Connecticut Group Staged Car Accidents for Insurance Money

“After a autumn evening of drinking and using drugs in 2013, a group of friends got into an Audi A6 and drove to the remote Wilderness Road in Norwich, Connecticut. The car slid off the road, hitting a tree.

Everyone in the car survived, but this seemingly typical crash was no accident.

Despite their impairment, the driver and passengers had purposely planned the crash to collect the insurance money. It was one of many crashes that a group of Connecticut residents were connected to over several years—contributing to higher car insurance premiums for all drivers and wasting public resources like ambulance responses.

In the October crash, driver Mackenzy Noze got out of the Audi and drove away in a getaway car, while his friend, Jacques Fleurijeune, climbed into the driver’s seat of the damaged Audi and called 911. Fleurijeune told police he had hit the tree while swerving to avoid a deer—though no witnesses or police ever saw the alleged deer.

The four passengers were all taken to the hospital and eventually received insurance settlements for their injuries, which were fake. Fleurijeune also received payment for the value of the car, and others in the car gave some or all of their injury payouts to Noze and Fleurijeune.

This scenario played out numerous times with various combinations of co-conspirators from 2011 through 2014, with insurance companies paying out $10,000 to $30,000 per crash in about 50 crashes. Many of them happened under similar circumstances—late-night, single-car crashes on remote roads without witnesses. In the fall, the drivers would claim to have swerved hitting a deer. In the winter, they said they lost control on a snowy street. To up their payout, they used older, European cars, which tend to hold their value over time.

For the insurance companies, these repeat crashes raised red flags. So the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), a non-profit organization that serves as a liaison between law enforcement and insurance companies, shared crash data with the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Connecticut. The NICB’s suspicious accident data helped investigators hone in on the worst offenders.

“It was just a good, old-fashioned case, conducting interviews and reviewing documents—such as police reports and insurance company records—looking for patterns,” said Special Agent Daniel Curtin, who investigated the case out of the FBI’s New Haven Division. “With a lot of these staged crashes, the fraudsters made interstate telephone calls to file the insurance claims, and the calls were recorded, forming the foundation for many of the wire fraud counts.”

Noze, 33, the group’s ringleader, was convicted of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and sentenced last month to four years in prison. Six others, including Fleurijeune, have been charged and convicted.

While insurance fraud may seem to be a victimless crime, that’s far from the case.

Estimates show car insurance fraud costs the average policyholder about $300 per year in higher premiums, according to NICB Supervisory Special Agent John Gasiorek, who assisted the FBI with the investigation.

Additionally, staged accidents are a safety hazard, both to those involved and other drivers. While in this ring, the conspirators generally did not involve other motorists, criminals sometimes do stage accidents involving unsuspecting drivers.

“You never know who’s going to come around the corner. You could hit an innocent person. It’s really a public safety issue,” Gasiorek said, noting that even willing participants in the staged accidents are unexpectedly injured.

“When insurance companies pay fraudulent claims, everyone’s premiums go up,” Curtin said. “More importantly, the staged crashes pose risks to first responders. You had police officers and EMTs rushing to crash scenes. The wasted time of medical professionals was also a concern with ER doctors and nurses treating these fraudsters for non-existent injuries. It took time away from other patients who really needed medical attention.”

At least in the local region, Curtin said word has gotten out that law enforcement is working these cases and bringing perpetrators to justice.

“The insurance companies have said that suspicious claims, especially those involving single-car accidents on remote roads, are down in southeastern Connecticut,” Curtin said. “They’re not seeing these types of suspicious accidents because this case has sent a message.”

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The Law and Science of Eyewitness Identification

“Several years ago, I sat in a tavern in a city of abandoned textile mills with a client who had been exonerated of several rape convictions by DNA testing. Like the city itself, my client saw better days ahead. The police investigations into the crimes were riddled with errors, and he would later reach a multimillion dollar settlement in his civil rights case. Yet, as we met for the first time to look over the case file, another disturbing aspect became clear: the sheer number of times witnesses had misidentified our client during the investigation.

