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A federal grand jury in New Orleans has returned a second round of indictments in an ongoing investigation of individuals staging automobile accidents with tractor-trailers, charging 11 people on seven fraud counts in connection with two incidents from 2017.
While the indictment is focused on staged accidents in the New Orleans area in March and May of that year, the indictment notes that prosecutors believe the group of participants actually staged as many as 100 accidents with tractor-trailers and automobiles from 2015-2017. The intent of staging the accidents was to defraud trucking and insurance companies.
The detailed indictment also accused the group of referring individuals who claimed to have been injured in the staged accidents to five attorneys, who then paid the ringleader of the conspiracy $1,000 for trucks and $500 for autos for each of the individuals’ alleged injuries in the staged accidents.
“In some cases, the attorneys knew that the participants were uninjured but referred them to medical providers for treatment to increase the value of subsequent lawsuits,” said an Aug. 21 statement issued by U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana Peter Strasser. “In total, the victim trucking and insurance companies paid out $277,500 for these fraudulent claims.”
Charged in the 30-page indictment were Roderick Hickman, 49, of Baton Rouge, La.; Lois Russell, 61, of Gibson, La.; James Williams, 65, of Gibson, La.; Tanya Givens, 42, of Gibson, La.; John Diggs, 59, of Thibodaux, La.; Henry Randle, 63, of Gibson, La.; Ryan Wheaten, 52, of Lafayette, La.; Dakota Diggs, 25, of Fort Smith, Ark.; Bernell Gale, 43, of Raceland, La.; Marvel Francois, 56, of Houma, La.; and Troy Smith, 56, of Houma, La.
If convicted, the defendants face a maximum penalty of five years for one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, and up to 20 years total for six counts of mail fraud. Upon their release from prison, each defendant could be placed on a term of supervised release for up to five years and fined up to $250,000 per count, prosecutors said.
The mail fraud charges were tied to the conspirators’ use of mail to route some of their alleged illegal payments.
In most of the staged accidents, prosecutors said the plan went like this:
The person who drove the vehicle that slammed into the truck or car was called the “slammer.” A separate vehicle trailing the slammer vehicle, the “spotter,” would follow closely behind to pick up the slammer after the collision. The slammer would then leave the scene after being picked up by the spotter vehicle.
Another person in the vehicle would then claim to be the driver.
A few months later one of the five unnamed attorneys cited in the indictment would issue demand letters to attorneys for the victims of the staged crashes, which would follow with a lawsuit.
The indictment said “Attorney A” was paid for at least 40 staged accidents, and “Attorney C” was paid for up to 20 staged accidents.
Prior to the accidents the ringleaders would meet with their alleged accomplice attorneys in restaurants and coffee shops to plan the details of the schemes, according to the indictment.
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News of the staged accidents in the New Orleans area was first reported in October 2019 for incidents involving two tractor-trailers in June 2017. The indictments returned by the grand jury last year were dubbed the “tip of the iceberg” by attorneys representing trucking companies, including victims Covenant Transportation Group of Chattanooga, Tenn., and Southeastern Motor Freight Inc. of Jefferson, La. They marked the first such criminal charges brought by federal authorities in New Orleans investigating what could be a string of similar instances.
Six of the participants in the first group of indictments pleaded guilty earlier this year. On Aug. 6, the ringleader of the first New Orleans-area group that staged accidents, Damian Labeaud, 48, of New Orleans, pleaded guilty to one federal count of a scheme to defraud interstate commercial trucking carriers and insurance companies by staging two collisions in June 2017.
Last year, trucking companies that travel through New Orleans were alerted to the scams by attorneys with trucking companies and insurance clients who were victims in the scheme. The attorneys identified similarities among a string of at least 30 cases — all in the New Orleans area. Those suspicious accidents included multiple people in a claimant vehicle, sideswipe allegations with commercial vehicle trailers, minimal damage to claimant vehicle, little to no damage to the insured trailer and a commercial vehicle driver who is either unaware of or denies impact, according to the trucking attorneys.
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