Bribes grease large-living exec’s $1.3-billion Medicare gouging

Bills forged for skilled nursing, assisted living that patients didn’t even need

Tanned, obsessive and Ferrari-driving, Phil Esformes was a peak achiever as an insurance thief in South Florida. No small feat in a region that’s one of America’s largest hubs of large-dollar insurance scamming.

Running his healthcare empire with an iron fist, the wealthy Miami executive launched a $1.3-billion rifling of taxpayer-funded Medicare and Medicaid. It was one of the largest health-insurance crimes in U.S. history — all at taxpayer expense.

Esformes ran dozens of corrupt skilled-nursing and assisted-living facilities. He bribed doctors to admit patients to his facilities so he could keep the places humming at full capacity.

The operations were mostly super-charged assembly lines churning out bogus claims for services that patients neither needed nor often received. Many patients didn’t even qualify for the care. Others came out of hospital surgery or had mental illness. Medical records were altered or forged to create the illusion that patients needed and received care.

Patients endangered

Esformes spent his stolen taxpayer money for a sultan’s lifestyle of luxury cars, a $360,000 watch and a waterfront mansion with a basketball court. Even as his bank accounts fattened, many patients were endangered by substandard care in poor living conditions, the feds contended.

Esformes disguised the doctors’ cash bribes with code words such as “fettuccine.” He inflated Medicare and Medicaid bills to pay for the kickback money he paid.

Bribes worked both ways: Two licensed nurses lavishly paid Esformes to refer his patients to their own health facilities. Guillermo and Gabriel Delgado used the patients to swindle Medicare for bogus mental-health, prescription-drug and home-healthcare services.

The brothers delivered wads of bribe cash to Esformes. They also camouflaged kickbacks as payments for high-end escorts for Esformes, including travel and hotel expenses such as the Ritz Carlton in Orlando.“We will continue the fight against such parasites,”said federal special agent Shimon Richmond.

Gabriel also was Esformes’ conduit for bribing a Florida state health administrator to give him advance notice of surprise visits to his facilities in Miami-Dade.

Cohorts betray Esformes

The dirty money bought no loyalty. Gabriel turned on Esformes when the health mogul suggested Gabriel kill himself instead of face federal charges. Ultimately, the brothers secretly recorded hours of conversations for the feds to try and earn lenient jail terms for themselves.

Esformes also bribed the basketball coach at the exclusive University of Pennsylvania about $300,000 to get his son Morris into the Ivy League academic powerhouse. The coach placed Morris on a priority admission list as a recruited basketball player. The kid wasn’t Division I basketball caliber. Penn accepted him anyway, believing he was an elite player.

Esformes was convicted of 20 criminal counts. The charges add up to potentially 250 years in federal prison. He’ll be sentenced later.

“Even beyond the vital dollars lost though, Esformes exploited and victimized patients by providing inadequate medical care and poor conditions in his nursing homes …” said federal special agent Shimon Richmond. “We will continue the fight against such parasites.”