One area of law in need of profound change is the process by which courts and investigators collect witness identification evidence. Eyewitness identification plays a fundamental role in criminal cases, and also plays a part in civil cases and internal business investigations. But this critical tool is often plagued with reliability problems. While it is important to use identification procedures to solve crimes, it is equally important to exclude innocent people from prosecution.

According to the Innocence Project, since 1989, there have been 349 wrongful convictions overturned via DNA testing. In those cases, eyewitness misidentification was a factor in over 70% of those cases—far more than any other factor.

Last year, I attended the 2016 National Symposium on Eyewitness Identification Reform along with other lawyers and investigators. We studied and discussed the latest research. Historically, many procedures for testing eyewitness identification were not validated in a scientific manner before being implemented by investigators. As a result, many of us have been trained using eyewitness identification techniques that are outmoded and flawed—and those methods have led to innocent people being implicated in an investigation.

However, forward-thinking investigators throughout the country are making changes in their techniques based on new scientific research in this area. Below, I summarize some highlights of the research and provide a link to free training materials.

The Law

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, Neil v. Biggers (1972), was one of the first cases where the court made extensive recommendations on evaluating eyewitness testimony. In somewhat of a departure for Supreme Court decisions, the court delved into the facts:

“The assailant directed the victim to ‘tell her [the daughter] to shut up, or I’ll kill you both.’ She did so, and was then walked at knifepoint about two blocks along a railroad track, taken into a woods, and raped there. She testified that ‘the moon was shining brightly, full moon.’”

Biggers was later identified during a live showup at the police station, where the victim viewed Biggers. He was made to repeat the threat uttered by the rapist. Finding the showup here met the criteria for reliability, the court listed five factors for evaluating the accuracy of eyewitness identifications:

“As indicated by our cases, the factors to be considered in evaluating the likelihood of misidentification include the opportunity of the witness to view the criminal at the time of the crime, the witness’ degree of attention, the accuracy of the witness’ prior description of the criminal, the level of certainty demonstrated by the witness at the confrontation, and the length of time between the crime and the confrontation.”

The Neil v. Biggers factors were confirmed in a 1977 case, Manson v. Brathwaite, in which the Supreme Court set a low barrier to admitting shaky evidence, holding that if the circumstances of the identification procedure were suggestive, the Court must then weigh the “totality of the circumstances” to determine whether the identification is still reliable. The law of the land for over three decades now, Manson v. Brathwaite has come under increasing criticism that its holding is inconsistent with recent scientific studies into witness identification and memory.

The Supreme Court has noted the unique power of witness testimony; Justice William J. Brennan, Jr.’s dissent in the 1981 case Watkins v. Sowders summed it up best:

“[E]yewitness testimony is likely to be believed by jurors, especially when it is offered with a high level of confidence, even though the accuracy of an eyewitness and the confidence of that witness may not be related to one another at all. All the evidence points rather strikingly to the conclusion that there is almost nothing more convincing than a live human being who takes the stand, points a finger at the defendant, and says, `That’s the one!’”

The Research

What do we mean when we refer to eyewitness identification?

Eyewitness identification can occur in several formats: a showup, live lineups, or a photo lineup. Showups—where a suspect is apprehended and shown “live” and in-person to a witness, close in time to the event—have been demonstrated to have higher percentages of both correct and incorrect identifications as compared to lineups. Showups tend to be have heightened problems with suggestibility, given the fact that they involve just one person who is surrounded by multiple police officers.

Lineups occur at a time somewhat removed from the event, but because they are planned and staged, a process exists to minimize contamination by suggestive elements (for example, a suspect standing closer to the victim than all lineup fillers; police clapping after a successful identification of a suspect).

