H Is For Homicide Page 37

Dolan surprised me with a response. ’’She took a hit. Nothing serious. Looks like a bullet ricocheted off something and grazed her collarbone. We picked her up in a phone booth a few blocks away. Probably interrupted a call to Raymond, though she wouldn't admit it.’’

’’She's in the hospital?’’

’’For the time being. We'll hang on to her if we can, just to see what she has to tell us.’’

’’About what?’’

Dolan slid a look to Santos, like he was checking his hole card in a game of poker. I had the feeling Santos was making a decision. His expression didn't seem to change, but something must have been communicated between the two of them.

’’I guess we better tell you what's happening,’’ he said. His voice was rumbling and his delivery methodical. ’’You've stumbled into a bit of a sticky situation here.’’

’’Oh, yeah, tell me about it.’’

Santos tipped his chair back against the wall and laced his hands across his head. ’’I head a task force made up of a number of agencies working to uncover what we believe is one of the biggest auto insurance fraud operations ever mounted in Southern California. You've worked in this business long enough to know what I'm talking about. Los Angeles County is the nation's automobile insurance fraud capital. Now it's spreading through Ventura and Santa Teresa counties. This particular ring is only one of dozens that generate an estimated five hundred million to a billion in phony claims every year. In this case, we're looking at fifteen lawyers, two dozen medical doctors, half a dozen chiropractors. On top of that, a rotating pool of some fifty to sixty individuals recruited to participate in the trumped-up incidents that comprise the claims.’’ He pushed away from the wall, sitting upright, the front legs of the chair hitting the floor with a chirp. ’’You with me so far?’’

’’Oh, I'm here,’’ I said.

He leaned forward, resting one arm on the table. I noticed his manner toward me was warming somewhat. He was a man animated by his work. I had no idea where he was going with the explanation, but it was clear he hadn't driven all the way up from Los Angeles in the dead of night just to deliver this deadpan rendition of his professional concerns.

’’We've put this case together bit by bit, piece by piece, over the last two years, and we're still not in a position to shut them down.’’

’’I don't see the connection,’’ I said. ’’Bibianna isn't part of the ring, is she?’’

’’She was. Raymond Maldonado started out as a 'capper'. At this point, we believe he's one of the kingpins, but we can't prove it yet. You know how these rings operate?’’

’’Not really,’’ I said. ’’The people I'm used to dealing with are strictly amateurs.’’

’’Well, the methods probably overlap to some extent,’’ he said. ’’These days, the pros tend to avoid the big kill in favor of submitting fairly innocuous small claims that can be converted into large sums of money. They collect compensation for hard-to-disprove injuries like whiplash and lower back pain... you know the MO on that.’’ He didn't really seem to require a response. ’’It's the capper's job to recruit the owner of a vehicle, usually someone unemployed who's hard up for cash. They take out an assigned-risk insurance policy on the car through the ring's agent. The capper then gives the car owner the names of two 'passengers'- totally fictitious - who 'ride'with the owner. He also comes up with names of people allegedly in the second car. We're talking about six or seven claims per incident. There's a variation on that one called 'bulls and cows,'where both cars are part of the scam. The 'bull'- the car with insurance - rams into the 'cow,'which is the uninsured car filled with passengers, all of whom suffer fictitious injuries. Most of the time the insured vehicle is some junker that's been insured without being examined.’’

’’I've handled some claims where it's all faked - where there's not even a staged accident,’’ I said. ’’Oh, we got those, too. In Maldonado's case, some are paper accidents and some are staged. We got a line on this ring in the first place because the same set of names kept cropping up on supposedly unrelated claims. Same insurance agent, same attorney. The investigator finally had the names ran through the computer and found links to twenty-five previous cases. Most of those were fictitious. One claimant's address turned out to be the La Brea tar pits. Another was an abandoned bus depot.’’

’’What's their setup?’’ I asked.

’’The ploy is called a 'swoop and squat,'which requires the use of two cars. They pull this maneuver out on one of the surface roads, probably five or six times a week... ’’

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