Taxpayer money frittered away by phony disability claims

Compound meds, fake injuries drain insurance plans funded by honest taxpayers

Honest taxpayers hand over good money to support government employee health and disability plans. Yet millions of tax dollars at a time are squandered when cheaters soak the plans by claiming fake illnesses and crippling medical conditions.
New Jersey’s state health plan is the latest victim. Nearly 2 dozen people were convicted in a plot that stole $50 million from the state health system and private insurers.
Gooey and expensive compound creams were charged to health plans in the names of employees who were perfectly fine. The stuff was hand-made in specialty pharmacies. It’s often used for scars, vitamins, libidos, fungus, headaches and other things. Tubes of the gunk, in general, can cost $30,000 each or more.
Recruiters bribed New Jersey employees with cash to lend their names and policy information for inflated claims against New Jersey’s generous employee drug plan — whether or not the workers needed the meds. Ring members shared in the large insurance payoffs for phantom or unneeded drugs.
Teachers, firefighters, police and others are implicated. Prosecutors are coming down hard. Several ring members were convicted, and others remain charged.
Dr. John Gaffney often didn’t examine patients, yet signed bogus prescriptions that were faxed to pharmacies. Gaffney faces up to 10 years in federal prison when sentenced.
Middle-school teacher Shawn Sypherd recruited employees into the scam. He earned nearly $355,000 total, netting a share of each insurance payout. Sypherd awaits sentencing. A high school guidance counselor pled guilty. Sales reps for large drug firms also helped put the compound meds into play.
New Jersey’s state health plan is the latest victim. Nearly 2 dozen people were convicted in a plot that stole $50 million from the state health system and private insurers.
Gooey and expensive compound creams were charged to health plans in the names of employees who were perfectly fine. The stuff was hand-made in specialty pharmacies. It’s often used for scars, vitamins, libidos, fungus, headaches and other things. Tubes of the gunk, in general, can cost $30,000 each or more.
Recruiters bribed New Jersey employees with cash to lend their names and policy information for inflated claims against New Jersey’s generous employee drug plan — whether or not the workers needed the meds. Ring members shared in the large insurance payoffs for phantom or unneeded drugs.
Teachers, firefighters, police and others are implicated. Prosecutors are coming down hard. Several ring members were convicted, and others remain charged.
Dr. John Gaffney often didn’t examine patients, yet signed bogus prescriptions that were faxed to pharmacies. Gaffney faces up to 10 years in federal prison when sentenced.
Middle-school teacher Shawn Sypherd recruited employees into the scam. He earned nearly $355,000 total, netting a share of each insurance payout. Sypherd awaits sentencing. A high school guidance counselor pled guilty. Sales reps for large drug firms also helped put the compound meds into play.

$600-million disability plot
Fake disability claims are another profit-making way to steal from taxpayer health insurers.
Kentucky disability lawyer Eric C. Conn pulled off the largest federal disability ripoff in U.S. history — a $600-million looting. Conn bribed a corrupt judge and doctor to rubber-stamp bogus disability claims through the federal system.
Conn convinced impoverished coal miners and others in rural Kentucky to sign up. Some knew they were doing wrong, though wanted a lifetime of free insurance checks flowing in. Other workers had legitimate injuries and other medical conditions. The money was their lifeline.
Taxpayer money flowed into Conn’s bank account as claims were paid out. He grew rich and built one of America’s largest disability practices.

The feds finally broke open his behemoth scam. Payouts were suspended while the feds investigated. Truly disabled workers lost money they needed for medical and scratch out a living.
Tim Dye is a former coal miner — and Conn client with real medical problems. Social Security stopped his checks after Conn was busted. Dye’s wife sold her jewelry and possessions from their home. She even begged neighbors for water to make ends meet.


Other Kentuckians lost their homes, and several committed suicide. Conn lost his freedom, ending up with 27 years in federal prison.
Railroad robbed
Early retirement on fake disability is another dodge. Public employees have invented bad backs and nerve problems. The painful and debilitating injuries forced them to retire early, they lied.
They collected disability checks and fat pensions for the rest of their lives. Only to be caught weight lifting, playing tennis, running marathons, scuba diving and traveling the globe with ease.
Employees of the Long Island (N.Y.) Rail Road rushed into early retirement for years, on the backs of well, back injuries and other maladies. Up to 1,500 retirees teamed with physicians and a union official. Almost all claims were approved. The total payouts could’ve exceeded $1 billion if they weren’t caught in time. 
Pension and disability money fattened the retirees’ bank accounts while they cavorted with few apparent afflictions.
An employee claimed ‘disabling’ and ‘unbearable’ pain in a half-dozen body parts when she retired in 2007. Then she was surveilled working out a gym and doing step aerobics. A signalman rode in a 400-mile bike race after retiring. His disability application claimed he was stuck in a wheelchair. An electrician convinced doctors he couldn’t work any more, then was caught landscaping and electrical work for pay after retiring.
A top New Jersey official tasked with taking down dishonest insurance claims got it right: It’s our taxpayer money, so we’re the victims.
“The cost is invariably pushed onto the public,” says Tracy Thompson, Acting Insurance Fraud Prosecutor for New Jersey.

