The case of the staged truck accidents in the New Orleans area has taken a bizarre and more ominous turn, with the shooting death of a so-called “slammer” last week, indicted just a few days earlier by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in that city.
Cornelius Garrison was found dead last Tuesday in his apartment, according to local press reports. Those reports were confirmed to FreightWaves by his public defender, Claude Kelly. No arrests have been made.
In a report from television station WWL in New Orleans, which has been covering the staged-accident investigation since late last year, Garrison was said to have been cooperating with investigators looking into the string of accidents that go back more than five years.
Garrison was also one of the key names in the indictment handed down Sept. 18 that brought to 28 the number of people indicted in the New Orleans area for their involvement in an alleged scheme to create collisions between a truck (or in at least one case, a bus) and a passenger car filled with individuals getting paid for their participation. He was a “slammer,” a person who would crash a passenger vehicle into a truck or bus.
Garrison’s death came just four days after that indictment.
“It was crazy before but it just got darker and crazier,” Kelly told FreightWaves.
FBI now involved in murder investigation
Garrison’s death has brought in the FBI to aid the New Orleans police in the search for Garrison’s killer. As one attorney noted, the involvement of the FBI in what might otherwise be seen as a local murder to be investigated and prosecuted by local authorities suggests that the agency thinks Garrison’s murder is connected to the staged accident federal case.
“FBI New Orleans has been in contact with New Orleans Police Department regarding the homicide of Cornelius Garrison,” a spokeswoman for the FBI in the city said in an email to FreightWaves. “As this is an ongoing investigation we have no further comment at this time.”
The death of Garrison inevitably kicked off speculation that he was killed to keep him silent in the growing scandal of staging accidents with trucks to collect payouts. That sort of speculation is also fueled by the fact that of the 28 individuals indicted in recent months, none are what could be considered masterminds. The indictments refer to “attorney A” and “attorney B,” and in the latest action, “co-conspirator A.” But there aren’t any names attached to those individuals.
At least two people who were indicted and pleaded guilty were also identified in indictments as cooperating with the investigation.
One attorney who has been close to the investigation said it appears that there were two conspiracies going on, rather than one. It is possible then that attorney A in one indictment is not the same as attorney A in another. Another attorney who has been following the criminal and civil actions said while two separate schemes were a possibility, there was likely to be some connection between them.
The death of Garrison, the attorney said, “is going to have a big impact. He’s the connection.”
Although Garrison may not have been the organizer, according to the recent indictment, he played a major part. He did file suit seeking damages against Hotard Bus after an accident in October 2015, and ultimately collected $650,000.
Garrison’s role in the scheme
According to the indictment, Garrison chose the vehicles to target, chose the preferred time to stage the accidents (nighttime), directed the passengers in the car to call 911 and make a false report, and drove the car but then exited on the passenger side so as to not be seen by the driver of the truck or bus.
But what might be the most significant allegation against Garrison given the way the case has unfolded, “it was further part of the scheme and artifice to defraud that co-conspirator A, who worked closely with Attorney B, knew that Garrison was staging accidents.” The indictment also says co-conspirator A told Garrison how many passengers to put in the car and paid Garrison for his activities.
And while the incident with the bus was cited in the indictment, it also said Garrison had staged more than 50 accidents for co-conspirator A and attorney B.
In the bus accident case, according to the indictment, Garrison provided false testimony in the indictment. That may have helped him get a $650,000 check from that incident.
The only person who has publicly been identified as a possible mastermind is Danny Patrick Keating. In a RICO lawsuit filed by Southeast Motor Freight, a victim of one of the allegedly staged accidents, Keating was said to be the mastermind of the incident.
However, multiple media reports in New Orleans identified attorney Vanessa Motta and a disbarred lawyer named Sean Alfortish, who has been identified as Motta’s fiance, as being connected to many of the plaintiffs involved in the lawsuits that arose out of the staged crashes. Alfortish served 28 months in jail on fraud charges relating to his horse racing activities, his probation ending in 2016.
Harry Rosenberg, a former US Attorney for the Eastern District, said that while the staged accidents are not now, somewhere in the past the targets switched from individual car drivers, sometimes elderly, to trucks.
“These groups have moved to target large trucks because there are like whales with dollar signs on them,” Rosenberg said.
Rosenberg also said he expects the pace of the investigation to ramp up now on the back of the Garrison murde.r “There will be pressure on the part of the Justice Department to devote more resources to investigate the murder, if you accept what is on the street in terms of this guy Garrison having cooperated,” Rosenberg said. There are now issues of obstruction of justice and the potential murder of a federal witness, he added.