Joppa man at center of insurance fraud case

June 10, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IN THE STORY'S colorful first telling, Shannon Smith in her Jaguar and Darlene Hohl in her Mercedes crashed their luxury cars into each other last January, causing damage to both vehicles and the payment of insurance money to both grateful women.

But the story was a lie, concocted strictly for profit. Smith never owned a Jaguar, nor even drove one. Hohl never owned a Mercedes, nor even drove one. As it happens, the worst collision in their lives was not automotive, but with one Michael Horner.

He is, by many accounts, including law enforcement sources, some piece of work. Before he took flight, Horner, 45, of Joppa, had a Harford County body shop called Contemporary Automotive. As a sideline, state authorities say, he had several women doing a little freelance work for him involving fraud. Horner also had a record for assault, child abuse and false imprisonment, resisting arrest, and obliterating serial numbers on cars.

Some piece of work, indeed.

But Horner hasn't been around here since late last year. Indicted for automobile fraud last September by the Maryland Insurance Administration's Fraud Division - $288,000 in insurance claims, of which the imaginary crash of the Jaguar and the Mercedes was a small part - Horner vanished, pausing only for a few noteworthy stops.

In November, he walked into a Bank of America branch in Baltimore County to withdraw major cash. A teller pulled up Horner's account and saw an alert to contact police. While the teller stalled for time, a police officer headed to the bank.

Horner spotted the cop as she parked her car. He took off, racing across a field into nearby woods.

The officer pursued, aided by a second officer and a police dog that caught Horner and took a slight piece out of his arm.

Taken to Harford County, Horner was quickly released after posting a $250,000 bail bond. He never even saw a judge. Bond was posted so quickly, no one from the insurance fraud division arrived in time to say: Don't let this man go, we've been trying to find him for two months.

Scheduled for a January arraignment, Horner never showed up. By this time, he was changing states, and changing names, according to state authorities.

When U.S. marshals in Pennsylvania finally found him several weeks ago, he had multiple forms of identification and a fake passport.

Horner is being held in Philadelphia on charges of kidnapping and forcibly raping a woman in South Carolina while he was on the run.

Meanwhile, fraud investigators here, who issued the original indictment for the $288,000 insurance fraud allegations, await their own crack at him.

Before he bolted, Horner had quite an operation going, according to three women who worked for him. They have each pleaded guilty to auto fraud charges.

The latest was Hohl, the one who claimed she owned the Mercedes. She was in Harford County Circuit Court the other day, and it was a pretty pathetic scene.

Hohl sat there with dark circles under her eyes. She trembled. She looked as though she hadn't slept in a long time. She is 61 years old, divorced, and has three children and five grandchildren.

She also had a fourth child, Monica, 42, who was dying with a brain tumor when Hohl happened to meet Michael Horner.

"She was desperately in need of money," defense attorney Peter T. McDowell said. Hohl slumped in her seat. She was working for a car dealer, McDowell said, "and she met a bad guy there, who knew of her travails. He convinced her that her involvement would be minimal, that all she had to do was sign documents."

As Emmett Davitt, attorney for the fraud division, described it in court, the fraud centered around Horner's Contemporary Automotive body shop. Davitt said Horner was "the ringleader of a phony accident scheme involving high-dollar vehicles.

"The fraud," he said, "was perpetrated by taking the Vehicle Identification Number off an undamaged vehicle and placing it on severely damaged vehicles. The damaged vehicle with the phony I.D. number was then presented to the insurance carrier's claims adjuster for appraisal.

"After the appraisals were done and fraudulent claims were settled, the Vehicle Identification Number was returned to the appropriate vehicle.

"The undamaged vehicle is then re-titled and sold to an innocent party who is unaware of the insurance claims made under the vehicle's identification number."

According to Davitt, Horner worked with the women "to carry out his scheme. [They] would make the fraudulent claim in their own name and, in return, receive a portion of the insurance proceeds."

The checks were made out to Contemporary Automotive and deposited into Horner's account.

In the phony Jaguar-Mercedes crash to which Hohl pleaded guilty, she wound up getting $3,000.

On Tuesday, Harford County Circuit Judge Thomas E. Marshall sentenced her to three years of probation and ordered her to pay $3,000 in restitution to Progressive Insurance.

Shannon Smith and Janelle Wiegand pleaded guilty in February to their roles in the fraud.

This leaves us with Horner. He sits in his Philadelphia cell, waiting to be transported to South Carolina in the kidnap and rape case.

And Maryland awaits him on auto fraud charges, with three women who have already pleaded guilty declaring grief that they ever met him.

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