Mansion burns, socialite steals $20 million in bogus flame claims

Hides jewelry, inflates drapery and mural invoices, threatens adjuster

Socialite and political fundraiser Claire Risoldi lived larger than life — and her bank account.

Small wonder the family matriarch also stole large. Risoldi lifted $20 million of false insurance claims after fire chewed through her family’s 5,600-foot mansion in the Philadelphia suburbs. She loaded up a pasha’s ransom of dodgy claims for jewelry, a large ceiling mural, draperies and other bling.

Risoldi’s high-flying social empire finally crash-landed. Investigators found a long trail of bloated claims that convinced a jury she needs serious jail time.

Lied fire fighters stole jewelry

Fittingly, the 10-acre family estate was called Clairemont. Risoldi held extravagant parties and fundraisers for county Republican politicos. She needed the insurance money to keep it all going.

Mysterious fires broke out at Claremont multiple times. Risoldi was never charged with arson, though she went to work with sooty fire claims.

Her biggest deception involved $10 million of supposedly stolen jewelry after the third and final fire in October 2013. Risoldi inflated insurance from $100,000 on two pieces of jewelry to more than $10 million for 55 pieces, just 3 months before that fire. She forged jewelry appraisal documents, repeatedly misspelling the word “jewelry.”

Volunteer fire fighters put their lives on the line for her home. Yet Risoldi accused them of stealing the jewelry from her home.

Then an insurance adjuster found a canvas jewelry bag hidden behind a grandfather clock in the burned dining room, and another bag in a bathtub days after the fire. The empty jewelry boxes in the bags had no soot or signs of water damage. Any fire fighter stealing the jewelry would’ve smudged the boxes with dirty gloves from the smokey interior.

“Snitches get stitches,” Claire Risoldi had her lawyer warn O’Keefe.

And what were bags with 60 boxes of jewelry doing unsecured in her home to begin with, unless she’d planted them for the claims?

Hidden at her rental home after the fire were 20 Rolex watches she’d claimed were stolen.

Inflated claims for ceiling mural

An artist earlier painted lavish ceiling murals featuring Risoldi family members for $50,000. Risoldi convinced him to inflate the cost to $950,000 with forged receipts.

She also handed the insurer 70 forged receipts for replacing wrecked draperies. The firm was called Summerdale Draperies, though Risoldi misspelled the name as “Summerdal” on many receipts.

And Risoldi claimed more than $13,000 a month for a rental home after the fire swept through Clairemont. In truth, the rental expenses were just $4,000 a month.

Insurance money tumbled into Risoldi bank accounts. Family members spent the loot on more homes, six Ferraris, two Rolls Royces, a Shelby Cobra and four other vehicles, all worth $2.8 million.

Threatens insurer adjuster

Risoldi mounted a clumsy and futile campaign of intimidation. In addition to blaming the volunteer fire fighters, she threatened to sue investigators searching her rental home for evidence. Risoldi also publicly called her insurer AIG “cruel” for cancelling her policy. She even falsely blamed the insurer for the fire. AIG should’ve better policed the electrician she’d hired to make repairs after a prior fire, she said.

Risoldi also launched a profanity-laced tirade at AIG’s insurance adjuster James O’Keefe in a parking lot. Risoldi called him a “rat bastard” and “lying sack of …” She had a mole in the Attorney General’s office, she claimed. She knew O’Keefe would get fired and planned to sue him personally, Risoldi threatened. Besides, “snitches get stitches,” she had her lawyer warn O’Keefe.

Investigators exposed Risoldi’s deception and bluster. She’ll serve up to five years in state prison thanks to dogged prosecution by the state Attorney General’s office. Sentencing is being scheduled, and could mean up to 60 years in jail. Her son Carl pleaded guilty and received four years of probation.

Investigators found a book on Risoldi’s desk in her rental home after the fire. It was called, “Insult to Injury: Insurance fraud and the Big Business of Bad Faith.”

“It speaks for itself,” state prosecutor Linda Montag told the jury.

