Judge orders new trial for auto fraud ‘runner’

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LAWRENCE — A Superior Court judge has ordered a new trial for Leo Lopez, once considered by investigators to be the kingpin “case runner” for personal injury lawyers and shady health clinics in the city’s once-thriving cottage industry — auto fraud.

Lopez, 30, of Lawrence, a native of the Dominican Republic, claims he was duped by his former attorney Eric Taitano into believing he didn’t have to worry about immigration problems after pleading guilty to 26 felony counts of larceny fraud and conspiracy in January of 2009.

But Lopez, a longtime city resident who also spent several years in Haverhill, has been living under the threat of deportation for months, until Superior Court Judge David A. Lowy granted a motion by his new court-appointed attorney Randi J. Potash of Peabody to set aside the conviction and allow for a new trial.

Potash said she expects the same results this week when a Lawrence District Court judge rules on her motion to overturn Lopez’s guilty plea on 10 other, less serious fraud-related charges.

Prosecutors in the state Attorney General’s office aren’t expected to challenge the judge’s decision because Lopez is cooperating with them, according to court documents.

Lopez was once ranked among the city’s best high school basketball stars, and after graduating from Lawrence High School, he attended Tilton College in New Hampshire for three years on a basketball scholarship.

Several years after dropping out, he picked up a new trade — an illegal one — as the freelance contractor who helped a handful of local personal injury law offices, chiropractic clinics and physical therapy centers make part of their millions by organizing phony accidents, most of them on paper.

“Leo Lopez is the most notorious, the most brazen and the most prolific of the runners we’ve ever investigated,” Lawrence police Sgt. Michael Simard said in a 2008 interview, shortly after Lopez was arrested for recruiting phony accident victims for one of the many “paper” accidents he planned. That was just weeks after a Superior Court jury couldn’t reach a verdict on his guilt.

Simard, who was then the police department’s lead investigator on the city’s auto insurance fraud task force, called him “the mastermind” of dozens of “paper” and staged crashes to scam insurance companies. Lopez was considered so important to the investigation that task force members went to the Savannah, Ga. area four years ago to bring him back to Massachusetts to face numerous felony and misdemeanor fraud charges.

Lopez’s capture came on the third anniversary of the Sept. 4, 2003 staged crash that killed Altagracia Arias. The 65-year-old great-grandmother died in a staged crash that police said she helped plan to scam an insurance company.

That crash prompted Lawrence police Chief John Romero to assemble a task force that included Lawrence police detectives working with the industry-funded Insurance Fraud Bureau of Massachusetts, prosecutors in Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett’s office, the attorney general’s office and fraud investigators from a handful of insurance companies doing business in Lawrence.

“I wanted to become a government informant in order to obtain a better arrangement for probation from the prosecutor as a compromise on my cases,” Lopez said in an affidavit filed with court documents seeking a new trial. “However, Attorney Taitano refused to conference that issue with the prosecutor,” Lopez wrote, adding that Taitano and Lawrence attorney Socrates De La Cruz, whose law practices share the same address, “acted together to dissuade me from resolving my cases in this manner.”

Taitano could not be reached for comment. A phone message left at the Merrimack Street law suite he shares with De La Cruz went unanswered. The two lawyers once worked together as prosecutors in the Essex County District Attorney’s Office.

De La Cruz was among eight people indicted by an Essex County grand jury in April 2008 following an insurance fraud investigation initiated by state Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office. A judge later dismissed the charges against De La Cruz.

In her motion seeking a new trial, Potash alleges that Taitano was involved in a conflict of interest and several other ethical violations and should not have been representing Lopez.

“Attorney Taitano was a suspect in the same fraud cases involving professional attorneys and chiropractors in the insurance fraud scheme in the Lawrence area which forms the basis of the charges against the defendant (Lopez) …,” Potash wrote.

Judge Lowy granted Potash’s motion for a new trial Sept. 13 after ordering an evidentiary hearing to determine whether Lopez was prejudiced by Taitano’s ineffective representation.

“At the very least, the result of a hung jury established that the evidence against Lopez is not overwhelming,” Lowy noted.

But the judge’s four-page ruling supported much of Potash’s argument,

“Given the fact that Lopez’s first trial resulted in a hung jury and he had viable options of either going to trial again or cooperating with the Commonwealth and structuring a conviction and sentence that would have avoided deportation, he has established that had he not entered into the plea agreement there would have been a reasonable probability of a different immigration outcome,” Lowy said. “Therefore, Lopez has proven that he was prejudiced by his counsel’s ineffective assistance.”

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