How often are witnesses successful in their identification? In one study of 11 peer reviewed studies and over 6,000 actual police lineups, witnesses selected the suspect 41% of the time; witnesses selected a lineup filler 37% of the time (i.e., they selected a person who was known to be innocent of the crime).

Several phenomena have been observed in studies where a crime is staged—say, a person enters a classroom in front of student “witnesses” and steals a purse—and the students/witnesses later are interviewed in a controlled setting about their observations.

Here are a few key findings:

1. Proper eyewitness instructions can reduce false positives.

Research has demonstrated that eyewitnesses tend to identify the person from the lineup who, in the opinion of the eyewitness, looks most like the culprit relative to the other members of the lineup. The problem became readily apparent when experiments were run where the actual culprit was not present in the lineup. Under controlled conditions, a concept called the “relative judgment process” will often yield a positive identification—even when the true culprit had been removed from the lineup. While this may seem to be an obvious, simple observation, research shows the effect is incredibly damaging to accuracy.

But research has demonstrated that this problem can be partly remedied with a simple instruction to the witness that the true culprit may not be in the lineup. Some state courts have adopted a set of instructions to be given to eyewitnesses—such as a caveat that the witness need not feel compelled to make an identification, and that police will continue to investigate this incident, whether or not the witness makes an identification.

“These instructions can reduce pressure on the witness to feel as if they must pick a culprit, and this leads to more accurate results.

2. Double-blind identification procedures can prevent information “leaks.”

A double-blind eyewitness identification is one in which neither the administrator nor the eyewitness knows the identity of the suspect. Research has shown that witnesses were adept at picking up clues from the person administering the lineup when that administrator knew the identity of the suspect. The lineup administrator tended to “leak” information about the suspect in subtle (and not so subtle) ways: leaning forward at certain times; raising his hands; making a comment like “take another look at the third guy;” smiling or nodding in agreement when a positive identification was made; or conversely, frowning when the wrong person was chosen. These kinds of cues lead to inaccurate identifications, as well as false levels of confidence in the witness.

Studies have shown there is far less chance of contamination of the process when double blind testing is implemented.

3. Confidence statements from the witness are most reliable at the time of initial identification.

The role played by eyewitness mistakes in the DNA exoneration cases has helped to create a growing impression that eyewitness memory is inherently unreliable. I have heard several witnesses tell me this on recent cases, in essence doubting their own ability to remember accurately. But this overstates the case. Researchers have discovered—perhaps surprisingly given the general trend— that when eyewitnesses are questioned using proper identification procedures, the confidence they have in their initial identification usually is a highly reliable indicator of accuracy.”

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Public Safety Academy At School Aims To Prepare Students For Careers

“Is high school too early to figure out what career path to follow?

The Olathe School District doesn’t think so.

When the new Olathe West High School opens for all students on Thursday, the district will have a total of 17 specialty academies in its five high schools.

For as long as most people can remember, the main mission of Johnson County schools has been preparing kids for college.

“I think we’ve done, for years, a really good job of helping kids be college-ready, but the career piece is something that kind of went in a different direction,” says Jay Novacek, principal of the new high school.

The Kansas State Department of Education wants to refocus districts so students are ready for college or a career when they graduate.

So Olathe West will offer courses for kids who are looking for a first-responder career.

“Not every kid has to go to college to be successful,” Novacek says. “There are a lot of awesome professions, public safety included, whether I’m a police officer or firefighter, an EMT person, that are going to give kids a great opportunities and a long career.”

Jeff Van Dyke, who was a Wichita cop for eight years, runs the public safety program and most recently taught middle-school physical education. He says there is a lot of practical experience students can get in the large space that houses the public safety program.

“We can use it for all kinds of real world-type learning situations such as setting up a crime scene, having the kids come in and process the crime scene in here,” Van Dyke says.

The Public Safety space is tucked into the side of the $82 million dollar building. Students pass a girder from the World Trade Center as they enter.

It’s a reminder, says Olathe Fire Chief Jeff DeGraffenreid, of the kind of people police and fire departments around here want to hire.