Educator scams health policy to help sick student

Good choice, bad choice? Community role model triggers debate over ethics of insurance fraud

An educator thought she did an act of kindness for a sick student by scamming a health policy out of $233 to get the kid urgently needed antibiotics.

Casey Smitherman’s choice ignited vigorous debate in her community, school system and prosecutor’s office — making national headlines. She was a public figure and role model who openly admitted she committed insurance fraud — a felony. Yet she had seemingly good intentions, and made no personal profit.

So what to do? What would you do?

Drove student to clinic

Smitherman was the superintendent of Elmwood school district, about 30 miles northeast of downtown Indianapolis.

A student didn’t show up for class. Concerned, Smitherman went to the 15-year-old’s home to check up. He seemed to have strep throat. The teen lives with an elderly relative who doesn’t drive. So Smitherman drove him to an emergency clinic for antibiotics.

The pharmacy refused to provide her the meds; the student was a minor, and Smitherman wasn’t his legal guardian. So she drove to another clinic. She lied the youth was her son, obtaining the antibiotics under her own son’s health policy.

The student’s guardian went to the police. Smitherman quickly admitted all and cooperated. She was charged with insurance fraud and two other felonies.

“I wanted to do all I could to help him get well,” Smitherman said. “I know this action was wrong. In the moment, my only concern was for this child’s health.”

Avoided jail term

The county prosecutor was empathetic, and cut Smitherman a break. The charges will be dropped if she stays out of legal trouble for a year.

“I think there have to be some consequences, but they shouldn’t be career jeopardizing. I think there’s a way to take care of that without destroying her career, because her motives were good,” prosecutor Rodney Cummings told CBS News.

Many people supported Smitherman on social media. Yet many local residents called for Smitherman’s job.

“What are you teaching our children in this school system? Are you teaching them it’s OK to lie and commit fraud because you felt in your heart it was the right thing to do?” school parent Shay N. Haley told the Herald (Anderson) Bulletin.

Smitherman endangered the student. He could’ve had life-threatening allergies to the antibiotics. The school district might’ve faced serious liability problems, the school nurse Stacey Buck said.

The school district’s state-of-the-art telemedicine system also could’ve handled the youth’s illness on the spot, Buck added.

Finally resigns

Prosecutors spared Smitherman jail. In the end, the community and school board wouldn’t spare her job. Committing insurance fraud and using generally bad judgement was too much. Smitherman resigned.

“l am very embarrassed for that, and I apologize to the board, the community and the teachers and students of Elwood Community Schools,” Smitherman said. “I sincerely hope this single lapse in judgment does not tarnish all of the good work I’ve done for students over the span of my career.”

Sick health plan sticks desperate victims with large medical bills

Promises full benefits, bilks 17,000 consumers with fake health coverage

Oklahoma real-estate agent Bob Harper was desperate. His heart was failing. He was just days from having his heart pacemaker implanted, only to discover his health policy was worthless.

A Houston man had emergency back surgery, and his health plan refused to pay his $105,000 bill.

They were among more than 17,000 luckless Americans who Bart Posey duped into buying fake health coverage in a $22-million theft binge. The Springfield, Tenn. man’s heart-breaking scam is a consumer warning to avoid discount health deals that seem too perfect to be real.

Posey ran two bogus plans — American Trade Association and Smart Data Solutions.

Cold-callers, fax blasts and a slick website went after consumers. Scammers hawked seemingly low-priced plans that promised full-benefit coverage.

The sales pitches seemed a godsend. Health premiums were rising around the U.S. Posey promised an unbeatable deal. People quickly bought in.

Plans were empty promises

Posey raked in monthly premiums. Yet his health plans were just pieces of paper, empty promises.

People would call in crying. But we were instructed to tell them that their claims were ‘in process’ and to call back in 30 days. We were told to flat-out lie to people just to get them off the phone,” a phone reps admitted.

South Carolina resident Beth Wicker suffered a stroke and went to the hospital, only to discover her coverage was bogus. She owed $17,000 in medical bills and had no health insurance.

A New Jersey man began chemotherapy, only to have his doctor tell him his ATA coverage was fake. He had to file for charity care with his hospital.

