Blake Keller used to own a used-car lot on 14th Street NW. He called it Crestwood Auto Sales, in honor of the Northwest neighborhood where he grew up.
Located just south of U Street, between Bargain World and Mitoni’s Styling Salon, the chain-link-fence-enclosed lot showcased an array of used autos, from older Mercedeses and Infinitis to converted cop cruisers and taxicabs.
One car, in particular, caught the eye of a then-24-year-old Ezra Krumhansl. He was drawn to Keller’s lot on July 16, 2000, by an ad in that day’s Washington Post: “DODGE-’68 Dart, auto, V-8, 2dr, GT. $5000 race eng. EXTREMELY FAST! Sacrifice $2,800…” Krumhansl had a thing for old muscle cars, he says. So he called up Keller and set up a time to come check it out.
The lot was all locked up when Krumhansl arrived that afternoon. But soon Keller pulled up in the blue Dart. “‘We had it at my place,’” Krumhansl recalls Keller as saying, “‘because we were worried about leaving it here overnight.’”
Keller handed Krumhansl the keys; he took it for a test drive. “The body looked pretty good,” Krumhansl says. “Didn’t have much rust. And the interior was a little beat up. But it was still a pretty fast car. It had a lot of power.”
Krumhansl told Keller he’d take it. And then the two retreated to a nearby office trailer to fill out the proper paperwork. “He’s like, ‘I need your license for this application to get a temp tag,’” Krumhansl recalls. “He said he was going to make a copy of it.”
At the time, Krumhansl, a Cleveland native, was still using his Ohio license, which prominently featured his Social Security number. But he thought little of it and paid the man, then drove off in the Dart.
Unbeknownst to Krumhansl, the used-car salesman was then serving five years’ probation for wire and securities fraud, according to court records. And little did Krumhansl know that his personal information would figure prominently in an ingenious, million-dollar insurance scam that had investigators scratching their heads for months.
The FBI would later take a lesson in fraud from Keller, using the scam as a case study for training insurance sleuths. The bureau presented entire seminars on Keller’s schemes at the 2002 and 2003 annual meetings of the local chapter of the International Association of Special Investigation Units.
For the innovator himself, the scheme was all about payback: “Quite honestly, the motive stemmed from an incident in my youth,” Keller, now 32, writes from prison. “Crooks at an insurance company denied my mother benefits to treat her cancer, resulting in amputation.”
Keller’s friends in Crestwood would do anything for a buck.
Phillip Coleman Williams III had known Keller since childhood. Williams lived with his sister and grandmother on Varnum Street NW, just around the corner from another pal, Antonio Luque Harrison Jr.
Both Williams and Harrison had attended Woodrow Wilson High School. And both had later taken classes at the University of the District of Columbia. Williams later found work as a bicycle courier. Harrison took a job at a local Giant Food before starting his own business, Mow Better Lawns, maintaining fields for local baseball leagues.
But both Williams and Harrison also had a little job on the side, too: working for Keller.
At 19, Williams came home one night in January 1998 with an apparent neck injury. “He told me,” his grandmother Wilhelminia Williams says, “he was in an accident.”
Around 10 that night, Williams was riding shotgun in Harrison’s Pontiac Sunbird when they were rear-ended at the intersection of Upton and 38th Streets NW by a Buick Century. Both driver and passenger purportedly suffered spinal injuries, complaining of neck and back pain, as well as headaches, according to claims filed with State Farm Insurance Co. For their injuries, Williams would receive a $17,000 settlement check, while Harrison, then 20, got $19,000, plus $2,800 for the totaled Pontiac.
Behind the wheel of the Buick was another Crestwood neighbor, Michael Antonio Saunders, then 21. According to insurance records, Saunders stated that he didn’t see the stop sign at the intersection and unwittingly plowed into Harrison’s Pontiac.
This all happened before Keller & Co. refined their crash-for-cash strategies. Their MO was Fraud 101: your typical staged auto accident with the payoff coming from bodily-injury claims. In the short run, it’s pretty lucrative. Medical expenses and pain-and-suffering costs generally exceed property damage in auto accidents, after all. And with two victims, you get twice as much cash, plus vehicle damage.
But it’s not something you can pull off week after week with the same participants. The physical toll alone would be too much. Not to mention that insurers are pretty well acquainted with the ol’ injury-claim game and keep a close eye on repeat victims. You might get away with the second one. Maybe even the third. But the fourth? The fifth? No way.
