LOS ANGELES -- Deja vu swept over California Highway Patrol Officer Patti Mackey as she began to interview the victims of a traffic accident in April on a freeway in East Los Angeles.
Wasn't passenger Fabricio Garcia the same man she had talked to after two nearly identical freeway accidents involving cars filled with people that were rear-ended by tractor-trailer trucks? Nobody could be that unlucky.
In fact, investigators believe, luck had nothing to do with it.
Acting on Officer Mackey's recollection and the assistance of a police informant, investigators have concluded that this crash, and dozens of others on Los Angeles' freeways during the last few months, are part of a bizarre scam that has carried the practice of staging accidents to collect insurance money to a new, high-risk extreme.
Ringleaders and their recruits, say authorities, carefully scheme to take to the freeways in search of giant trucks, pull in front of them and slam on the brakes to cause rear-end collisions that they hope will net thousands of dollars in insurance payments.
"Every area in our division is experiencing the same phenomenon," said Marco Ruiz, a Los Angeles-based Highway Patrol investigator.
More than 20 people have been charged in five suspected freeway crash rings during the past three weeks, and more arrests are expected, according to the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.
Searches of suspects' apartments and glove compartments have turned up "wreck scripts" that carefully lay out roles and actions for the accident, authorities say.
In one case, investigators found that the back of a station wagon used in a crash had been filled with tires to absorb the impact.
In the standard routine, known as "swoop and squat," or "el toro y la vaca" (bull and cow), one car pulls in front of the truck and slows down. Then a second car darts in front of the first car and stops, causing the first car to brake suddenly and be rear-ended by the truck. Often a third car travels in the lane to the left of the truck to prevent the truck driver from changing lanes to avoid the wreck.
Trucks are the favored targets because they often carry liability insurance up to $1 million, far above the $300,000 upper limit typically selected by automobile owners, said Larry Stanford, supervising criminal investigator for the California Department of Insurance.
And liability coverage is what the freeway crash rings are after, insurance investigator Tom Sandbakken has concluded.
But who would be foolhardy enough to take part in such a dangerous con?
The answer is desperately poor Latino immigrants recruited to ride in the crash cars for as little as $100 each, court records and interviews indicate.
They are paid by ringleaders, or "cappers," who earn thousands of dollars from the wrecks.