Smoking Out Insurance-Arson Rings Earns Laura Uriarte Prosecutor Of Year Award
1/12/2017Racketeering and airtight evidence halted largest arson rings in Fla. history
WASHINGTON, Jan 12, 2017 — Why 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 sunny South Florida, of all places?
Strange. Such clues helped 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 a $22-million insurance-fraud crime wave and earned Uriarte the Prosecutor of the Year by the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud. The award honors best courtroom practices by prosecutors in halting insurance scams.
“Laura Uriarte smoked out an arson crime wave launched by highly organized insurance-fraud rings. Their false fire claims contributed to higher premiums honest Florida policyholders pay every day,” said Dennis Jay, Executive Director of the Coalition.
Widespread fraud rings torched dozens of homes throughout South Florida — reinforcing the region as a hotbed of insurance scams.
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.
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.
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 large ones. They recruited associates as straw renters on the insurance policies.
Fraud rings often filled 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.
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, Uriarte says.
CONTACT: James Quiggle, director of communications; 202-393-7331