It didn’t take long, though, for Keller & Co. to come up with a more sophisticated strategy.
Just weeks after the Jan. 22 collision, Keller sent Williams down to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, equipped with phony identification, including a false name, date of birth, and Social Security number. On March 4, Williams was issued a Virginia ID card under the name Thomas Josephus Carter. Over the next few weeks, he obtained a valid Virginia driver’s license, a 1992 Lexus, and an auto policy with Omni Insurance Group Inc., all under the name Carter.
On April 21, Williams drove his Lexus out to Arlington and parked it along South Stafford Street. That night, a Penske rental truck came barreling along, veered across the road, and slammed head-on into the parked Lexus. Driving the truck: another Crestwood neighbor, Marcus Robertson, then 27. Using his real name, Robertson had rented the truck only hours earlier and paid for optional liability coverage.
The following morning, Williams, acting as Carter, would report the incident to Penske. And Robertson corroborated the claim. Williams, as Carter, would also file a claim with Omni. But this time, he would say that the Lexus had been struck by a hit-and-run driver. That way, Omni and Penske would both pay up. And how: The two companies shelled out a combined $40,110 to cover the same damage.
Now this is a win-win scheme. For starters, there’s no link to the previous “accident.” It’s a different car and, at least on paper, a different person. Plus, no one gets hurt. The driver of the doomed parked car: removed from the impact. And the driver of the striking vehicle: seated safely behind the wide front grille of the bigger, meaner machine. The property damage to the more luxurious Lexus is a heck of a lot more than with some pissant Pontiac. And because the doomed auto is registered in Virginia, where insurance rates are lower than the District’s, the scam becomes even more profitable.
Make that a win-win-win scheme, because Keller & Co. weren’t through yet. Weeks later, Williams and Robertson would stage another accident in Arlington using the very same wrecked Lexus. Only this time, they would rent a U-Haul truck. Alleging fresh damage to the already totaled auto, the duo would net another $20,000 from U-Haul’s insurer, Republic Western Insurance Co.
Williams would deposit all those checks into a bank account he opened under the name Carter. Over time, he withdrew the money and turned it over to Keller, with the proceeds going to fund future crashes—more cars, more rental trucks, more insurance policies. And Keller, in turn, paid Williams a flat fee of $500 for each accident and settlement, according to court records.
That spring, Keller opened his used-car lot, providing the schemers with a base of operations and seemingly legitimate business for money laundering. The lot also boosted the scheme’s moneymaking potential: Keller could artificially inflate vehicle values in order to obtain higher insurance settlements. Trolling D.C.’s auto auctions, investigators say, he purchased low-priced autos that looked good but required major work under the hood. Sometimes, the vehicles’ odometers were rolled back. With lower mileages, the vehicles had higher resale values. All the better for the bashing.
Once the autos were ready for wrecking, Keller transferred ownership to his alias-assuming cohorts through bogus bills of sale. And to better conceal their activities, they kept changing their identities. That June, for instance, Williams returned to the Virginia DMV. This time, using an Illinois birth certificate, he assumed another false identity, as licensed driver Isaiah Maurice Williams. Later, Williams took on a third alias: Juan Lemus.
An Arlington cop heard the crash. At 1:55 a.m., March 1, 2000, the patrolman arrived at a smashed-up Infiniti along South Nelson Street.
Finding no witnesses, and unable to contact the registered owner, Rolando Pineda, the officer ruled it a hit-and-run: An unidentified vehicle traveling northbound had slammed into the parked car, knocking it into a nearby tree. Estimated damage: $5,000.
Who was Rolando Pineda? Certainly his neighbors didn’t know him—he was receiving mail at an abandoned house on South Kent Street. Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. had already sent Pineda a check for $17,773, covering the damages to his wrecked Infiniti, when the U.S. Postal Service alerted the company about the bad address.
Nationwide investigator Ron Verwers trekked out to the house and talked to neighbors. The elderly resident who had once lived there, he found out, had moved to a nursing home. The family had yet to sell the property. “Nobody knew Rolando Pineda,” Verwers says.
