Seven men from the area, including one from Ceres were indicted by a federal grand jury for charges related to staged vehicle crashes that investigators say bilked more than $1 million from insurance companies.
The indictment charges Juan Ortiz Rivas, 38, of Ceres; Oscar Diaz Landa, 45, of San Jose; Victor Hugo Soriano-Villafan, 25, of Modesto; Liobigildo Vargas, 45, of Turlock; Juan Marquez Cadenas, 29, of Patterson; Cristopher Santiago Sanchez-Becerra, 31, of Stockton; and, Alfonso Apu, 47, of Modesto with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and mail fraud. Landa, Sanchez-Becerra, and Apu were arrested Tuesday morning at their residences, and Vargas was arrested at his business Vargas Auto Body in Turlock. Soriano-Villafan was arrested last week in Las Vegas and arraigned in U.S. District Court in Fresno.
A federal grand jury returned the sealed indictment on Aug. 27 and it was unsealed Tuesday after the arrests.
The indictment accuses the men of defrauding insurance companies of an estimated $1.2 million between October 2011 and August 2014 by staging dozens of car accidents and filing false claims.
In each staged accident, the defendants damaged two or three vehicles and caused about $5,000 to $10,000 of damage to each vehicle, according to the indictment. After each staged collision, all parties involved submitted a similar cover story to an insurer, along with aliases, false identities, and false addresses. The defendants usually used different vehicles in the staged collisions by obtaining many different vehicles and using false identities to both register the vehicles with the Department of Motor Vehicles and obtain insurance policies for the vehicles.
Investigators stated the accused were able to continue the scheme over a long period of time by recruiting new people. These individuals would allow their vehicles to be damaged in a staged collision and submit their own claim for damages after receiving instructions from the defendants about the cover story to use.
The defendants also often offered to repair the recruited individual's vehicle at one of their automobile repair shops, usually with less-than-complete repair work, for a fee less than the payment from an insurance company on the damaged vehicle, according to the indictment.
If convicted, each defendant faces a maximum statutory penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count of the indictment. Any sentence, however, would be determined at the discretion of the court.
This case is the product of an investigation by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations and the California Department of Insurance, Fraud Division.