included “hundreds, if not thousands of claims” to a manageable size for the detectives.

One of those claims, in particular, stuck in Vega’s craw. Billy Charles Lovely, one of Connor’s employees at the auto shop and, according to police, a major figure in the ring, stole the identity of his brother-in-law, a homebound quadriplegic, and used it to pocket ill-gotten insurance money, court papers show. “The poor guy couldn’t even drive,” the detective said, shaking his head.