Tuesday, March 12, 2002

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68 REPORTEDLY STOLEN VEHICLES WORTH $1.6 MILLION RECOVERED IN 26-MONTH UNDERCOVER INSURANCE FRAUD STING OPERATION; THIRTY INDIVIDUALS CHARGED INCLUDING OWNERS WHO ALLEGEDLY FALSELY REPORTED THAT THEIR CARS HAD BEEN STOLEN IN ORDER TO GET LARGE INSURANCE SETTLEMENTS AND MIDDLEMEN WHO ALLEGEDLY SOLD THE CARS TO UNDERCOVER DETECTIVES POSING AS JUNKYARD DEALERS

Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown, New York City Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly and New York State Insurance Superintendent Gregory V. Serio announced today that 30 individuals -- including 24 car owners and six alleged middlemen –- have been charged in a $1.6 million undercover insurance fraud "sting" operation that has resulted in the recovery of 68 reportedly stolen vehicles. An additional 13 car owners and two alleged middlemen are being sought. Among those charged are a New York City public school teacher, a Long Island Railroad engineer, a Manhattan registered nurse, a United States Postal Service letter carrier and a Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus operator.

According to the charges, the owners turned over their vehicles to middlemen to get rid of them, filed insurance claims falsely reporting their vehicles as stolen and received settlements of up to $32,000. The middlemen allegedly sold the vehicles to undercover detectives posing as junkyard dealers for up to $1,500.

District Attorney Brown said, "In recent years we have seen an alarming increase in automobile insurance fraud in the New York metropolitan area -- indeed, throughout the state and across the country. The cost of automobile insurance fraud is enormous -- estimated by the insurance industry at $23 billion dollars nationwide each year -- and is ultimately passed on to the consumer by way of ever increasing insurance premiums. The defendants believed that they could beat the system, but they could not have been more mistaken. Instead of pocketing ‘easy money,’ they now face serious felony charges and prison sentences."

Police Commissioner Kelly said, "Crimes such as these are costly, not only to insurance companies but also to citizens who often pay dearly for such fraudulent operations."

Superintendent Serio said, "These 30 arrests represent New York State’s commitment to stop fraudsters from cheating the State’s honest premium paying auto insurance consumers. This latest crackdown epitomizes the commitment shared by the Insurance Department, the Queens District Attorney’s office and the NYPD to continue to work together to put a stop to insurance fraud. The Department will continue to pull out the stops to implement Regulation 68, push for the passage of tough-on-crime felony penalties and work with the law enforcement community to prosecute those who try and game New York’s insurance system."

The arrests are the latest in a series of undercover operations in Queens County targeting auto theft and insurance fraud that began in 1991 conducted by the NYPD’s Organized Crime Control Bureau Auto Crime Division and the Queens District Attorney’s Organized Crime and Rackets Bureau.

The defendants have been variously charged with Grand Larceny in the Third Degree, Insurance Fraud in the Third Degree, Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in the Third Degree, Unauthorized Use of a Vehicle in the Third Degree, Falsely Reporting an Incident in the Third Degree and Conspiracy in the Fifth Degree. Most face up to seven years in prison, if convicted.

Operation Street Sweep has resulted in the recovery of 68 vehicles, which include expensive, almost new SUVs, costly Japanese imports, a BMW and even a 2000 Suzuki Model 2100 motorcycle. The operation also led to the discovery of a total of 33 false insurance claims that potentially could have cost various insurers, including Allstate, State Farm, and Geico, $700,000 in settlements.

The total amount of payoffs by undercover detectives for all 68 vehicles involved in the investigation was about $59,000.

Among those charged are:

According to the District Attorney, the investigation began in December 1999, when the NYPD Auto Crime Division set up an undercover automobile buy-back operation on a street corner in Queens Village using detectives posing as junkyard dealers. The detectives had pockets full of marked money, a pager and a cell phone.

District Attorney Brown said, "When word spread that a guy on the street was offering ready cash for cars, the cars started to roll in at a steady rate -- about two or three a month."

By last August, when the investigation had picked up speed, police and prosecutors obtained a court-authorized wiretap on the cell phone one of the principal defendants -- Derek Martinez, 24, an alleged career car thief, who lives in Ozone Park, Queens.

The intercepted conversations provided significant evidence of an ongoing car theft and auto insurance fraud operation as well as information helpful in identifying additional defendants who were alleged associates of Martinez and also acting as middlemen in the massive scheme.

The investigation was conducted by Detective John Bakke under the supervision of Inspector James Dean, Captain Michael Byrne, Lieutenant Eugene Borelli and Sergeant William O’Brien of the NYPD Auto Crime Division and under the overall supervision of Chief William Morange of the NYPD Organized Crime Control Bureau.

The case is being prosecuted by Assistant District Attorneys Daniel Schlachet and Samar Kharouba of the District Attorney’s Organized Crime and Rackets Bureau under the supervision of Bureau Chief Gerard A. Brave and Deputy Bureau Chief Marc Resnick and under the overall supervision of Executive Assistant District Attorney for Investigations Peter A. Crusco, Deputy Executive Assistant District Attorney Michael J. Mansfield and Counsel Linda M. Cantoni.

It should be noted that criminal charges are merely accusations and that defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Car Owners

Obinnaya Agoha, 32 175 Willoughby St., Brooklyn
Juan Amador, 26 350 137th Street, the Bronx
Michael Bakalo, 35 23 Eugene Street, Melville, New York
Frank Casey, Jr., 26 198 Merrits Road, Farmingdale, New York
Patrizia Castelli, 38 78-49 81st Street, Glendale, Queens
Rafael Corona, 33 546 Brace Avenue, Perth Amboy, New Jersey
Juaquin Delausa, 37 12 Kingston Drive, Spring Valley, New York
Joseph DeToma, 24 132-07 83rd Street, Ozone Park, Queens
John Devito, 32 65-24 162nd Street, Flushing, Queens
Pamela Figueroa, 33 3 Hilltop Terrace, Nanuet, New York
Louisa Gangidino, 29 3505 Riverside Drive, Oceanside, New York
Marisol Garcia, 27 64-45 Booth Street, Rego Park, Queens
Melaine Goldman, 27 107-14 91st Street, Ozone Park, Queens
Amy Hemley, 25 101-22 84th Street, Ozone Park, Queens
Jaquelyn Ingles, 30 55 Anderson Avenue, North Babylon, New York
Eileen Koslowsky, 51 67-34 136th Street, Flushing, Queens
Marie Lavoranda, 71 183 Wright Avenue, Deer Park, New York
Victoria Lukasiewisz, 30 416 Woodward Ave., Ridgewood, New York
Dawn Morris , 26 1966 First Avenue, New York, New York
James Petrone, 25 310 Buchanan Avenue, Mineola, New York
Nikola Pjetri, 51 43-22 45th Street, Long Island City, Queens
Joseph Rivera, 25 86-02 Park Lane South, Woodhaven, Queens
Sandra Rodriguez, 29 913 Washington Ave., Elizabeth, New Jersey
Scott Wallace, 35 53 Emerson Avenue, Baldwin, New York

Alleged Middlemen

Hector Burges, 29 currently incarcerated
Ojie Ferguson, 28 105 McKinley Avenue, Brooklyn
Daniel Hernandez, 29 97-12 78th Street, Ozone Park
Derek Martinez, 24 95-04 77th Street, South Ozone Park
Joseph Murray, 21 94-49 115th Street, Richmond Hill
Hector Portalatin, 33 54 Lincoln Avenue, Brooklyn