For Verwers, Pineda’s claim recalled another suspicious policyholder, Trent Singleton, involved in two similarly suspicious hit-and-run-style accidents in recent months. “The MO was exactly the same,” Verwers says. “Vehicles parked unattended in residential neighborhoods. Some kind of a large vehicle, like a rental truck, had been responsible for the damage.”
The Virginia State Police Insurance Fraud Division had opened a file on Singleton but never tracked him down. Arlington police couldn’t find Pineda, either. A background check revealed only scant info: Pineda’s Infiniti was registered just days before it turned up wrecked. His Virginia driver’s license was only a few weeks old. There was no record of a previous license. And his Social Security number, it turned out, was bogus.
Postal authorities later seized Pineda’s damage check en route between the vacant Arlington home and the local post-office box to which it had been forwarded.
Pulling past auto-accident reports, Arlington police uncovered a series of other wrecks that matched the Keller crew’s pattern:
•Back on July 2, 1998, a Budget truck, turning southbound onto South 25th Street, plowed into the back of a 1998 Porsche, around 1:15 a.m. The force of the rear-end collision also knocked the Porsche into the back of a 1994 Ford bus. Estimated damage to the Porsche: $10,000. The bus: $200.
•The very next week, on July 10, a Penske truck took a wide right turn onto South Ives Street and slammed into the nose of a southbound parked 1992 Lexus, bumping the Lexus back into a 1991 Oldsmobile. Estimated damage to the Lexus: $10,000. The Olds: $1,000.
•Then, on Sept. 30, a Penske truck took a wide right turn onto South Lowell Street and hit a parked Cadillac, around 1:36 a.m. The collision propelled the Caddy into a streetlight. (No damage estimates were reported.)
•On Aug. 27, 1999, a Penske truck, heading southbound on South Hayes Street, reportedly “swerved to avoid a dog” near the intersection of 24th Street and crashed head-on into a 1996 Lincoln, around 12:55 a.m. Estimated damage to the Lincoln: $5,000.
•On April 14, 2000, a U-Haul truck, heading northbound on South Veitch Street, missed a curve in the road, crossed the double yellow line, and smashed into the hood of a southbound parked 1990 Mercedes, around 12:54 a.m. Estimated damage to the Mercedes: $15,000.
And police reports, it turned out, had documented only a fraction of the “accidents.” Insurance companies combed their files for similar patterns, and before long, investigators had tallied more than 100 wrecks that fit the profile, spanning from October 1997 to March 2000—involving more than 20 policyholders.
There were far more names, however, than actual faces. “I knew we had really hit something significant,” says Arlington Police Detective Stewart Chase, “when I started ordering DMV photographs of the driver’s licenses of all the people that we could find a report on. All of the sudden, I’m getting multiple legitimate licenses with clearly the same face.” Three driver photos, it turned out, showed Phillip Williams’ mug.
Investigators knew they were close, so they went to Allstate Insurance Co. with a plan. The company would agree to pay what everyone believed was a bogus $10,000 claim in the hopes of luring a suspect out to the company’s Falls Church office. “We needed to see where that money went,” Chase says.
The suspect took the bait. “Jose Alan Castro” (Robertson) arrived on foot, having parked his car a few blocks away. Later, leaving the scene check in hand, the suspect took off in a hurry. “This guy gets in his car and he’s going down Lee Highway, like, 85 miles per hour,” Chase says. “He blows our surveillance in about three-and-a-half minutes.”
Police eventually caught up with the suspect, delayed by traffic lights, heading toward the District. Investigators aren’t sure whether the suspect sensed that he was being followed. But he was either aware or extraordinarily cautious, because just then he pulled a cunning evasive maneuver.
“He comes across Memorial Bridge,” Chase recalls, “and it looks like he’s going to go down Constitution Avenue. He’s all the way in the left lane. Then, right at the last second, he cuts across three lanes of traffic, gets back on the bridge, goes back into Virginia.”
The cops lost him. But the surveillance net would soon make a catch.
“Juan Lemus” (Williams) was turning onto South Grant Street, around 9 p.m. on May 8, 2000, when he slammed head-on into a parked car. Or so he claimed. His cream-colored Dodge van showed only minor front-end damage. The other auto was trashed. According to the dangling driver’s-side front wheel, it was once an Acura. “It looked,” says State Farm investigator Calvin McKinney, who inspected the wreckage, “as if it was hit by a bulldozer.” To McKinney, the damages just didn’t match up.
