Home arson gangs singe insurers with $22-million spree

Fraud of the Month: January 2017

Intrepid prosecutor busts rings, earns Prosecutor of the Year Award

imageWhy did the same singed furniture keep appearing in large insurance claims for different rented homes that suspiciously caught fire? Why were closets stuffed full of sweaters in South Florida, of all places?

Strange. Such clues helped dogged Miami-Dade Assistant State Attorney Laura Uriarte build airtight cases that shut down five of the largest insurance-arson rings in Florida history. That halted an eye-opening $22-million insurance-fraud crime wave, earning her the Prosecutor of the Year Award.

Widespread fraud rings torched dozens of homes throughout South Florida — reinforcing the region as a hotbed of insurance scams.

Corrupt public adjusters led the insurance-fraud rings. The adjusters exploited the insurance system to rubberstamp false claims for payment. The adjusters typically rented homes, often mansions. They recruited cronies as straw renters on the insurance policies.

Blamed candles for blazes

The arson gangs stuffed many homes with inexpensive old furniture and clothes. Many falsely blamed candles for starting home fires. The sham renters made inflated claims for the junk possessions. The same furniture, often burned, was recycled for other setup home fires. Closets sometimes were filled with sweaters, strangely, in a region known for year-around heat.

Homeowners were involved in many fires. Some also opened up water pipes or used garden hoses to flood rooms for inflated water-damage claims.

Uriarte’s courtroom success drew national recognition as the top prosecutor for 2016. Sponsored by the Coalition, the award honors best courtroom practices by prosecutors in halting insurance scams — an $80-billion crime wave nationally.

At least 75 ring members pleaded guilty and more plea deals are expected. Uriarte was a lead member of state crackdowns coded Operation Candle Light, Operation Flames & Floods 1 & 2, and Operation Pro-Con.

Prosecutor forced guilty pleas

Uriarte wielded a two-pronged legal strategy. First, she embedded herself with the task forces investigating the rings. Her steady legal guidance helped ensure investigators developed thorough evidence that meant certain convictions of ring members once she took them to court.

Uriarte also brandished state racketeering charges — which can carry long sentences.

Most ring members quickly pleaded guilty. They couldn’t contest the detailed evidence Uriarte helped develop. Potential racketeering sentences added an incentive to plead guilty for shorter sentences.

The investigations spanned 2012 through the present. Some probes are ongoing. Multiple agencies have been involved including the Miami-Dade Police Department, State Fire Marshal, State CFO and the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office.

Home insurance arsons have fallen significantly in South Florida. Some would-be arsonists have fled the state rather than face prosecution and certain convictions.

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