By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Southern California Sundays were made for cruising in a swank ride. Under the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains, in the beautiful sunshine, just rollin' along. It's easy to lose your concentration for a minute, and besides, as a successful doctor, lawyer or retiree, you've got other matters on your mind. Which means that you ain't bloody likely to notice that you're about to get set up, and good. The whole shooting match goes down so damned fast.
On the driver's side, an early '80s Corolla, a beat-up junker, is practically on your elbow. And pulling around you on the right is some maniac in an early '90s jet-black Firebird in a major hurry.
Suddenly, Madman-from-the-right swerves in front of you and, instinctively, you jerk the wheel hard left. Bang! Your Mercedes or Rolls or Beemer has just made love to the side of the beaten-up Toyota. As you pull over, you see a carload of hurt people, grabbing backs and falling all over the pavement like ducks rifle-blasted out of the skies. The real cause of this mess, meanwhile, has sped off hard right down a side street.
Cops and paramedics are there in a flash. As a well-heeled and respectable member of society, you're insured up the wazoo, and a good thing too, because you're about to tangle with five serious cases of soft-tissue injury.
A half-mile or so from the crash site, Sal the Bagman disembarks from the Ponty-cat and climbs aboard his own Taurus, from which he'll reconnoiter the accident scene from a block away. Not a single artificial strand of his hairpiece has been ruffled. Good. He'll soon be able to afford a better toup. All has gone as planned, which means he'll be skimming cash from all five of the newly wounded and pocketing a fat fee from the attorney he works for, as well as a taste from the doctors involved.
The police are taking down information as ambulances arrive. They might as well write down "Juan Doe" for the five walking wounded, as each has recently trekked to Alvarado Street for fake IDs; they've already been "injured" a few times this month. And they're getting physical therapy at three different clinics in the L.A. basin.
Sal cackles as he watches paramedics load unbloodied bodies onto gurneys. "It's fuckin' Hollywood," he says, describing how his system works. "Maybe we oughta at least get some blood capsules or something. But why bother!"
Sal and A.J., the driver of the Pontiac, have been working this scam for months now, with a different set of passengers every time out, just to be on the safe side.
For Sal, a professional insurance defrauder, the setup crash has become the bread and butter of his 15-year career of insurance scamming. In a typical week, Sal makes around $1,500 cash in "finder's fees" from mishaps that he stages, stumbles upon or hunts down. "This is crap about lawyers doing the ambulance chase. That's what they hire me for." His cut of the take varies; there's no set price. His card reads "attorney's assistant."
Imagining Sal as an ersatz paralegal is a stretch as we converse in his High Desert two-bedroom pad. Sal, 43 and battling a serious middle-age spread, shuffles around in a stained wife-beater and worn-out muddy boots he calls his "stompers." Unshaven and squat, he somewhat resembles the actor Burt Young, assuming Young was extremely hungover. Sal lives alone with his parrot, Pretty Polly, who occasionally squawks. Most of the time, the only other sound is Sal's god, Bruce Springsteen, whose discs blare constantly. "I wish I coulda been Bruce," he says wistfully.
Way back in East Boston, Sal was a promising high school football player before he wrecked his knees. Then he hooked up with a relative who was doing loan collections. He says his enthusiasm earned him the handle "Johnny the Butcher." But one night a gent he intended to straighten out got his point across first, capping the future capper. "Took two shots in the right shoulder," he says, rubbing his wing.
His first and last straight job was in the early 1980s, working in a warehouse at Boston's Logan Airport. "Me and the guys are throwing a Nerf football around," he remembers. "I take a header into a crate full of computer printers, and I dislocate my shoulder." That darn shoulder had never been solid since the bullet wound.
"I couldn't tell my bosses what really happened or I'd get fired." That's when Mickey O., the cousin who got him the job, said he'd swear a crate fell on Sal's head as he tried to move a palette boom. Now we're talking work-related injury and worker's comp. "Mickey gives me his lawyer and a doctor who's known for what they call 'light diagnostics.' No X-ray or MRI can detect muscle or soft-tissue injuries. Ain't worked a day since!"
Of course, that's not entirely true. Living on the insurance dole requires some enterprise, and entails some risk as well. Sal first tried ambulance chasing in Boston. But it was hard, miserable work. "Fuckin' no-fault in Massachusetts," he says, referring to the state's no-fault auto-insurance system, in which the driver's own insurance handles most claims, regardless of fault. "Couldn't get ahead."
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