Eleven Tri-Cities residents are accused of participating in a widespread fraud ring that amassed almost $1 million in insurance payouts from staged car crashes.
The scheme involved at least 14 vehicle accidents over a three-year period, with the conspirators misleading law enforcement officers, medical personnel and insurance companies, according to an 81-page indictment filed in federal court.
The orchestrated collisions between vehicles often happened on remote roads and at night with no witnesses, the indictment says.
No one was inside the “victim” vehicle during at least three of the staged accidents, hammers were used to break car windows in at least two, and weighted items were placed on the front passenger seat in one vehicle so the airbag would deploy on impact, federal prosecutors said.
After some of the wrecks, the accused “sought emergency room and medical treatment for fictitious, fabricated and exaggerated accident symptoms and injuries” and hired personal injury lawyers to pursue their fraudulent claims, the indictment states.
The collected payouts came from claims for bodily injury, loss of wages and property damage to the vehicles.
Now, 23 people from four U.S. states and Canada are charged with the scam in U.S. District Court in Richland.
They include four married couples, three sets of siblings and a father and son.
Ten of the defendants live in Kennewick and one is from Eltopia, just north of Pasco.
One woman — the girlfriend of a key conspirator in Benton County — worked as a case manager at a Tri-Cities personal injury law firm, the court document states.
She was responsible for handling phone calls, emails, faxes and mail with insurance companies on behalf of the firm’s clients in connection with the claims.
Four of the defendants have yet to be located and are considered fugitives, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Washington.
The case was investigated by the FBI and the National Insurance Crime Bureau, and has been assigned to federal Judge Mary K. Dimke.
One defendant faces 64 felony charges.
And only one of the 23 defendants is not charged in the staged accident scheme, but for alleged actions during the ensuing FBI investigation.
The charges for the 23 defendants vary: mail fraud; wire fraud; conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud; conspiracy to commit health care fraud; tampering with a witness, attempted tampering with evidence; conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding; and making false statements within jurisdiction of executive branch.
Some of the crimes carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison.
Federal prosecutors say the defendants on occasion transferred ownership or gifted a vehicle to a co-conspirator shortly before or even the day of the staged accident. And sometimes they lied about who was driving, prosecutors say, since the real driver left the scene before authorities arrived.
“The defendants would deliberately drive the preplanned ‘at fault’ vehicle into the preplanned ‘no fault’ vehicle at a preplanned location,” the indictment states. “A defendant would then make an emergency call to 911 falsely claiming an ‘accident’ occurred.”
In one allegedly planned crash, a 2015 Chevrolet Camaro hit a 2004 Hummer H2 in Kennewick.
The Hummer was purchased two months earlier for $200. The buyer then reportedly rolled back the odometer, which likely increased the vehicle’s value.
Meanwhile, the owners of the Chevrolet still owed $12,300 in financing to a Tri-Cities credit union at the time of the crash. The car was declared totaled.
The two drivers and their front seat passengers received insurance payouts totaling about $88,000, the indictment states.
Two months after the crash, the salvaged Chevrolet was purchased by a Portland-area used car dealership through an internet automobile auction company. The Chevrolet’s original owner then bought back the salvaged vehicle days later for $5,138.
In another case, one person bought a 2005 Toyota Sienna from a used car dealership in Oregon, then sold it for $2,000.
The new buyer registered the Toyota and got insurance on it.
The next day, the buyer, seller and four others allegedly staged a crash in west Pasco between the Toyota and a 2006 Infiniti FX35. The six participants received a settlement payout totaling almost $390,000.
The same month, a woman allegedly drove her 2014 Mercedes CLA 250 Coupe into her brother’s 2007 Toyota Tundra SR5 west of Prosser.
They received payouts totaling just over $76,000.
The court document says the total paid out by insurance companies over the course of the scheme was just over $962,300.
Six of the defendants tried to obstruct the investigation once they learned federal agents were on to them, federal prosecutors say.
That included fabricating a story that an FBI agent solicited a $22,000 bribe payment to make the case go away, threatening physical force to prevent information about a possible federal crime from being given to a law enforcement officer and a judge, and making false statements, prosecutors say.
The defendants from Kennewick are: Ali Abed Yaser, 51; Hussein A. Yasir, 39; Insaf A. Karawi, 52; Hasanein A. Yaser, 20; Ameer R. Mohammed, 45; Mohammed F. Al-Himrani, 33; Maria Elena Sanchez, 41; Farooq S. Yaseen, 32; Khalil Abdul-Razaq, 40; and Mohammed Naji Al-Jibory, 54. Jesus George Sanchez, 56, is of Eltopia.
Six suspects from El Cajon, Calif., are: Ahmad K. Bachay, 35; Mashael A. Bachay, 31; Mohammad Bajay, 39; Noor Tahseen Al-Maarej, 32; Amar F. Abdul-Salam, 40; and Firas S. Hadi, 41.
The other defendants are Ali F. Al-Himrani, 40, and Rana J. Kaabawi, 38, both of Temecula, Calif.; Sinan Akrawi, 44, of La Mesa, Calif.; Seifeddine A. Al-Kinani, 37, of Las Vegas; Abdullah Al-Dulaimi, 30, of Detroit; and Hussain K. Bachay, 32, from Vancouver, Canada.