McKinney met Lemus at an auto-body shop in Alexandria to discuss the alleged accident. As they shook hands, a task force of Arlington cops, Virginia State Police, and FBI agents were watching from unmarked cars parked nearby. Later, Lemus left in a cab. And investigators followed. They tailed that taxi into Washington, up 14th Street NW to Crestwood Auto Sales.
Investigators were watching the goings-on at Crestwood from behind the tinted windows in their unmarked Mitsubishi Montero. A shiny ivory Mercedes rolled onto the lot.
They just had a feeling that the Benz might soon show up among Arlington accident reports. So Chase took some snapshots. “Lo and behold, three days later,” he says, “it ends up in one of these staged wrecks.” Around 12:49 a.m. on July 13, 2000, a Penske truck, heading north on Arlington’s Washington Boulevard, made a wide right turn onto North 9th Street and struck the 1989 Mercedes, banging the Benz into a telephone pole. The car was totaled.
For months, investigators would continue to stake out Keller’s dealership. From the road, the cops spied suspected car-crashers, whose faces matched DMV photos. Connecting cars on the lot to corresponding insurance claims proved harder, Chase says. Most of the used autos carried dealer’s tags.
The cops also checked records on Keller. The car-lot owner turned out to have a pretty lengthy rap sheet: three reckless-driving charges, two arrests for assault with a deadly weapon, plus counts of theft, altered tags, failure to exhibit registration, failure to maintain proper lane, and driving while intoxicated, according to D.C. Superior Court records. All were dropped.
But then there was Keller’s telling 1996 conviction for fraud.
According to U.S. District Court records, the U.S. Secret Service had arrested Keller that September, acting on a tip from an Oxon Hill, Md., auto-parts supplier about a suspicious credit-card order for parts to a 1973 Ford Mustang. An undercover agent delivered the parts to an apartment on Jefferson Street NW. A woman there accepted the package. When confronted, she told the Secret Service that she’d agreed to receive it for a man named Dave, who soon arrived to pick up the package in a Dodge Colt. “Dave,” according to his driver’s license, was actually Blake Keller, then 23.
Federal prosecutors would go on to accuse Keller of purchasing the parts using the credit-card information of a Blockbuster Video customer, obtained from a video-store employee. But that’s not all. Authorities would soon tack on another fraud charge, accusing Keller of counterfeiting traveler’s checks with a Hewlett Packard ink-jet printer and a photography-grade paper cutter.
Earlier that year, an American Express processing center in Salt Lake City had received a $500 traveler’s check that lacked standard security features and showed a duplicate serial number. Signed in the name Dwayne Renfro, according to court records, it featured a latent fingerprint that matched Keller’s.
Facing up to 10 years in prison and $500,000 in fines, Keller agreed to plead guilty to a single count of conspiracy to commit securities fraud. He was sentenced to five years’ probation and ordered to pay $8,329 in restitution to American Express, plus $229.24 to Sprint to cover cell-phone calls that he had run up under a stolen identity.
And now, the convicted fraudster was running his own used-car lot.
Investigators felt certain that they’d found the source of the shady accident claims. “You could clearly tell that they were not selling cars there,” says Chase. “When you walk through a car lot, there’s usually somebody on your hip in a minute or two. Here, people would look around and eventually have to knock on the trailer to get somebody to come out. I think I saw them make only one legitimate sale the whole time that I watched the place.”
As more insurers caught wind of the scheme, many of the Crestwood gang’s claims were denied: More than $400,000 in alleged damages, in fact, got rejected. And the gang clearly got frustrated.
One day, at his desk in Fairfax, State Farm’s McKinney got a phone call. The caller claimed to be FBI. By now, McKinney knew of the bureau’s interest in the case. But the caller didn’t sound like a real agent. The voice just seemed phony, with this contrived “serious, stoic air,” McKinney says. “It sounded more like the comedic parody of a law-enforcement person.” The caller asked to “interrogate” McKinney and even threatened to investigate State Farm for “false claim denial.”
“The irony,” McKinney quips, “was readily apparent.”
McKinney told the caller that State Farm was willing to cooperate. But he referred the caller to company brass. The caller said he would call McKinney back. McKinney never got a return call. But he would later hear the same voice again, he says, when Blake Keller spoke up in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, answering a number of federal charges.
