The crimes might be different, but criminals seem to stay dumb

Michael Olesker

November 11, 1990|By Michael Olesker

One night in 1970s West Baltimore, a city cop named Ron Sallow chased a dope dealer up a stairway and into a second-floor bathroom, where the dealer frantically tossed bundles of heroin into a toilet and pulled the flush mechanism.

Sallow said to himself: "I need to stop this toilet from flushing." So he pulled out a .38-caliber revolver and shot the toilet. The bowl broke open, water spilled out, and so did the heroin.

One time on Hilton Parkway, Sallow saw a kid driving a new sports car. The kid looked too young to be driving such a fancy car. Sallow checked the hot list on stolen autos. Sure enough, there it was.

Now commenced a high-speed chase up Hilton Parkway, until the kid lost control, slid sideways, rammed into something, went into

the air, and landed on the other side of the road. When Sallow ran back to him, the kid said, "Where's the man who was driving this car?"

"Pretty quick thinking," somebody mentioned the other day.

"Yeah," said Sallow, "except the kid was still holding the steering wheel."

Life was a little more dramatic for Sallow in those days. He spent seven years as a city policeman, four of them chasing narcotics traffickers. He and the late Bob Nelson were the two primary investigators who helped bring down John "Liddie" Jones, when Liddie was the biggest heroin dealer in town.

Then, for 10 years, Sallow was an investigator in the economic crimes unit of the Baltimore state's attorney's office.

All told, that's 17 years of chasing serious criminals. These days, it's a little different. Sallow's head of the claims unit of the Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund. He chases criminals. Also, dummies.

There can be no other term for some of the losers trying to collect money on false auto claims. In the last year, Sallow and the two other members of his unit -- Doug Cash and Charlie Ward -- have recovered about $900,000 in phony claims, which is a savings to everyone who drives a car.

Take last week, for example.

This guy from Upper Marlboro calls to say his car has been stolen, but that police have recovered it in Washington. The car is a 1988 Ford Escort.

Now investigators do what they always do in these cases: They examine the car. They take photographs. They begin checking old records. A claims representative named April Hutchins, who has the eyes of a hawk, notices this guy has been here before.

Last May, the guy had an accident and claimed damages for his front left fender, front left bumper, hood, and front right fender. MAIF gave him a check for $2,818.

This time, he says whoever stole his car did some damage to it: by coincidence, front left fender, front left bumper, hood, and front right fender.

In fact, there seems only one difference from the first go-round. This time, he says, the thief stole his AM-FM radio and cassette player from the car.

"Get a statement from this guy," Ron Sallow tells April Hutchins.

Here is a portion of that tape-recorded statement:

Hutchins: "Has this vehicle ever been involved in a prior loss since you've owned it?"

Man: "Yes."

Hutchins: "And was the damage repaired?"

Man: "Yes, it was."

Hutchins: "And who repaired it?"

He names a garage in Washington. Now Ron Sallow goes to state police Sgt. Shelly Clemens in Annapolis. They get the original $2,818check MAIF had given the man, see that it's signed on the back by a fellow at the Washington garage. Clemens goes to the garage. The man at the garage whose name is on the check says: "That's my name, but it sure isn't my signature."

"You hear something like that," Sallow said last week, "and you look at matching damages from the first and second claims, and it doesn't take a genius to see what's happening. He's trying to collect twice on the same damages. The only thing different from the two claims was the stolen car radio."

Four days ago, Sallow invited the man with the car to MAIF headquarters. There, he was handed a MAIF check for $4,568. Immediately upon taking it, he was informed he was under arrest for filing a false insurance claim.

Then, a funny thing happened. The man had said his own car -- the 1988 Ford Escort -- was too damaged to drive. He'd driven his brother's car to pick up his check. Sergeant Clemens asked if she could look through the car.

And, as she and Sallow looked through the trunk, they came upon a remarkable thing: an AM-FM radio and cassette player for a Ford Escort.

"Things have changed," Sallow said last week. "The insurance industry has decided to get tougher. For a long time, they'd catch somebody but they wouldn't prosecute. Those days are over.

"Insurance fraud's a multibillion-dollar business. The money to make up these losses comes out of everybody's pockets, particular with MAIF, because every person who drives subsidizes MAIF with the assessment on your car registration fee."

Things have changed for Sallow, too. Gone are the days of chasing drug dealers and shooting at toilet bowls. He's still pursuing criminals. And most of the time, he can't believe how dumb they are.

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