An inside look at New Orleans’ staged-accidents scam — and how some sought a bigger payday

BY JOHN SIMERMAN | STAFF WRITERPUBLISHED SEP 25, 2020 AT 6:24 PM | UPDATED SEP 25, 2020 AT 10:05 PM

When they do an autopsy on the body of Cornelius Garrison, who was shot up inside a Gentilly apartment this week, pathologists might note a scar that runs down his neck.

The scar isn’t fresh. A Baton Rouge doctor cut into him four years ago, fusing together multiple vertebrae in a four-hour surgery that cost $251,000.

Yet authorities fear that old injury might have ended his life just the same — indirectly, anyhow.

Garrison, 54, was shot dead Tuesday night, four days after a federal grand jury indicted him in a group of nine defendants accused of orchestrating scores of staged car accidents into moving buses, tractor-trailers and other large commercial vehicles for insurance settlements that can run well into six figures. The indictment says Garrison was a “slammer” whose job it was to collide with those big vehicles, and prosecutors allege he staged more than 50 accidents in exchange for $150,000 from an unnamed co-conspirator.

That man, thought to be disbarred lawyer Sean Alfortish, allegedly told Garrison “he would get more money from the lawsuit if he had surgery,” according to the indictment. Garrison’s attorney, federal Public Defender Claude Kelly, said Friday that Garrison obliged.

“I can confirm he did have neck surgery and that was after consultation with his claims attorneys,” Kelly said.

The charges filed against Garrison allege that attorney Vanessa Motta, whose television commercials for her law practice feature her work as an on-screen stuntwoman, helped secure a fraudulent $650,000 settlement in an accident that Garrison staged.

While the court records don’t name Motta or Alfortish, who is her fiancé, they strongly suggest that Alfortish was paying Garrison to cause the wrecks and referring the legal work to Motta.

Kelly would not discuss any details of the case against Garrison, whose murder has prompted a joint homicide investigation by the New Orleans Police Department and the FBI as they try to determine whether his killing was a hit job meant to stymie the prosecution. Neither Kelly nor U.S. Attorney Peter Strasser would say whether Garrison was cooperating before his death with federal prosecutors in an investigation that has so far targeted 28 defendants across multiple indictments.

The indictments suggest more charges might be coming against local lawyers – and perhaps also medical professionals – in an alarming scheme that court records show was focused within New Orleans city limits, to keep Louisiana State Police out of the picture.

Garrison’s death shone a bright spotlight on a scam that local lawyers say appears to raise the stakes dramatically on a fraud as old as automobile insurance. Indeed, insurance attorneys appear to be the ones blowing the whistle.

Perhaps most alarming is just how far the alleged perpetrators were willing to go for a big payday.

Federal and state court records, both civil and criminal, show that Garrison was not the only alleged participant who was willing to undergo serious surgery on his lawyer’s advice to boost the insurance payout from a suit. Lucinda Thomas, who pleaded guilty in January under a similar indictment to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, admitted that “to increase the value” of her legal claim, her lawyer told her “she would get more money through the lawsuit if she had surgery.”

Thomas, a passenger in what prosecutors allege was a staged accident involving a Freightliner tractor-trailer on Chef Menteur Highway in 2017, admitted she agreed to get neck fusion surgery.

Her attorney, Michael Riehlmann, declined to discuss the surgery or the case against Thomas, who awaits sentencing. But Riehlmann said he expects the case to result in charges against attorneys who represented the alleged crash-makers.

“Given all the allegations in the various indictments, I can’t see how they wouldn’t,” he said.

Danny Keating, the attorney who represented Thomas and others in civil lawsuits over the crash on Chef Menteur, was named this month in a federal civil racketeering lawsuit brought by Southeastern Motor Freight Inc., which employed the tractor-trailer driver.

Whether the feds ultimately secure charges against doctors is less certain, legal observers said.

Harry Rosenberg, who is a former U.S. attorney in New Orleans and familiar with the sprawling investigation, said scams targeting big rigs and other large vehicles suggest crash-stagers have moved to higher-stakes targets.

In the past, “it was often elderly drivers or individuals who were driving a rental car. I don’t think big rigs were always part of the game in terms of staged accidents.,” Rosenberg said. “I think individuals and groups soon realized where the big money was. Now you see insurance companies facing much larger claims. It was $20,000 or $30,000; they’re now $500,000 or $600,000 claims.”

Such scams require coordination, he said. “You need to have an attorney involved. You need to have a medical provider who’s willing to exaggerate the extent of the injury and to document them,” he said.

In Garrison’s case, medical providers billed his total treatment, including his surgery, at more than $350,000, according to records filed in Orleans Parish Civil District Court. But an attorney for the insurance company argued in 2018 that a company called Ascendant Healthcare had agreed in advance to pay half that much.

Rosenberg said Garrison’s killing “changes the dynamics entirely” in the federal criminal case.

“It’s going to be hard to get people to be cooperating witnesses,” he said. “It’s just unusual in this kind of investigation to see that kind of violence. You might see it in a drug setting, other types of crimes, but not in staged accidents.”

By the same token, Rosenberg said Garrison’s killing “may foster more [guilty] pleas if individuals are facing murder charges, instead of just wire fraud through staged accidents and false statements.”

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