“A strong moral compass and a willingness to assist their fellow man is really what we’re looking at. Helping these students see the value of that, and hopefully someday we’ll be able to hire a great student from here,” he says.

An Olathe fire captain will teach the firefighting classes in the academy.

Olathe West is certainly not the first high school in the country to offer courses in public safety. But it’s one of the few that’s fully integrated with the rest of its academic courses, DeGraffenreid says.

Students, he says, will get a quality Olathe School District education and, after passing the state firefighting test, be ready to work.

“They’re great at math. They’re great at science. They’re great at writing. But they’re also fully prepared to work on a fire truck soon after graduation,” he says.

In addition to the public service academy at Olathe West, the district has also created a new, green technology academy at the school. It’s the 17th such academy the district has added since 2003.

Most of them, like the engineering or business academies, are geared toward college-bound students.

The crucial thing, says Deputy Superintendent Allison Banikowski, is finding the student’s passion and finding it early.
“And making sure, then, all the content and course work is geared toward that passion,” he says.

The Public Safety program is an acknowledgment, the district says, that it plays a significant role in getting kids ready to work in the community.”

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Foot Surveillance: Keeping Your Cover

Vehicular surveillance and foot surveillance each have their challenges, but they share a common objective: to be invisible by hiding in plain sight. I’ve done plenty of both and tend to enjoy foot surveillance the most—mainly because I like the freedom of not being confined to a car.

The success of any surveillance operation relies heavily on preparation. And a good surveillance operative should be ready to go from mobile vehicular to foot surveillance at a moment’s notice. You might be riding along with another investigator as a passenger, ready to jump out and follow on foot. Or you might be following a subject by public transport—which means that surveillance on foot is your only option.

If you suspect that you’ll be on foot for all or part of the job, plan accordingly. Choose clothing that blends well into the places you’re likely to go (and is weather-appropriate), carry lightweight recording equipment that won’t attract attention (including your smartphone), and review the local transport system thoroughly.

Once you arrive at the initial assignment location, canvass the area for surveillance cameras, security guards, or anyone who might notice your activities (such as a doorman). Check for all possible exits from the location under surveillance, and choose the best possible observation post.

From there, don’t just watch the exit(s); keep assessing the whole area, and planning how you might follow your subject(s) once they appear. Is the area busy enough with foot traffic for you to follow closely on the same side of the street, or should you stay further back, or even cross the street to follow? You may be in a busy area, but if there aren’t many pedestrians, you’ll have to maintain your distance. You don’t want be too close, as illustrated in figure 1, without any cover.

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Corporate Sector Special Operations: Myths & Realities

“It was still dark outside when the first undercover operative arrived at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. A thick layer of fog swirled through the streets as the operative made his way into the lobby. He sat down to wait for his partner, and for the man who had hired them for the job. The hotel was to be the site of a large tech conference that day, and the two operatives had to be in position fast. Conference attendees would soon be streaming in for registration, and before long, the guest speakers would begin to arrive—including one specific Silicon Valley billionaire they would be watching for.

As the hubbub in the lobby built to a crescendo, the operatives slid into the background. It was imperative for their mission that no one knew who they were or what they were doing there.

While this might sound like a nefarious plot in some Hollywood movie, this was actually a covert protective operation, and part of a whole undercover world that very few people know exists—an invisible world I call the “surveillance zone.”

Introducing the “Surveillance Zone”

Let me offer you a peek behind the curtain—and into the “zone.” That first undercover operative mentioned above? That was actually me, and the man who had hired us was the senior security director for a well-known Silicon Valley corporation. We’d been hired to covertly protect the billionaire founder and CEO, whose company—despite some dramatic downswings and falling stock prices—was about to unveil a new venture. The mix of angry stockholders, excited techies, and nervous investors had company execs feeling skittish and us on our guard, and made for a tricky and interesting assignment.

