Insurance fraud operation across South Florida nets 22 arrests

Twenty-two people from across Miami-Dade County were charged in a fraud scheme that bilked insurance companies out of $7.6 million by intentionally setting fires or causing floods in homes, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle announced Tuesday.

“We?re here today to announce 22 arrests in what amounts to be another insurance scam that?s intended to take cash out of your wallets,” Fernandez Rundle said from her downtown office building.

Investigators were able to crack the ring led by public adjuster, Jorge Fausto Espinosa Sr., when authorities were tipped off by someone involved, who provided information in exchange for a lighter prison sentence.

Operation Flames and Floods was a multi-agency investigation comprised of Fernandez Rundle?s team, along with the Florida Fire Marshall?s Office and Miami-Dade Police Department?s Economic Crimes and Arson Investigation Division.

Espinosa, 58, who owned and operated Nationwide Adjusters, worked with recruiters and “finders” to locate homeowners willing to allow him to set fires or burn their homes and then file a homeowner?s claim with insurance companies, Fernandez Rundle said.

“These arrests and this case focused on the essential role of a public adjuster, who in this case is the key player in this scam,” she said.

Espinosa was slapped with several charges including racketeering, grand theft, arson and forgery and could face more than 30 years in federal prison.

Also arrested: Alain Jose Murga, 43; Dario Martinez, 42; Argelio Menendez, 55; Damien Gonzalez, 39; Francisco Pineiro-Gonzalez, 38; Carolina Espinosa, 35; Jesus Gonzalez, Perez, 64; Daniel Perez, 43; Jesus Martinez ,51; Lazaro Rivera, 45; Anay Vina, 35; Abel Gutierrez, 43; Ernesto O?Reilly, 38; Felix Anthony Cabrera, 28; Pedro H. Lezcano, 68; Lazaro Delgado, 48; Liset Corrales, 37; Francisco Centurion, 71; Roberto Suarez, 46; Javier Lopez Rivero, 49 and Daney Perez, 47.

Jeff Atwater, Florida?s Chief Financial Officer and Florida?s Fire Marshall called the arrests “significant.”

“The ring is now off the street,” he said. “We are very, very excited about that.”

According to Atwater, Espinosa staged 17 fires and floods in homes since November 2006.

He would meet with a homeowner, decided whether a fire or flood would work best and then agree on a date.

As a public adjuster, he would then file a claim with the insurance company and get a cut of 20-30 percent, once the insurance company paid.

According to the arrest affidavit, in one case, Espinosa concocted a plan to set fire to a BMW in a garage, so that the house in Southwest Miami-Dade would burn. Espinosa then put a claim for more than $600,000.

In another case, Espinosa and another man loosened the master pipe for the sink in the master bedroom of a Homestead home and let the water run freely. They also brought a garden hose to send more water into the room. Espinosa then filed a claim for more than $100,000.

Atwater said they were able to get away with the fake claims because Espinosa purposely found people who used different insurance companies. They also were able to fool fire inspectors by not using fuel or other agents to start the fires.

Fernandez Rundle said the scheme ends up costing everyone in the long-run.

“These costs of fraud are passed on to all of us who purchase homeowners insurance,” she said.

And while smashing this ring is a step forward in the fight against fraud, Atwater said they still have a ways to go.

Last year, authorities arrested 20 people after discovering a fraud ring where scammers would rent big houses. They would then fill the houses with used furniture and other items and intentionally leave a candle burning. Insurance companies were bilked out of $1.4 million.

“Today what has occurred, Operation Flames and Flood, is another victory in the long battle against insurance fraud,” he said.

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