Its fall, such a beautiful day as I’m driving to the office. My phone rings, it's an Attorney who sounds a little frantic and starts telling me he is on a break from a trial in Sacramento County Superior Court. Must be serious if he is calling during any trial, so I pull the car over and grab paper and pencil.
Mr. Roberts, an Attorney, is a big-time litigator from out of town and the lead attorney on a case along with two other associate attorneys from California. They are one week into this trial involving a staged motor vehicle accident, a scam which caused one death and serious injuries. This scam involves perpetrators who purposely cause motor vehicle accidents and target unsuspecting drivers. These perpetrators use one or more vehicles, strictly done for financial gain bilking insurance companies for false injuries.
According to my law enforcement buddies, the two most common vehicle scams used in staged collisions are known as the “swoop and squat” and the “drive down”.
“Swoop and Squat” involves two or three scammers, each driving a separate vehicle. These scammers target vehicles with a single driver. This way there are no witnesses to the accident that is about to occur. The “squat” vehicle usually contains two scammers, who position themselves in front of the victim’s vehicle, slowing to close the distance between the vehicles. Then the “swoop” vehicle changes lanes in front of the “squat” vehicle and suddenly stops while the “squat vehicle” slams on his breaks causing the innocent victim to rear-end the “squat” vehicle. The “swoop” vehicle then leaves the scene in a hurry, never to be seen again.
In the “Drive Down” version of this scam, the perpetrators stage an accident at any street location where there is a yielding of right-of-way. The innocent driver thinking the perpetrators are being nice by waving the driver ahead, and as he proceeds through the intersection, the perpetrator purposely accelerates broad siding the victim’s vehicle.
Roberts goes on to explain the trial he is working on is a “Drive Down” case where he believes their clients were scammed. The Plaintiffs’ (perpetrators) screwed up the driving logistics of the scam involving several cars and one of the scammers died (guess no one heard or saw the fire truck with its sirens coming through the intersection). The Plaintiffs’ (perpetrators) are suing our clients for wrongful death. It is also common for these Plaintiffs’ to stage witnesses at the scene, giving false eyewitness statements and lying again at their trial testimonies.
Just before lunch, this attorney had Jose Hernandez on the stand (a hostile witness and one of the scam drivers.) During his cross-examination of Hernandez, this guy denied any connection to one of the witnesses at the scene, Miguel Menendez, whose statement stated our client ran a red light causing the accident. This attorney believes Menendez and Hernandez are connected, both giving false testimony, but he can’t prove it. He needs to find a way to prove it.
This attorney wants to put Hernandez back on the stand the next morning at 10:00 AM, and wants me somehow, if I can, to get the phone records of Hernandez, who is from Reno but staying in a hotel here in Sacramento. The attorney wants evidence showing Hernandez has been calling his buddy, Miguel Menendez, in Reno, giving him updates of the trial.
By this time, it's 3:30 PM - I have only one night to figure out what to do. I arrive at the courtroom by 4:30 PM, and meet the attorneys. They give me $500 in cash as a retainer for any costs I incur in the next few hours and the phone number for Miguel Menendez. I told them I’d see what I could do, then while I was leaving one of the attorneys interjected that I came highly recommended, which is nice but I could feel their desperation bearing down on me.
I really need a miracle here.
The attorneys know this is a long shot as you cannot obtain someone’s phone bill or a list of phone calls a person makes without a court order, which this legal team does not have.
So how to get Hernandez recent phone records…um…and most importantly – LEGALLY!
Assignments like this will take creativity. Don’t get desperate, just think about it, drive home, see your kids, make dinner, and hire a babysitter for the night, then go to Starbucks. Now you are ready, having no pressure on the domestic end, you can really plan.
Then after thinking about it…an idea comes to me but can I really pull it off? I sit at Starbucks while playing devil’s advocate, side checking all angles and scenarios of what could happen. I knew the attorneys would bail me out of jail if somehow this did not go right, or someone went ballistic on me.
It's 8:00 PM, I am sitting in my vehicle at the hotel where Jose Hernandez is staying purposely waiting until dark. This hotel has three huge buildings, two stories of rooms, all separated from the main building where the check-in counter is, as well as the restaurant and gym which overlooks the spacious glimmering pool. I drive around all the buildings, locate Hernandez’s room, and then watch the main entrance for a while to see what kind of activity is going on. I decide not much is happening so I put my plan into play.