Many victims were Hispanics and Asian, and could barely speak English. Some were dying of cancer and couldn’t get their treatment bills paid.

Posey was handed 14 years in federal prison on November 20.

Fake plan steals $100 million

Fake health plans have a long and sorry history. Simple Health Plans, for instance, stole more than $100 million from consumers around the U.S., federal officials say. The Florida outfit was shut down in November 2018.

Victims were stuck with large and unpaid medical bills. People thought they had a full-benefit health plan that covered preexisting conditions. Bogus sales pitches left victims virtually uninsured, the Federal Trade Commission says.

Consumers, watch for these warning signals. The plan’s deceptive websites claimed to:

  • Provide comprehensive health insurance.
  • Sell federal health insurance such as Medicare and the Affordable Care Act.
  • Be affiliated with AARP and private insurers such as Blue Cross Blue Shield.
  • www.trumpcarequotes.com deceptively offered “Health Insurance for Smart People” from “the Nation’s Leading Carriers” at “Low Affordable Premiums” with “Prescription Drug Coverage.”
  • www.simplemedicareplans.com promoted “Medicare Health Plans for Your Needs and Budget.”

Prosecutors had the last word in Posey’s scam. “To listen to the accounts of the life-altering consequences for so many people is truly heart- wrenching and drives our prosecutors to seek justice on their behalf,” U.S. Attorney Don Cochran said.

Disabled Kentuckians destitute when $550-million disability con busted

Lawyer bribes judge, docs to game federal disability and steal large payouts

Impoverished Kentucky coal miners scraped by with crippling injuries and pain, scratching out a sparse living in a declining industry with jobs disappearing.

Along came flamboyant lawyer Eric Conn. He launched an ad blitz that promised folks he’d get them federal disability money to ease their difficult lives.

The glitzy ads set up a $550-million disability insurance flimflam. It was the largest such ripoffs in U.S. history. In the process, Conn drove many clients into deeper despair when their disability money was denied after he was arrested. Some even killed themselves.

The self-styled “Mr. Social Security” built one of the nation’s largest disability practices through self-promotion and thievery. Conn was a celebrity for his loud, nutty billboard and TV ads that saturated the region. He hired a country music star and rapped in Spanish.

Sought lifetime disability money

Thousands of people flocked to his office complex of five connected trailers. They hired Conn to have them declared disabled, and get a lifetime of Social Security disability checks.

Many clients were in pain and urgently needed insurance money. Some people were healthy — they just wanted free insurance money for life.

Conn bribed a local judge, psychologist and doctors to rubber-stamp disability claims for anyone who wanted taxpayer money. Conn was glad to oblige. He took a healthy cut of every client’s disability award.

Many patients weren’t even examined. Medical records often were forged so Conn could quickly slide disability claims through the system and get client money coming in. Social Security was on the hook for nearly $600 million over the life of the claims.

Fugitive found in Honduras

Conn slipped out of his ankle monitoring bracelet after being federally convicted. He fled the U.S. Dogged investigators tracked him down at a Pizza Hut in Honduras six months later. They shipped Conn back to the U.S.

Hundreds of people lost their disability benefits after Conn was busted. Social Security halted payouts while sorting through the mess Conn’s insurance plot had left behind.

Tim Dye is a former coal miner — and Conn client. Social Security stopped his checks after Conn was busted. Dye’s wife sold her jewelry and possessions from their home. She even begged for water from neighbors to make ends meet.

Other Kentuckians lost their homes, and several committed suicide. Thousands of client files molder in Conn’s offices, waiting for the feds to review. People with painful backs and other disabilities are going without money they need to hold their lives and families together.

Disabled Kentuckian snaps

Leroy Burchett was a former crewman on a printing press, and delivery-truck driver. He lived with crippling pain after two spinal surgeries. He snapped after his disability money was cut off due to Conn’s crime.

His wife Emma said on the show American Greed:

“He came through the house yelling and cussing at me and cussing at the kids. … I opened the door and he was sitting on the edge of a bed with a gun. I took that gun away from him. And he said the same words to me again.

