Crime Warp: The Lost Lives of Children in Fraud

May 14, 2009

Every child deserves a childhood. But some kids never get that chance. Adults pull children into fraud schemes that can traumatize them for years, and may condition some kids to join the next generation of insurance cheaters.

Some trusting children are deployed as disposable props in fraud schemes. Others just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time — they’re caught in the crossfire of adult misbehavior.

Kids are injured, occasionally killed, and usually traumatized. Children’s families are torn apart when parents are busted, forcing the kids to grow up with maladjusted or few adult role models.

Some parents stuff their kids into cars for staged accidents designed to steal insurance money with bogus injury claims. The kids are carefully coached in the art of pretending they’re hurt in the setup crashes. They make realistic props. Who’d believe a groaning child is faking it?, the parents reason. Even if insurers saw through the ruse, a civil suit alleging bad faith involving a hurt child could be a money-maker in front of a sympathetic jury, they may also figure.

Leo Lopez and Elsa Moure placed their six-year-old son in a car, then rammed another car in a setup crash in Lawrence, Mass. The tyke suffered real injuries, though not life-threatening, and ended up in the hospital. He also lost his father for nearly a year when Lopez was handed a nine-month jail sentence.

Teresa Gallop pulled the same con in Norfolk, Va. She coached her kids how to act injured in staged crashes, and turned them into little money machines. Their bogus crash injuries helped Gallop steal $80,000 in insurance money. But Gallop — who already had 60 felony convictions — was convicted in late March and awaits sentencing.

Members of the Gipson family also used their kids for staged crashes in Ft. Smith, Ark. The children were carefully coached how to act hurt. But one gang member took realism to a new extreme — he hit the tyke in the head so he’d have a real injury to show police and insurers

Two-year-old Joanna Lopez should’ve been so lucky. A car driven by two schemers braked in front of a big rig on the Long Beach (Calif.) Freeway. The schemers were trying to maneuver the rig’s unsuspecting driver into a setup crash. Little Joanna and her parents were crushed between the frantically braking rig and another one behind them. The entire family died in the pileup.

But the schemes go beyond staged accidents.

Five-year-old Brandon Dillbeck thought he was going to the dentist for routine tooth cleaning at a North Carolina clinic. So did his mother.
But a dentist strapped Brandon to a board to keep him from struggling. The dentist then drilled 16 of his teeth and capped them with stainless steel crowns. The two-hour ordeal left Brandon with a scary-looking mouth of steel.

The clinic had abused him to pad health-insurance claims with the worthless treatments. “When he came out he was crying. His whole shirt was soaking with sweat,” his mother Christy said. “His whole head was soaking wet and his mouth was full of gauze, just held open.”

At least seven kids had their teeth yanked or drilled and capped. Clinic owners Letitita Balance and Michael DeRose agreed to pay $10 million to settle charges.

Meanwhile, Timothy and Deborah Nicholls were strung-out meth addicts. They were deeply in debt to a drug-dealing motorcycle gang, Timothy’s home-framing business was failing, and they were threatened with losing their home.

Seeing no other way out, the Colorado Springs, Colo., couple decided to torch their home for insurance money. They didn’t care what happened to their three children. In fact, Timothy lined them up on a couch and spread lighter fluid on their pajamas before starting the fire. The children never made it out alive.

Deborah never even attended their funeral. She bar-hopped that day, singing karaoke at one. Timothy and Deborah will spend the rest of their lives in jail.

Meanwhile, Dina Abdelhaq was jobless, in debt and addicted to gambling. She saw her infant daughter — just weeks old — as a convenient money source.

The Chicago-area woman bought a $200,000 life-insurance policy on little Tara and smothered the child in her crib. It seemed like a case of sudden infant death syndrome, but Abdelhaq was caught and received 21 years in federal prison.

Many Americans consider insurance fraud a harmless prank and victimless crime. The children who’ve lost their childhoods would disagree.

Quiggle is director of communications for the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud. Quiggle’s Crime Warp column is featured exclusively on Web site:

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