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.”
With a sister and brother-in-law living in Simi Valley, California looked all golden. “I say to myself, 'Sal, everybody drives out there, there's no no-fault – time to have a little fun in the sun.'” Location, location, location. Now Sal operates in a state where the driver responsible for the accident has to pay. So now it pays to set up a well-insured patsy.
Forced collisions are not his only specialty. He still does the traditional ambulance chase when funds run low. In the trade, he's known as a capper, someone who cruises around, listening intently to the police scanner on his dashboard. Whenever a radio call comes over about an accident, or he hears “904A” (the operator code for a crash that involves an ambulance call), Sal can morph into Mario Andretti and hightail it to the scene.
Once there, he makes his way over to the victims, who often are standing around surveying the damage. “You know, you look like you could have been really hurt, and maybe you are,” he'll say, becoming cozy in a hurry. If they respond that they're fine, Sal winks and says, “Too bad, because if you're hurt, you could make a lotta money.”
“That usually makes 'em achy-painy in a flash, Johnny,” he says, grinning widely.
Sal has no trouble finding co-conspirators. His first California landlord enlisted him. “The apartment manager tells me that there's been a shitload of break-ins,” he says. “I'd better get renter's insurance. And wouldn't you know it, his brother sells it. I get the drift right away.” Sal gets 20 grand's worth of protection, just in time for the “break-in” three weeks later.
“Well, somehow my little Radio Shack boom box becomes a Harman Kardon state-of-the-art system and my $200 TV becomes a Mitsubishi home-entertainment unit. And with all 1,500 of my CDs stolen, shit, I'm out 20 g's worth. It was easy. Cops ask you for an inventory and you give them one. Then you give the insurance company bogus serial numbers from out of state. I bought some dummied-up receipts from the manager, and 30 days later I get my check!”
Had the money not arrived in a month, Sal would have known he was in deep turd. “Insurance companies ain't fools,” he says. Indeed, Sal knows they have databases to record who files claims, but he thinks he's avoided notice so far through tactics such as changing his middle initial from one claim form to the next, and by not playing the same game too often.
Insurance companies assert that bad actors like Sal cost the rest of us up to $20 billion a year in false claims and anti-fraud efforts – money that the insurance companies could return to their customers in the form of lower premiums. But Sal doesn't buy it. He paints himself as a Robin Hood who's only taking back from venal, powerful, faceless, moneygrubbing corporations and spreading it around. Where else would all those hapless immigrants make such a quick score, except in the backseat of a junker when a millionaire hits them? Nowhere, he insists.
Sal is hardly alone in his sentiments – from the small army of con men like himself to little old ladies who slip and fall with youthful abandon. Dreaming of the big insurance payout, getting that something for nothing, is an American pastime. But even Sal, an acknowledged master, never got farther with it than a dumpy pad in a straggling suburb.
It's not for lack of trying though. His other gambits include the “supermarket sweepstakes,” in which a pal slips and falls on a spilled carton of milk or a broken egg. Sal says that some large chains are prone to settle because of the cost of going to court. “Those are cakewalks, the ones where I'm just a witness,” he says. “The heat's off on those cases.” (Supermarkets dispute this, of course, and note their installation of cameras to catch such ruses.)
Sal's major worry is that a victim/collaborator will be dissatisfied with his cut, or that some asshole who can't mind his own business will rat him out, which happened recently to his mate Davey Gee: “Davey tried to score off a minor forklift accident, saying he could barely walk, but someone called Davey's boss. They hire a private investigator. P.I. films Davey playing touch football, running, at Magic Mountain on the rides. He got busted bad.”
Sal's never been caught. Nor does he worry about assuaging a guilty conscience. When I tell him of a staged accident gone awry, resulting in the paralysis of a driver and the death of several passengers, he shrugs: “That's the breaks, baby. Better that than pickin' berries.”
He's all heart, isn't he?
Sal blew it big time recently, but his negligence was more personal than professional. About a month ago, he was stopped by the CHP, which discovered he was driving without insurance.
“I never carry that useless shit,” Sal explains. “My mistake.”
Not to mention that his driver's license had expired. His car was impounded, and he was left to stumble home on foot. Which was a drag, but also a real crimp in his livelihood, which depends on having a car.
“I'll live,” he says, with typical sang-froid. “Get me another license under another name, maybe from outta state, and Salvatore is back in business, baby!”