Star witness says he was paid by lawyers and chiropractor

Published: 2011-04-27 12:48:05
Author: Mark E. Vogler

   As he sat back in the witness stand yesterday near the end of three and a half hours of testimony, Leo Lopez explained why his former attorney was "completely against" him cooperating with prosecutors in upcoming auto insurance fraud trials.

"He didn't want to represent a rat," Lopez recalled Lawrence attorney Eric Taitano telling him soon after his Labor Day 2006 arrest in Georgia, where the Lawrence auto insurance fraud task force had tracked him down.

But yesterday, Lopez, 31, of Lawrence, spoke like the man that Taitano never wanted to represent.

Lopez — the prosecution's star witness in the auto insurance fraud trial in Salem Superior Court — told on everybody he could: family, friends, the godfather of one of his children, ex-coworkers and other people he allegedly collaborated with in numerous fake accident scams — particularly the three defendants on trial for filing fraudulent insurance claims:

ÔÅÆAndover attorney James C. Hyde, 59, of Boxford, a partner of the law firm of Berger & Hyde.

ÔÅÆ North Andover chiropractic clinic operator Michael Kaplan, 49, of Hampstead, N.H.

ÔÅÆOmar Castillo, 38, of Methuen, a former van driver for Kaplan Chiropractic Office.

For the first time in the trial that enters its 10th day today, jurors got to hear testimony from a witness involved in each of the three "paper accidents" in late 2002 which are the basis of the prosecution's case.

As Assistant State Attorney General William R. Freeman placed three large charts, one at a time, on an easel in front of the jury box, Lopez answered questions and explained his role in setting up the crashes on Oct. 1, 2002; Oct. 10, 2002; and Dec. 20, 2002. He described the mechanics of setting up each accident, including the recruitment of passengers and drivers, the trips to the chiropractic clinics for treatment of non-existent injuries, the trips to the lawyers and the filing of numerous paperwork.

Lopez, who said he was hired by Kaplan as a driver and chiropractor's assistant, said it was at the North Andover clinic where he acquired his skills in the scams of staged and "paper" accidents to cheat insurance companies and perfected it over a two-year period, from late 2000 through the fall 2002. Lopez told prosecutor Freeman he had no idea how many phony crashes he set up, but estimated it "more than 20."

On those "few" occasions when insurance companies denied claims filed in connection with the phony accidents he set up, Lopez said he set up "make-up accidents" in which he didn't take a referral fee.

Most of the crashes Lopez claimed to set up were so-called "paper accidents," because nobody ever got into a car, except an unnamed driver who would take the car out and damage it to make it look like it was in a crash. The only evidence was operators' reports which Lopez said he helped fill out.

"I was telling Michael Kaplan that people were scared (to get involved in 'live' accidents)," Lopez recalled of a conservation he had with the chiropractor in mid-2001 which led to his doing "paper accidents."

"He (Kaplan) told me people didn't have to be there," he said.

But Lopez testified about including his long-time girlfriend Elsa Moure and their 6-year-old son in a "live" or staged accident on Jan. 16, 2002.

"That's the way he wanted to do it," Lopez answered in response to the prosecutor's question about why the crash was "real."

When the prosecutor asked Lopez why he involved his girlfriend, he replied "the money."

At the time of the crash, Lopez waited at home for the participants to show so he could discuss what they should say about the crash.

The advantage of "live" accidents is that ambulances responded to the scene, helping to increase the medical claim toward the $2,000 threshold needed in personal injury cases.

Frequently throughout his testimony, defense attorney David Meier, who represents Hyde, and Salem attorney John Morris, who is Castillo's court-appointed attorney, objected to Lopez's tendency to give more than a "yes" or "no" answer.

They also complained about the prosecutor leading the witness and about Lopez reading from police reports.

Lopez is scheduled to resume testimony this morning in what will a full-day session. Cross-examination of the prosecution's star witness is expected to begin later today or tomorrow.

Here's who Lopez testified against:

—North Andover chiropractic clinic operator Michael Kaplan: He said he usually told Kaplan the details of phony crashes the day before they happened. He said Kaplan paid him $100 in cash for bringing in his mom for treatment of a work injury. Once he started setting up crashes, Lopez said Kaplan paid him $200 a referral.