“He said, ‘You’re not going to top this. Nothing can fix this.’ He stormed back outside. And my kids were standing right there. And he said, ‘I just can’t take this.’ And he pulled another gun out from behind his back and he shot himself in the chin.”

Conn was handed 27 years in federal prison. That’s all he has to show for years of gaming the federal disability system — and luckless workers like Tim Dye and Leroy Burchett.

Attorney Ned Pillersdorf is trying to help hundreds of honest Kentuckians with their payouts. “I’ve got to get these people money quick,” Pillersdorf told the Kentucky Herald Leader. “I’ve got 800 people going without, and it’s a real humanitarian crisis.”

Owner made living torching salons for insurance

What desperate emotions flashed through firefighters Larry Leggio and John Mesh as the burning nail salon’s brick wall crashed down on them? Did they even have time for such emotions?

Flames shot through a nail salon that Thu Hong Nguyen set to steal a $40,000 insurance payout. The Kansas City, Mo. woman poured gallons of acetone and isopropyl alcohol into the stock room of her LN Nails and Spa. She lit the fire just before leaving work at 7 p.m. Nguyen was the last one out.

The fire needed just minutes to spread through the space between the first and second floors. It quickly grew into a three-alarm inferno battled by 110 firefighters. This was the largest fire Kansas City had seen in years.

People lived in 16 apartments above the Nguyen’s shop. Most escaped on their own, though some needed rescuing.

A commander then ordered 18 firefighters out of the structure, with the flames burning strong and the salon clearly a total loss.

Wall collapses with loud crack

Yet several firefighters stayed in the alley. Leggio was using a pike pole to pull a fan from a ground-floor window so Mesh could better hose the flames inside. Then a loud crack echoed out; the wall suddenly collapsed. Leggio’s body was crushed from head to toe and every organ was damaged. Two other firefighters were injured. Dan Werner had five leg fractures and surgery on his left ankle.

Missy Leggio was in the neighborhood. She saw the flames and knew her husband was fighting the blaze. She parked and walked over. Missy wanted to make eye contact with Larry to signal she loved him.

Instead she saw the wall collapse. A firefighter ran over to her and someone helped her into a car that sped to Truman Medical Center. “I remember screaming in the car, ‘Is my husband dead?’“ Missy said.

Burning salons: Nguyen’s living

Nguyen made her living burning down her nail salons for insurance money — five in all. Her modus: Buy a nail salon, usually in someone else’s name, and run it until a fire caused an insurance claim. Usually the claims were small enough that Nguyen likely wouldn’t spark an investigation, prosecutors said.

Nguyen lived off the insurance money for several months, then burned down another nail salon.

Nguyen earlier set fire to a shop in Lee’s Summit. No one was injured, and Nguyen received nearly $52,000 of insurance money.

A salon in Texas burned the same month her insurance policy expired. Yet another Texas salon flamed out after just four months. A salon in Grandview caught fire two days after Nguyen doubled her insurance. The average insurance payout was $46,000. She collected $268,000 over the years, for salons and other incidents.

Nguyen was convicted of the fires in Kansas City and Lee’s Summit, receiving 74 years in state prison.

More than 5,000 people attended a memorial service for Leggio and Mesh. The pair grew up in the neighborhood where they died. Leggio left his mourning wife and mother. Mesh never had a chance to say goodbye to his wife and four daughters.

“Our hearts are broken, but our resolve to honor these brave men is strong,” said Fire Chief Paul Berardi. “… I vow we will never forget.”

Home arsons are fiery family affairs in West Virginia

The Lesters were a well-known family in parts of Southern West Virginia. Especially, patriarch Windel Lester sat on the board of a local bank. He also owned a hardware store and sold mobile homes.

Windel thought big, as community pillars should. Except he slid off the railroad tracks of respectability, deciding that burning homes for insurance money would be his next business venture. The whole clan joined in, burning down three homes and trying to walk away with more than $556,000 of insurance money.

