Taking From the Till

Art by Gustavo Vargas

Let’s make one fact clear here. Our man Mr. Bird’s case isn’t either of these; he just dug in eagerly with both hands.

Like this day, for an example. The sunny, smoggy almost-noon feeling is hitting him as he turns off Victory Boulevard in Van Nuys. Clipboard in hand, he sidles into the auto-body-shop office to discuss a damaged BMW sedan quarter-panel. Happily, the shop owner’s on the same page.

"It’s only the best for our people, you see," says the owner, with that grave tone that is the sounding call for car owners’ wallets to open up and bleed green.

Bird almost cracks up at this: As a sharp- eyed adjuster, he knows that these cheeseballs will probably bang out the mess, slap on Bondo and buy some cheapie parts from an Atwater Village chop shop. Real cost $750. As senior fraudulent-claims investigator for one of Southern California’s largest automobile-insurance concerns, Bird should be dropping the wrath of God on this minor-league wrench jockey. Instead, he does what he always does: He approves the work order.

And why wouldn’t he? Why not up the ante?

Shaking his head in amazement, Bird leans over the diminutive manager’s desk and slowly wags a finger. "You’ve gotta be kidding me," he says. "Only four thousand? I’d say that’s at least five grand easy. This is a quality vehicle."

The manager nods, reaches into his desk and yanks out five fresh Benji’s, which Bird pockets in a nifty single move that would be the envy of D. Copperfield. With his 10 percent in pocket, everybody’s happy and life is grand!

Well, it used to be anyway. Kicking back on the porch of a rundown Pico-Union halfway house, Bird lights up smoke after smoke, grinning as he retells his checkered career. "The funny thing was that I used to win awards for ‘lowest cost per claim.’" He adds, "I got no trophies, but they’d tell me, ‘Nice job. Keep up the good work.’ And I said, ‘I sure will.’ Fact is, every adjuster I ever met was on the take, too — I guess I wasn’t as greedy."

But he did get overconfident and careless enough to spend several stints in prison. "Misappropriation of claims funds, California Penal Code 503," he says ruefully and knowledgeably, "grand theft by embezzlement."

The most recent scam that went awry, which landed him in Salinas, was a sojourn as a paralegal with a company owned by Glendale Armenians. He had signed up the company, which also dealt in auto insurance, for a variety of modest grants that the Small Business Administration makes available to "minority-owned businesses." To bring firms into the modern era by paying for computer upgrades and the like.

When the money arrived, Birdman used his knowledge of company computing and payroll systems to cash the checks through company accounts. No alarm bells went off internally, because the business was never short of money — it never knew of the federal funds. Unfortunately, the feds came calling one day to check on their grants, and his employers realized that he’d diverted 130K that they’d never applied for. Two and a half years in the pen.

The pocket liner before that was Bird’s personal favorite, proof positive, he says, of his embezzling wizardry. As he had elsewhere, he rose through the ranks of a company until he was high enough to steal. This firm sold audio and visual teleconferencing systems costing $18,000 per station, and Birdman had been promoted to a national sales manager and technical adviser.

At tech conventions, "I’d do the business-card-in-the-jar raffle nonsense and call people up, telling them they’d won a cell phone or something. And then I’d ask them what they thought of our product. As soon as they said, ‘Too pricey,’ I knew I’d hit the jackpot."

This is where the under-the-table pitch began.

"I’d claim I had another company that sold a reconditioned version of the system at a substantially reduced cost." Only nine grand — half price. "If they went for it, I’d go into our warehouse, steal one using a bogus invoice and ship it out — I was the inventory taker, and I made it balance on paper."

Bird stubs out his Lucky and continues: "If you have a position of authorization, you can hide anything for a long period of time. If it says on an invoice that something is there in the warehouse, it won’t be reported missing until inventory is taken. And if I’m the one doing the inventory, I say it’s there!

"Such a deal for the customer — a new system at half the price. Dude, I’ll tell you, they fuckin’ loved me! And besides, if there was a big deal about the numbers not jibing with the products, management would come down on the schleps in the warehouse, not me."

A tall, graying, bespectacled man in his late 30s with a devilish grin, a large honker and a slew of prison tats, Bird has been using his sharp wit and street cynicism since his adolescence in the San Gabriel Valley. Because he was the middle child of seven siblings, his well-to-do folks didn’t pay too much attention to young Bird, so he was free to indulge in his first scam, stealing cars off Brand Boulevard. His folks had no idea he was doing this, and he never got caught.

"Those impatient idiots would actually leave their keys in their cars when they’d go into the bank or restaurant," he says. "I hop in and drive all the way to First and Revolution avenidas in Tijuana. Get out of the car, call my coyote and tell him I had some wheels." Coyotes are better known for smuggling immigrants across the border, but what the heck, as long as you’re breaking the law, it pays to be versatile.

"I was called ‘Pájaro,’ which means ‘Big Bird,’ because of my nose, and I’ve been Bird ever since . . . Well, the coyote would be down in 20 minutes, look at what I had, and lay a grand or three cash on me for it." Those were days of war in Central America, and the car of choice was a four-by-four with a roll bar, good for mounting a machine gun. The freedom fighters — or whatever — also wanted school buses as gun mounts. "But they don’t leave them running without kids in them."

Bird would explain these long shifts away by telling his folks he had a weekend job. Which was the truth in a way. But it’s hard for a kid to save, especially when you develop a precocious taste for the simultaneous pleasure of two hookers and cocaine. Just your typical San Gabriel Valley teen, I guess.

A natural charmer, Birdman delights in recounting how his grasp of office politicking cost many a co-worker a job, or how he’s unctuously conned more than one employer into hiring him based on persuasiveness rather than qualifications. The fact is, he proudly points out, his references are all horse manure, and he got hired anyway. This entry-level dishonesty was the first step toward embezzlement: "The con isn’t getting the money quickly, it’s just getting yourself in position."

It was in the auto-insurance trade that he discovered his most lucrative scam. "Our insured would call in," he says. "Tells me that he’s rear-ended someone and the other person drove off. He doesn’t know who it was." The victim is an "unknown" in the parlance of the trade. If no victim materializes, "I assign a friend’s name to the claim and type up a dummy report. I cut a check for almost the maximum I’m allowed, which would be like $9,999. I’d pocket six grand and give the rest to my buddy.

"If you stay on top of this, you’ll never get bagged," he says. But there are cross-checks to prevent fraud. "I went out of the country on vacation, I got sloppy, and that’s how they nailed me."

Today, a couple of months out of prison for embezzling the $130,000, Bird says he’s trying to fly right, and it’s more of a challenge than embezzling. "I was the master of that game for a long time, man. But after a while, even that’s not challenging; it’s just habit."

Of course, Bird’s also nearing 40, and he’s tired of prison. "The anxiety level in the pen gets to be really trying," he says. "When you’re a kid it isn’t so bad, but on this last stretch I was doing stuff like calling meetings in the machine shop and making a basic truce that we wouldn’t be stabbing each other in the neck during our time together."

Bird drops his smoke, stomping it out on the rickety porch of the halfway house he shares with 29 unhappy men. He lowers his eyes: "I really would like to make it in the straight world," he says. "I’ve never done it that way."

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