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February 11, 2020 9:30 AM, EST

Five Plead Guilty to Staging Truck Crashes in New Orleans Area

Staging Truck CrashesA stretch of Interstate 10 in New Orleans, near where a disputed accident involving Whitestone Transportation was alleged to have occurred. (Google Maps)

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Five individuals accused of participating in a two-year conspiracy to stage accidents with tractor-trailers in the New Orleans area have pleaded guilty to federal wire fraud charges.

Three others also accused in an indictment last year of participating in the crash fraud scheme — including the alleged ringleader — were not included in the slate of plea bargains. One of the three accused died last year.

Those named in the plea agreements filed in U.S. court in the Eastern District of New Orleans are Larry Williams, 46, of New Orleans; Lucinda Thomas, 63, of Houma, La.; Mary Wade, 55, of Houma; Judy Williams, 59, of Houma; and Dashontae Young, 25, of Houma.

At least two others, Damian Lebeaud and Mario Soloman, also named in the 2017 indictment, remain under federal investigation for their alleged role in the scheme, as well as two unnamed attorneys mentioned in the scheme but not indicted, according to court documents. After the staged accidents, members of the group filed lawsuits aiming to “defraud and obtain money and property from insurance and trucking companies.” Some of the conspirators sought as much as $1 million each in lawsuit damages.

According to pleas filed in federal court Jan. 30, the first staged accident occurred June 6, 2017, and a second accident June 12, 2017, both in the New Orleans area. Some of the co-conspirators said they were treated by doctors “known to the grand jury at the direction of one of the attorneys,” according to the indictment.

Those who pleaded guilty face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, according to their plea agreements.

The indictment charged that Thomas underwent neck surgery because “Attorney A” told her that she “would get more money through the lawsuit if she had the surgery.”

James Prather and Bowman Fetzer, attorneys for Covenant Transportation Group, whose truck was struck in one of the staged accidents, told Transport Topics last year that they spent at least three months investigating the accident, piecing together cellphone records, cell tower records, dash and police body cam videos and other documents they eventually handed over to the FBI.

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“We initially thought the case smelled funny, but we didn’t have any evidence,” Prather said. But after three months, they managed to gather enough evidence to file documents in the civil suits alleging fraud, Fetzer said.

Last year, trucking fleets in the New Orleans area were notified of numerous suspicious accidents after a “fake accident” lawsuit against Mississippi-based Whitestone Transportation drew public attention.

Attorneys with trucking company and insurance clients who were victims in the staged accidents have identified similarities among a string of at least 30 cases aside from Covenant’s — all in the New Orleans area. Those 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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