One day, investigators followed Keller home from the D.C. auto lot, arriving at his $229,000 brick house in Silver Spring, purchased at the height of the scam, in May 2000.
When the feds eventually raided Keller’s home, on April 17, 2001, a search of the premises turned up a wealth of paraphernalia: A blank and unlaminated D.C. driver’s license. Laminating materials and a holographic stamp used by the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles. Computer software for creating driver’s licenses. Two licenses bearing Keller’s name but false addresses. Blank Arlington Police report forms. A blank pad of pharmacy prescription sheets. A Social Security statement and other documents bearing the name Ezra Krumhansl.
The real Ezra Krumhansl, meanwhile, had found out that something was up when he moved to Alexandria that spring. He had gone to the DMV to register his Dodge Dart and exchange his Ohio license for a Virginia one. And since he was already there, he figured, why not register to vote, too? “Right after you get your license, they have those motor-voter registration booths. So I went over there, and the lady tells me, ‘You’re already registered.’”
The voter rolls wrongly indicated that he lived in the 4900 block of Seminary Road. Krumhansl was baffled: “I’m like, ‘Well, I’ve never lived there, and I’ve never registered to vote here.’” Then he inspected his new driver’s license. His name and address were correct. But the wrong county: Fairfax. It also listed Krumhansl as 4 inches taller. The license further spelled out: “Reissue.”
Over the next month, Krumhansl tried to track down the cause of the errors. Speaking to one official with the Board of Elections, he found out there were two applications on file in his name, each bearing a different signature. Then he got a frantic call from his parents in Cleveland. The FBI, they said, was looking for him.
Krumhansl drove his Dodge Dart out to the FBI field office in Falls Church. Inside an interrogation room, FBI agents handed him a Virginia driver’s license. Krumhansl instantly recognized his name and Social Security number. But the address was wrong, and the person in the picture was a total stranger.
Who was carrying Krumhansl’s ID info? That would be Omar Jahleel Weaver, who also had two others, bearing the names Rolando Pineda and Troy Green, when agents arrested him. Weaver, then 25, had participated in about 18 staged auto accidents, court records show, resulting in losses to insurers of at least $165,000.
His participation in the scheme would cost him nearly $70,000 in stock—his entire inheritance—which authorities seized and put toward restitution. Weaver would also be sentenced to 51 (later reduced to 29) months in prison.
The real Krumhansl, meanwhile, got stuck with Weaver’s parking tickets. “It was only, like, two tickets,” Krumhansl says, “but it ended up costing me $130.”
“Pineda was the only name that they used that was not a real person,” says Chase. “That’s one way they tripped themselves up. All the other ones were real people, some of whose identities they stole, some of whose identities they bought off the street. There were histories on these people, and most of them were minor criminals.”
Facing multiple federal charges, including mail and wire fraud, Keller pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. And so would 14 others. As ringleader, Keller would receive a stiff, four-level increase in sentence—97 months in federal prison. A year later, Keller offered prosecutors “newly discovered information” in exchange for a “substantial reduction in his sentence.” But that motion was rejected. His projected release date is May 2, 2008.
Keller has formally declined to be interviewed by the Washington City Paper. But in a letter, he writes: “Contrary to the government’s portrayal, I am a normal human being. While interviewing my customers, they probably told you I gave this appearance. That was no appearance, it was me.”
The same day authorities arrested Keller, the FBI also picked up Williams at his Crestwood home. Williams (aka Carter, Lemus) had gone upstairs to bed when his grandmother heard the knock at her door. “They just woke me up,” says Williams, then 22. At first, he “thought someone was playin’,” he says. Then he looked out his window and saw the police cruisers. “I went downstairs and they locked me up right there,” he says.
It wasn’t the first time that authorities had visited the Williams residence. Investigators had once followed Williams home from the car lot, then later searched the family’s garbage cans for clues.
Williams, now 25, is currently serving out his sentence at a federal prison in Cumberland, Md. Upon his release, slated for February 2005, he’s obligated to start making minimum monthly payments of $300 toward $1,149,058 in restitution, a burden shared by fellow conspirators. For the duration of his probation, Williams will be prohibited from engaging in financial transactions exceeding $1,000 without a probation officer’s approval.
Contacted by phone, Williams declines to discuss the details of the scheme. “That was a long time ago,” he says. “I don’t even remember how many cars I had.”CP