Auto fraud runner gets probation - The Dominican Leo Lopez cooperates with prosecutors, pleads guilty
www.eagletribune.com — Leo Lopez, a major player in the city's once-thriving auto fraud industry has pleaded guilty — again.
Lopez, 31, cooperated with prosecutors to take down a host of local attorneys and chiropractors after his indictment on 36 larceny, fraud and conspiracy charges.
The former Lawrence High School basketball star previously pleaded guilty to 26 auto fraud crimes, but later asked for a new trial due to ineffective counsel. His new trial request was granted in September 2010.
In court yesterday, Lopez pleaded guilty to 11 counts of larceny, fraud and conspiracy. The 25 remaining charges were continued generally, and Judge John Lu sentenced Lopez to five years probation. If Lopez stays out of trouble, those 25 charges will be dismissed after the five-year probationary period.
For several years Lopez was considered a big-time case runner in the city's auto fraud scandals, a chief architect of dozens of staged car crashes that earned money from numerous personal injury law offices, chiropractic clinics and physical therapy centers that profited from the bogus accident and injury claims.
After eight people were indicted in the scandal, Lopez became a cooperating witness for state prosecutors. He provided testimony on how he got paid to recruit phony victims for law offices and health clinics for accidents that never happened.
However, Lopez said he was duped by his former lawyer Eric Taitano who never warned him he faced deportation to his native Dominican Republic when he pleaded guilty to 26 criminal counts in January 2009.
In September 2010, Judge David Lowy granted a new trial request from Lopez's new lawyer Randi Potash.
Neither Potash nor Assistant Attorney General William Freeman of the fraud and financial crimes division could be reached for comment for this story.
Lopez was once ranked among the state's best high school basketball stars, and after graduating from Lawrence High, he attended Tilton College in New Hampshire for three years on a basketball scholarship.
But several years after dropping out, he picked up a new trade in the local auto fraud industry.
"Leo Lopez is the most notorious, the most brazen and the most prolific of the runners we've ever investigated," Lawrence police Sgt. Michael Simard said in a 2008 interview, shortly after Lopez was arrested for recruiting phony accident victims for one of the many "paper" accidents he planned.
Simard, who was then the police department's lead investigator on the city's auto insurance fraud task force, called him "the mastermind" of dozens of "paper" and staged crashes to scam insurance companies. Lopez was considered so important to the investigation that task force members went to the Savannah, Ga., area four years ago to bring him back to Massachusetts to face numerous felony and misdemeanor fraud charges.
Lopez's capture in Georgia came on the third anniversary of the Sept. 4, 2003 staged crash that killed Altagracia Arias. The 65-year-old great-grandmother died in a staged crash that police said she helped plan to scam an insurance company.
That crash prompted Lawrence police Chief John Romero to assemble a task force that included Lawrence police detectives working with the industry-funded Insurance Fraud Bureau of Massachusetts, prosecutors in Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett's office, the attorney general's office and fraud investigators from a handful of insurance companies doing business in Lawrence.