I parked my vehicle out of sight, but close enough to get to for a quick get-a-way if needed. I walked to Hernandez’s room and knock. If he was there, I would pretend I had the wrong room, ask for my sister or something, apologize to him then leave. For my plan to work, he could not be in his room. I waited on the stairwell for a while in case Hernandez was in the shower and 20 minutes later, no response again so I was good to go.
I watched the parking lot in case Hernandez or any male pulled up to the rooms while I walked to the main office. No one pulled in so I entered the lobby.
As I walk in, the first thing I do is observe the night attendant in the hotel lobby while scanning quickly for any Hispanics or Hernandez himself, who might be sitting around. Then I check out the night staff. If you are trying to pull off a situation like this one, you want to work with as few employees as possible. It must be the right environment, you must always have the feeling you can pull the plan off. It will only backfire if you do not have good intuition or vibes about a person, place or thing.
I figured I only had a few minutes to pull this off because Hernandez could possibly visit the front desk for some reason.
I say to the clerk, “Hello, how’s your night going?”
Adrenalin starting to pump.
“Fine, how can I help you?”
“Could you call Room 209 and see if the guys are in their room? I was supposed to meet them here.”
Notice I don’t mention any names(s).
If Hernandez did answer the phone in his room, then I would ask the night clerk to ask him if he was Steve Miller, saying I actually “forgot” the correct room number for Miller thinking it was Room 209. If Hernandez did answer the phone, then I know he is there and could not pull off my plan.
The clerk rings the room – no answer so I say, “I am dropping off some money for the guys in Room 209, our company pays their expenses, and to make matters worse one of them lost their wallet. Luckily I live local or they’d be up a creek. How much do they owe you for their hotel room? “ He looks on the computer and says, “$160.00.” I then counted out the cash asking for a receipt. He does not ask my name or anything.
But I had to wait for him to go in the other room where the DOT MATRIX printer was. I could hear the damn receipt slowly and agonizingly creeping through the printer. I mean real SLOW, painfully SLOW. Finally, he hands me the hotel receipt.
My heart is racing now.
I then say, “Thanks for the receipt, but while I’m here I might as well pay their phone bill too, how much is it?”
“That bill is $67.00”, he says.
“Ok, let me pay that too and get a receipt.” (I knew any phone bill receipt from hotels list all incoming and outgoing calls). I plunked down $67.00 and waited for another receipt. It is SLOWLY grinding its way through the DOT MATRIX printer.
He hands me the receipt. I then thanked him and told him to have a good night. I wanted to run but instead slowly walked out the front door, then when I was out of view, I ran like hell to my car of course.
My adrenaline was out of control.
Not one time did I say Hernandez’s name or my name and paying cash makes me untraceable.
I concluded that when Hernandez found out his bills were paid, I'm sure he thought he lucked out and someone paid his bills by mistake. This is why I never mentioned his name; he cannot prove he was targeted. And if this happens to drive him "bonkers" - SNAP!
I drove directly to my office. Made no stops. This is a chain of custody thing you don’t want to screw up. The chain of custody requires from the moment evidence is collected, that every transfer of this evidence from person to person is to be documented; every stop you make has to be logged. This proves there was no way anyone unauthorized had access to this evidence to alter or change its contents.
In the courtroom, if the witness questions the chain of custody of the evidence, it can be proven by the log and my own testimony, that the phone bill is the same phone bill gotten from the hotel. However, if there are discrepancies and it cannot be proven who had the phone bill at a particular point in time, then the chain of custody is broken and the witness can ask to have the resulting evidence declared inadmissible.
At my desk, I was anxious to know if the phone numbers belonging to Menendez were on Hernandez’s phone bill. Yes!
I then put the phone bill in an envelope, sealing it with red tape, and then locked it in the office safe. I then called the Attorney's, letting them know what I found, and handed these documents to them the next morning in the courtroom at 8:30 AM.
Later that day, the Attorney called thanking me profusely. He was thrilled in being able to submit the evidence to the court, and not only that, but the phone bill had matched another number to another false witness which resulted in them winning the case a week later.
The attorneys let me keep the remainder of the $500.00 and they could not have been any more grateful.
It took a couple of days for my adrenalin to return to normal and I kept thinking about that damn MATRIX PRINTER!