Windel had it all figured out: Buy vacant, decrepit homes for next to nothing. Install straw owners to hide their own manipulating. Then pack the homes with useless, junky old furniture they bought at flea markets or yard sales. Then they over-insured the homes, and burned them down to make bloated claims for expensive possessions they never owned.

Burn homes with candle oil

Windel’s hardware store sold unscented — and combustable — candle oil. That was the fire starter; he figured it would be untraceable. The store played another role: Windel forged receipts for home possessions to support the series of inflated claims. He also laundered insurance money through the bank he helped run.

So the Lesters got to work. One of the two Lester sons, James Edward “Punkin” Lester helped a crony buy a house for just $38,000, with Windel fronting the money. They bought a $196,000 policy on the dwelling, and $147,000 for the junky possessions. Then they soaked cardboard boxes with the candle oil in the kitchen and a bedroom and started the fire.

The house had no chance, and lit up like a roman candle. The straw owner told the insurer the fire was a kitchen-related incident, and received nearly $300,000 of insurance money to be divided up.

Claimed was at county fair

Punkin installed James Keith Browning as the straw owner of another house that soon became blackened ashes. Browning claimed he was at the county fair while the slow-building fire gained steam. Browning collected $100,000 of insurance money and the conspirators divided up the loot.

Another doomed house was bought for $100,000. It netted a tidy $280,000 of insurance money after the structure burned down.

Windel’s still prominent in these parts, though as a convicted felon. The Lester clan and fake owners were convicted or pled guilty to volumes of federal charges. Everyone faces up to dozens of years in federal prison when sentenced.

Even with unscented candle oil, the whiff of fraud was too strong for investigators to ignore.

Sprinklers splash doomed pizzeria insurance arson

Owner muffs blaze ineptly planned to look like a grease fire

If Mustafa Zabana cooked pizza with the skill he used to fry his pizza shop, he should be selling furniture or shoes instead.

The Iraqi national owned Bruno’s Pizza in a strip mall in Enfield, Conn. Zabana was ambitious. He wanted to build a bigger and better pizza emporium. Insurance money was his meal ticket, literally.

So Zabana decided to torch the place and use the insurance money to build a fancier eatery. Except Zabana had little idea how to burn anything more than a pizza crust.

A grease fire accidentally broke out in an oven at Bruno’s one evening. Zabana doused it with a fire extinguisher. Two workers left the building, and one stayed behind. Zabana seized the moment and told the employee he wanted to start another grease fire. That would make it seem like the first fire had re-ignited. He figured he’d steal a tidy pile of insurance cash for his pizzeria rebuild.

Bought lighter fluid

The employee tried to convince Zabana this was a bad idea. Zabana wouldn’t listen, and told his worker to buy some lighter fluid at a nearby convenience store. The guy reluctantly agreed, and bought the lighter fluid using Zabana’s credit card.

Zabana then went to the rear of the store. He wanted to ignite several fires around the place. He first lit up a pile of restaurant menus he’d placed on the floor near the pizza oven. Why burned menus would look like a grease fire was pretty muddled thinking, though Zabana gamely plowed ahead.

He lit the first blaze, and smoke quickly spewed around the room. Gasping for air, Zabana had no chance to light more fires. He and the worker dashed outside while they still could. Zabana locked the door behind them, and told his employee to report to work the next morning as if nothing had happened.

Meanwhile, the arson fire tried its best to spark up. In addition to screwing up the grease fire, Zabana overlooked a second flaw in his arson plan: He started the fire right beneath the pizzeria’s interior fire sprinklers. The water drowned the flames — and Zabana’s insurance plot.

“Luck” prevents deaths

Even so, the smoke badly damaged a neighboring Edible Arrangements store, and ruined its inventory. Fire fighters were grateful they didn’t have to duel a full-on arson blaze in the pizzeria’s small space. Only pure “luck” kept Zabana’s insurance fire from killing anyone, federal prosecutor Natasha M. Freismuth said.

That was Zabana’s last dose of good luck. He received only an initial $5,000 check from his insurer before investigators discovered the insurance plot. Zabana then was handed 18 months in federal prison, and could be deported back to war-torn Iraq.

