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June 3, 2020 11:30 AM, EDT

‘Spotter’ in 2017 Staged Accidents in New Orleans Pleads Guilty

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The sixth member of a New Orleans-area ring that has staged accidents with unsuspecting tractor-trailers has pleaded guilty for his role as a “spotter,” or untruthful witness.

On May 28, Mario Solomon admitted to one count of conspiracy to commit fraud in connection with two staged crashes in June 2017. Solomon faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for his role in the conspiracy aimed at shaking down trucking companies for large court settlements.

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

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In court documents, federal prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Louisiana said that Solomon’s role in the conspiracy was to follow close behind the scammers in two of the crashes, leave the accident scene and return as a witness, blaming the truck driver for sideswiping the scammer’s car.

Solomon was paid $1,000 for his role in the two fake crashes, according to a “factual basis” document filed by prosecutors outlining his role in the scam. The payment to Solomon originated from one of two unnamed attorneys mentioned in the indictment as participants in the scams that are part of an ongoing FBI investigation.

Those named in the prior plea agreements in connection with 2017 staged crashes were Larry Williams, 46, of New Orleans; and Lucinda Thomas, 63, Mary Wade, 55, Judy Williams, 59, and Dashontae Young, 25, all of Houma, La.

The indictments 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.

The group’s alleged ringleader, Damian Labeaud, 47, of New Orleans, and Genetta Israel, 51, of Houston, named in a superseding indictment in December, have yet to face trial. Two attorneys — dubbed “Attorney A” and “Attorney B” — have been mentioned as alleged participants in the scheme, according to court documents, but have remained unnamed.

After the staged accidents, members of the group filed lawsuits via the two attorneys aiming to “defraud and obtain money and property from insurance and trucking companies,” investigators said. 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 of several staged accidents 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.

Trucking companies that travel through New Orleans had been alerted to the scam by attorneys with trucking companies and insurance clients who were victims in the staged accidents. The attorneys identified similarities among a string of at least 30 cases — all in the New Orleans area.

New Orleans Trucking Lawsuit

McNeely

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.

Chance McNeely, executive director of the Louisiana Motor Transport Association, said earlier that in such fake or staged cases, the deck typically is stacked against trucking companies.

“In Louisiana, we estimate our insurance costs are three to five times more than the national average,” McNeely said. “We have a litigious culture, and we have a significant amount of marketing for lawsuits against trucks. Our trucks are doing what a lot of trucking companies are doing, that’s putting cameras on their trucks. Self-defense is our best approach.”

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