Prosecutors hoped to put a dent in the insurance fraud circuit Thursday when they announced the arrest of 53 Orange County car mechanics and auto body shop owners, including eight from Costa Mesa, who are accused of defrauding insurance companies.
Among those arrested was Huntington Beach Body Works shop owner Richard Evans, who is the star of Speed Channel's "Chop Cut Rebuild" show and has been featured on "Monster Garage."
Between January and May, undercover district attorney investigators conducted the largest auto body repair insurance fraud sting in county history, dubbing the effort Operation Straight Body.
"Insurance fraud hurts every Orange County family because insurance companies pass the cost of fraud onto their customers," said Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas. "In Southern California, having cars and car insurance is not a luxury, but a necessity. We rely on cars to and from work and school. In a down economy, having affordable insurance is vital to families on a budget."
Using two cars already totaled by their previous owners' insurance companies, investigators shopped around repair work for a 2001 Ford Expedition and a 1999 Mercedes Benz E430.
The Expedition was missing its rear bumper and had a dent on the rear hatch. The Mercedes had been rear-ended and the left side of the bumper wasn't attached to the car.
In each case, investigators sought repair estimates from auto body shops with a history of complaints.
The catch: Investigators with the Expedition asked mechanics if they could repair everything and list it under one insurance claim, even if the damage was done in separate incidents. Investigators used the Expedition in about 80% of their cases.
Those who agreed to file the repairs under one claim were arrested on a felony count of insurance fraud.
With the Mercedes, mechanics or shop owners were told that some of the damage to the car was there when they bought the car through an auction, but wanted it repaired and listed under their insurance claim. Those who complied, were arrested, officials said.
All defendants face up to five years in prison, but will likely get a lighter sentence if convicted.
"This prosecution puts dishonest operators and anyone thinking of committing fraud on notice," Rackauckas said. "We are watching them and they can be prosecuted. If a shop is willing to commit fraud against an insurance company, they are willing to commit fraud against customers. They should be concerned."
Most of the accused were arraigned Thursday or will be arraigned today. Court records on how they pleaded were not immediately available.
Suspects The following are eight Costa Mesa suspects arrested for alleged insurance fraud and the auto body shops they worked in or owned. Angelea Danciu, 52 — G D Auto Collision, 2085 Placentia Ave.Dennis Dee Eagleton, 43 — Euro America Collision Center, 1343 Logan St.Tateoz Gasparyan, 57 — Southern Auto Body, 118 E. 16th St.Robert Charles Gomez, 29 — Southern Auto Body, 118 E. 16th St.Sergio Rene Gonzalez, 49 — Superior Collision Center, 1646 Superior Ave.Brent David Lanksbury, 39 — Hi Tech, 1399 Logan St.Freddy Cardona Morales, 35 — Specialty Collision Center, 330 Paularino Ave.Phillip David Sanchez, 44 — Autobahn Autobody, 1107 Baker St.