Cases allege $600,000 in fraud Charges include phony accidents

November 16, 1992|By Norris West | Norris West,Staff Writer

During the trial of Prince Robert Odiko, a federal jury has learned a lot about deception.

For four days last week, jurors heard about staged auto accidents, fake Social Security numbers and phony driver's licenses. They even heard an orthopedist testify about tricks he uses to detect phony injuries.

Mr. Odiko sat impassively as he listened to a string of government witnesses charge that he and 12 other Ghanaians used these ruses to defraud several insurance companies of more than $600,000.

Federal prosecutors say the Ghanaians ran into each others' autos on purpose to fraudulently collect money from insurance claims. Other times, prosecutors say, they didn't even bother to stage the accidents; they just scripted them on paper.

"Sometimes we would actually crash the cars, sometimes we don't," testified Samuel Mensah of Glenelg, who pleaded guilty to mail fraud in the scheme Tuesday and is testifying as a government witness. Mensah sat on the witness stand several feet away from Mr. Odiko without glancing at him.

Mr. Odiko, 37, of the 3700 block of Elmsley Ave. in Baltimore, is the first person to be tried in the case, which unfolded in spring 1991 when Baltimore County police found insurance documents and a counterfeit driver's license while investigating an unrelated credit card scam.

He is charged with mail fraud, a federal crime. He was suspended from his job as a corrections officer at Maryland Correctional Institute at Jessup after being indicted in June by a federal grand jury.

Mensah, 33, said that Victor Osei-Boateng, 33, one of the alleged masterminds of the scheme, told him about the plan to defraud insurance companies at Mr. Odiko's home while Mr. Odiko was present.

Mensah said Mr. Boateng described Mr. Odiko as a participant in the scheme, and Mr. Odiko did not deny it.

On another occasion, Mensah said, he saw Mr. Odiko twice during the same day. The first time, Mr. Odiko's neck was bare, but later he was wearing an orthopedic collar.

Mensah said several members of Baltimore's Ghanaian community knew about the scheme. He said they would go to lawyers, who would refer them to doctors to validate their claims. He said neither the lawyers nor the doctors knew about the scam.

"We'd tell them we had headaches, backaches, knee-aches -- we'd make up anything," Mensah said.

U.S. Attorney Richard D. Bennett is trying the case himself, along with assistants Douglas B. Farquhar and Jamie M. Bennett. The U.S. Postal Inspector's office led the probe.

Mr. Odiko's lawyer, Richard W. Winelander, argues that his client really did suffer a back injury during a real accident in April 1989. He has sought to distance Mr. Odiko from testimony by federal agents, insurance adjusters and handwriting experts about the alleged fraud.

A handwriting analyst testified for the government that Mr. Odiko signed insurance documents under another name to collect money from the 1989 accident. Mr. Winelander is relying on a handwriting expert of his own and an orthopedic surgeon to make his case that injuries suffered in the accident were legitimate.

Dr. Lawrence D. Bourgard, the orthopedist, testified for the defense last week that another man who claimed his back was injured in the accident really had suffered physical trauma. He said he tried a few orthopedic tricks to discern if the man was trying to fool him by looking for reactions to back pain while asking him to extend his knee.

But under cross examination by U.S. Attorney Bennett, Dr. Bourgard seemed surprised hear that he was testifying in a criminal case instead of a personal injury trial.

After being told the patient had used a phony name, he said he would have been even more cautious had he known.

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