NEW ORLEANS — Federal authorities secured three more guilty pleas Wednesday in their ambitious case against several criminal groups who intentionally staged accidents with 18-wheelers in order to collect from fraudulent lawsuits.
The defendants, joining a growing list of scam artists who have already pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the government, include a ringleader who worked directly with local attorneys to carry out the high-risk schemes.
Roderick Hickman, 49, of Baton Rouge, was described by the U.S. Attorney’s office as an organizer who worked with local accident attorneys to pack cars with passengers and intentionally sideswipe tractor trailers, mostly in eastern New Orleans.
Hickman, along with Bernell Gale, 43, of Raceland, and Troy Smith, 56, of Houma, pleaded guilty to mail fraud for their roles in the scam.
In a press release, authorities referred to Hickman as playing key roles as a “slammer” for intentionally ramming into the trucks, and as a “spotter” for pretending to be a witness to a accidents staged by others.
Hickman joins another key defendant Damian Labeaud as potential key witnesses for the government as the investigation zeroes in attorneys who have been implicated in the long-running scam.
The sprawling case took on added urgency when a third key government witness, alleged ringleader Cornelius Garrison, was fatally shot four days after his own indictment was announced in September. The FBI jumped into the murder investigation alongside the New Orleans Police Department, but that murder remains unsolved.
In four related indictments, federal prosecutors have now named 31 defendants, more than a dozen of whom have pleaded guilty. Aside from the alleged organizers who worked directly with attorneys, most of the defendants are low-level players who were passengers in the accidents who went on to file injury lawsuits. According to the feds, some of the defendants were paid in settlements for phantom or exaggerated injuries.
While attorneys involved in the cases have only been referred to in court documents as Attorneys “A” through “E,” WWL-TV’s multi-part series “Highway Robbery” has revealed two of the attorneys who worked closely with Labeaud, Hickman and the now-deceased Garrison.
New Orleans Daniel Patrick Keating is referred to in some documents as Attorney A, based on Keating’s phone number cited by federal authorities and civil court filings as the number that Labeaud calls in connection with the accidents.
New Orleans attorney Vanessa Motta, a former Hollywood stuntwoman, is named in separate court documents for her representation of Garrison in what the government called bogus lawsuits.
Keating and Motta have not responded to multiple calls for comment, although Motta’s attorney Dane Ciolino has professed his client’s innocence.
The scope of the fraud was outlined in one line in Hickman’s indictment: “It was further part of the scheme and artifice that from approximately 2015 to approximately 2017, Labeaud and Hickman staged at least one hundred (100) accidents,” the document states.
Hickman and his two co-defendants face a maximum of five years in prison in connection with Wednesday’s guilty pleas.