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Merrimack Valley

September 4, 2013

An Accident Waiting to Happen: Fatal crash 10 years ago keeps saving millions for drivers

How the death of Altagracia Arias in staged crash helped crackdown on auto insurance fraud


“Everyone knew what was going on in Lawrence. Yet, on the local level, there was no protocol on how to address it,” said Romero, who coincidently retired yesterday after 15 years as chief. “The way things were set up, it was more on the state level, dealing with the AG’s (Attorney General) office regarding prosecution. The police really weren’t involved.”

But that approach drastically changed soon after Arias’ death. Within days, police got tips that the accident was staged and learned that Arias had openly discussed it at the Lawrence Senior Center. One of those approached was the mother of then-police Officer Ricky Santiago, one of those assigned to investigate the crash.

“I along with two investigators, went to the senior center and developed information that this had in fact been a staged accident,” Romero said. “At this point, working with the state police, we were able to go after the participants criminally, particularly the two drivers, who were charged with manslaughter.”

Romero assigned two of his detectives to team up with investigators from the fraud bureau, the special investigative units of several insurance companies doing business in Lawrence, the Essex County District Attorney’s Office and the State Attorney General’s Office. He reached out personally to District Attorney Jonathan W. Blodgett and state Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly to get involved.

“Really, it’s unfortunate that it took somebody dying in a staged accident for this initiative to develop. But looking back 10 years ago, this was the catalyst that propelled us. And the results have been astounding. That cottage industry has been virtually eliminated. That’s not to say there may be car accidents that take place that people may exaggerate the injuries. But in terms of staged accidents, I would say it’s virtually eliminated in Lawrence. We’re not seeing them at this time,” Romero said.

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