“Thankfully, this sprinkler functioned properly and saved the building from almost certain ruin,” Freismuth agreed.

Corrupt public adjuster damages homes with hammers, hoses, burning lard to balloon insurance claims

Give corrupt public adjuster Jorge Fausto Espinosa credit for one thing — maybe he wasn’t honest, though he was certainly prolific with wrecking homes.

The South Florida man recruited dozens of homeowners to burn or flood their places for about $14 million of inflated insurance claims in one of the most legendary plots by an adjuster in a state known for brazen insurance scams. Espinosa may go down as arguably the Dangerous Don of shady adjusters in Florida annals.

Espinosa was an independent (or “public”) adjuster. He made his living by earning a percent of insurance payouts he helped line up for client homeowners via his firm Nationwide Adjusters. The bigger the damage, the fatter his insurance take — around 30 percent of the payout.

So Espinosa inflated claims like a hot-air balloon, typically manufacturing damage. An insurance insider, knew how insurers and policies worked — and how to game the insurance system like Picasso colored canvasses.

He paid a squadron of marketers to recruit homeowners. Fires were set and pipes clogged. Great care was taken to make it look like an accident — and Espinosa then pushed the insurers hard for large claims payouts.

Free kitchens lured homeowners
Homeowners gladly signed onboard, egged by the lure of free kitchen or home remodeling, all paid for by their unsuspecting insurers.

The ring decided in advance whether faking fire or water damage would earn a bigger claim. The arsons resembled electrical, kitchen and vehicle fires in homes or garages. The water damage was rigged to look like faulty water lines or clogged sewer lines. In one case, Espinosa and a crony clogged a drain by stuffing small children’s dolls into it. The claim sought more than $200,000 in kitchen-flood damages.

In another case Espinosa placed bed sheets, stuffed animals and clothing under a Christmas tree and ignited the pile with a propane torch. “Wow! Look at my masterpiece!” Espinoza told a cohort while watching the fire spread. The fire earned a payout of more than $317,000.

Another home absorbed fire damage thusly: Espinosa went to a grocery store, bought a frying pan, lard and croquettes. He put half the lard in a frying pan and then used a paper towel to spread lard on the kitchen cabinets. He told the homeowner to wait a few days, cook croquettes and leave the stove on. But a temperature switch on the oven prevented the fire. Espinosa then returned, bought a new stove, installed it and told the homeowner the same thing.

This time it worked. The insurer paid nearly $400,000.

Rigged power strips, loosened pipes
In yet other cases, an electrician rigged power strips to look like they shorted and started fires.

A homeowner in South Miami-Dade had Esponosa’s people loosen a pipe under the sink of the bathroom in master bedroom, then let the water run. And to speed up the damage, the men also used a garden hose.

Then there was the yellow-hammer dodge. Espinosa and a trusted employee arrived at Angela Frye’s home, where a small kitchen fire had occurred the day before. She’d collect much more if just one tile also was damaged, they said. So Espinosa smashed the floor with a frying pan, then with a yellow hammer. He hid the dodge behind a cover story about a dropped plate. The actual damages amounted to about $9,000, though Espinosa enlarged the claim into a $70,000 insurance haul.

Espinosa hid his plot by spreading the damage claims among numerous insurers. That way, no single insurer would easily see a pattern worth investigating. At least 14 insurers were bilked by more than 50 inflated claims.

The plots grew so brazen that the state CFO, Fire Marshall and other agencies launched two fullscale probes called Operation Flames and Flood l and ll. Insurers also provided plenty of evidence and investigative firepower.

The years-long probes finally cracked open Espinosa’s ring. Yet even while languishing in prison after his arrest, he plotted with a fellow inmate to hire a hitman and rub out the prosecutor. The courtroom wizard was Laura Uriarte, who earned the Coalition’s Prosecutor of the Year Award in part for taking down Espinosa and his ring.

The kill plot fizzled. Still, Espinosa was beached for 20 years in state prison for numerous major charges, including racketeering and insurance fraud. In the end, Operation Flames and Floods flamed out Espinosa’s legendary fraud plot.