On top of all that, the CEO had been receiving increasingly violent threats from a dedicated stalker who had demonstrated the will and ability to take things to the next level. Having surveilled the CEO’s home and workplace, and even physically confronted the CEO, there was ample reason to take the stalker’s intentions seriously.

When the threat to harm the CEO at the convention had come in (just a day before the event), the company decided to take action. At ten pm, I received a call from the security director, requesting our presence at the hotel at six am the following morning.”

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How Private Investigators Can Effectively Handle Intense Situations

“A private investigator’s days are often filled with uneventful surveillance and dead ends, but that’s only part of the job. On occasion, PIs may land in hot water and must rely on their communication and negotiation skills to get them out of it.

It takes talent, poise, and honed interpersonal skills to talk an enraged spouse out of swinging at you. Physical weapons are not always available, so we use what we do have in our arsenal—words, empathy, and emotional intelligence—to de-escalate a volatile situation.

Operating effectively under stress is a must-have skill in this line of work. No amount of training can prevent us from feeling fear in extreme situations. But we can learn to mitigate the stress symptoms, and even harness them—to laser-focus our energies on solving the problem at hand.

The Adrenaline Rush

In stressful conditions, our adrenal glands secrete a hormone to prepare the body for “fight or flight.” That shot of adrenaline can feel like a head rush: Your heart races. You breathe faster and deeper. You feel a surge of energy, heightened awareness, or even a suppressed pain response. And under extreme stress, you may experience tunnel vision, auditory exclusion (temporary hearing impairment), or a sense that time has slowed.

Some people seek out that rush (in its milder forms) as a welcome distraction from the more tedious aspects of investigative work. But when the job brings us into contact with unpredictable people and dangerous places, that physiological fight or flight response isn’t just a bungee-jump in the park anymore; it’s a survival mechanism.

The flip side is that those same symptoms that prepare us to deal with danger can also cloud judgement and make clear thinking a challenge.”

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Op-Ed: Doing “God’s Work” from the “Dark Side”

“Prosecutors like to say they are “doing God’s work” by representing the interests of victims. An ex-prosecutor I interviewed for my book, Making a Case for Innocence, used those words when I asked her why some prosecutors are willing to lie or hide evidence to get a conviction, and why some prosecutors seem more focused on winning cases than getting to the truth.

“At the end of the day, we want justice,” she said.

A vague answer, at best.

Still, it might explain the tunnel vision I see infecting some prosecutors: Too many of them seem so driven in their mission to “put the bad guys away,” that they become overconfident in their rightness and are tempted to bend the rules—all to ensure a “mission accomplished.”

I admit, it rubs me the wrong way when a government employee suggests that justice is only served by a conviction. Putting “bad guys” away is all well and fine, but some prosecutors seem to forget that not everyone sitting at the defendant’s table is a “bad guy.”

To a degree, it’s a problem of philosophy: Many prosecutors are in the business of pursuing guilt, so they see it everywhere. To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And many police departments view themselves more as law enforcers than as society’s protectors, or as crime preventers.

Meanwhile, many criminal defense attorneys and investigators feel as strongly as prosecutors do that they are doing “God’s work.” By protecting the rights of people charged with crimes, they counterbalance the power of prosecutors and police, and thus, make our system fairer for all.

We don’t know the exact number of innocent people currently incarcerated, but we can estimate based on exoneration rates:”

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Miami Student Sentenced for Cyberstalking on Facebook and Instagram

“A Miami student was sentenced yesterday for cyberstalking on Facebook and Instagram.

Wifredo A. Ferrer, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, and George L. Piro, Special Agent in Charge, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Miami Field Office, made the announcement.

Kassandra Cruz, 23, of Miami, Florida, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Frederico A. Moreno to 22 months in prison, followed by three years of supervised release, a $100 special assessment, and $2,178.32 in restitution, stemming from her conviction on one count of cyberstalking, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 2261(A)(2)(B).

