Thirteen people were arrested Friday following a lengthy
investigation by the Merced County District Attorney’s office into anautomobile insurance fraud ring involving 10 different insurance companies that
paid out more than $430,000 in bogus claims, District Attorney Larry D. MorseII announced.
Last month, a Merced County Grand Jury indicted 21 people for
their role in orchestrating staged auto accidents and vandalism and thensubmitting bogus claims. The scheme
began in September of 2011 and continued through June 2016 during which timethere were 20 fraudulent claims submitted to insurance companies for payment,
The insurance fraud ring was brought to light in January 2016 whenan investigator with the Special Investigation Unit of Allstate Insurance
contacted Merced County District Attorney Investigator Sheri Carpenterregarding a claim that she believed was a staged accident. Carpenter started her investigation by
running the names through an insurance database provided by the NationalInsurance Crime Bureau which linked the claim to 19 other similar claims.
During the investigation it was discovered that some of the same
vehicles were used for multiple claims, with the same damage beingreported. The main method of theft,
according to Carpenter, came from the alteration of hospital bills that weresubmitted by the suspects to the insurance companies for which they were paid
directly. Carpenter found that many ofthe same bills were used in multiple claims with the names and dates of service
being altered to reflect a new claim date. In some cases, she noted, the totals on the hospital bills were alteredto reflect a larger amount so that the payouts to the suspects would be higher.
“Not only is insurance fraud a crime, it costs Merced County
residents substantially more in premiums and insurance costs every year ,”Morse said. He praised the work done by
Carpenter in “unraveling this sophisticated and far reaching conspiracy todefraud insurance companies and consumers. Investigator Carpenter worked this complex case relentlessly for the
last two years in addition to her other work and did an incredible job ofputting all the pieces together. It was
a first rate effort,” Morse said.
According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), autorelated insurance fraud, particularly staged accidents, are a significant
component of the $30 to $32 billion lost to insurance fraud each year.
“Unfortunately, many individuals view insurance companies as theirpersonal piggy banks and they engage in fraudulent behavior without any concern
for the economic harm they cause all consumers,” said Frank Scafidi, publicaffairs director for the NICB. “NICB
commends District Attorney Morse and the participating law enforcement agenciesfor their diligence and extensive investigative efforts in this case.”
Joanna Tucker, 29, from Livingston, was described by Carpenter as
the “ringleader” of the scam and directly involved in 19 of the 20 claims.
Deputy District Attorneys Walter Wall and Scott Drexel presentedthe case over several days to a Merced County Grand Jury last month which
returned with 19 felony counts of insurance fraud and 17 felony counts of grandtheft against Tucker. The grand jury
also handed down indictments of 20 other defendants on charges of insurancefraud and grand theft.
Tucker’s boyfriend, Johnathan Huerta, 30, also of Livingston, was
indicted on 10 felony counts of insurance fraud and nine counts of grandtheft.
Investigators from the District Attorney’s office, with assistance
from Merced Sheriff’s Department, Merced Police Department, Merced County Probation,Livingston Police Department, Atwater Police Department, State Parole and the
Merced Area Gang and Narcotics Enforcement Team (MAGNET), arrested Tucker,Huerta and 11 other defendants in a coordinated sweep on Friday. Tucker was
being held on $500,000 bail. Huerta’sbail was set at $100,000, Carpenter said.
Three defendants were already in custody outside Merced County on
unrelated charges, Carpenter noted.
Also taken into custody Friday were Rhonda Valencia 45, Diana Tucker 26, and Freddy Barajas 29 all of Livingston; Jessica Valencia 27, Alejandro Cervantes 31, Patricia Diaz 31 and Angelina Galvan 35 all of Atwater; Britney Groves 29, Charlece Scott 27, and Monique Eguiluz 28 all of Merced.
Others for whom arrest warrants have beenissued were Maria Hernandez, 59, Celina Garza-Hernandez, 27 and Sarai Bernal,
27 all of Merced; Rico Tucker, 28, Carlos Tucker, 26, Heena Birly, 25, and JessicaBarajas, 30 all of San Jose and Jairo
Barajas, 29 of Livingston.