According to court documents, beginning in June 2015, victim “S.B.” received a “friend” request from Cruz on her Instagram and Facebook accounts. In an effort to gain “S.B.’s” friendship, Cruz created a false persona on her Instagram account wherein she portrayed herself as a male who was an active duty U.S. Marine. Under that ruse, “S.B.” accepted the friend request.

From late June 2015 until September 2015, Cruz, posing as Giovanni, “liked” and commented on pictures “S.B.” posted on both her Instagram and Facebook accounts. However, when “S.B.” noticed that Cruz had begun “following” and “liking” all of her friends pages and posts, she became suspicious and “blocked” and “unfollowed” Cruz from her social media accounts.

As a result, Cruz threatened that “S.B.” would face repercussions at her job and with her family if she did not comply, and specifically threatened to expose “S.B.’s” past via social media. The threats to “S.B.” persisted from Cruz on social media and later via text messaging, and Cruz ultimately demanded on multiple occasions $100,000 in exchange for no further contact, adding that she “knew where “S.B.’s family lived and they should watch their backs because someone would be heading to…to deal with them.” In total, “S.B.” received over 900 unwanted calls and text messages since the beginning of 2016, and the extortionate and threatening messages continued until late April 2016. Ultimately, Cruz was arrested and taken into custody during a pre-arranged meeting in Miami.

Mr. Ferrer commended the investigative efforts of the FBI. This case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jodi L. Anton and Francis Viamontes.

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20 Ways to Bring Your Investigative Game to the Next Level

“I’ve got an admission to make: I am kind of addicted to self-improvement. I’m not sure when this phenomenon started, but it turns out that I am not the only one – it’s a $10 billion per year business.

But what I am really obsessed with is making myself a better investigator, mostly because after 15 years in this business I have realized that there are no books or courses that actually teach what I do (which is why I made one—details to follow).

And because of technology and the changing landscape of the business, what I do today is almost entirely different from what I was doing 10 years ago.

So how do you keep up your skills and bring them to the next level?

1. Follow blogs.

Of course there is Pursuit Magazine, and there are dozens of other blogs out there worth reading, but PI Buzz, PINow.com, The Ethical Investigator, Guns, Gams & Gumshoes and Private Eye Confidential are at the top of my list.

2. Read books.

3. Write.

Whether you write novels or articles about your investigative methods, writing helps you synthesize your thoughts and provide more clarity.”

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Chalice Zeitner Sentenced to More than 25 Years in Prison

Attorney General Mark Brnovich announced today a judge sentenced Chalice Zeitner to more than 25 years in prison after Zeitner faked cancer to qualify for a taxpayer funded abortion and scammed veterans charities out of more than $15,000. Zeitner was convicted of 17 felonies at two separate trials. The Attorney General’s Office prosecuted this case after an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation Phoenix Field Office and AHCCCS.

“Zeitner is a con-artist who brazenly stole money from veterans and the taxpayers of Arizona,” said Attorney General Mark Brnovich. “Our office has built a strong partnership with the FBI to investigate and prosecute complex fraud cases like Zeitner’s and seek justice for the victims.”

“The crimes for which Ms. Zeitner has been convicted are particularly offensive, from defrauding veterans’ charities to faking cancer in order to receive a government-funded, late-term abortion. The FBI is committed to protecting the public from frauds and is well-situated to investigate frauds occurring in multiple states and jurisdictions,” said Special Agent in Charge Michael DeLeon. “I would like to thank Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich for dedicating the resources necessary to prosecute Ms. Zeitner.”

In April 2016, a jury convicted Zeitner of fraud and other charges for faking a cancer diagnosis to get the state to pay for a late-term abortion. In August 2016 after a separate trial, a jury convicted Zeitner of Fraudulent Schemes and Artifices and Theft for scamming veterans charities out of $15,000 and charging more than $25,000 to a fraudulently obtained credit card associated with a family member of an owner of a veterans charity.”

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