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On June 30th, an Evansville man was sentenced in federal court for leading an insurance fraud scheme, which payed people to stage car crashes and ended up with losses of over $1.4 million from hospitals and insurance companies.
Michael Burris Sr., 57, appeared in U.S. District Court where Judge Richard L. Young sentenced him to 115 months in prison for conspiracy to commit wire fraud and mail fraud. Federal sentencing guidelines place this conviction at the high end of their recommendations.
According to the Evansville Courier & Press, Burris grew up on what his attorney described as the "other side of the tracks," in a dysfunctional household with an abusive, alcoholic father. Attorney James McKinley said it was a world where people live on the socioeconomic edge, and that it also happens to be where the recruits for this scheme came from.
He used these people, McKinley said, partly out of a desire to help them when they came to him with their troubles. He also said, "I'm not going to say this was some misguided, valiant attempt to rob from the rich and give to the poor, and I think it doesn't affect the seriousness, but it kind of explains what was in his brain.”
Federal prosecutors, however, see it a little differently.
Over a six-year period from 2008 to 2014, Burris and his family recruited people to help stage car crashes, file false police reports and submit false insurance claims for faked or self-inflicted injuries.
Prosecutors say the injuries in this case were often faked, sometimes by punching the participants in the face, cutting them with razor blades, or hitting them with a wooden pole or wire brush.
If that wasn’t bad enough, and although the proceeds were split among the participants, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kyle Sawa said Burris took at least half of every payout first.
Josh Minkler, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Indiana, calls this the largest white collar crime investigation in Evansville's recent history. Burris was among 36 people indicted on federal charges after a two-year investigation into the scheme.
Sawa said, "Yes, they did love him for it but he brought them in for his own benefit. There was always a favor down the road. There's always a get-rich-quick scheme down the road. I don't really see the Robin Hood comparison. (It's) more like the Pied Piper. He leads them down a criminal path. He uses them at his will."
And this is definitely not Burris' first dance with the justice system. His own criminal history began when he was still a juvenile; and it didn’t stop there. As an adult, Burris has been convicted of numerous things, including assault, battery, theft, carrying a handgun without a license, corrupt business influence and check fraud.
Part of the reason he earned those charges was because he took part in a scheme involving Walmart. He was convicted of using juveniles to buy goods from Walmart using a fraudulent checking account and then returning those things for cash.
In 1996, Judge Young sentenced Burris to eight years for a nearly identical insurance fraud scheme.
In court this time around, Young asked, "You remember that don't you? Obviously my sentence 20 years ago didn't have much impact on you. Usually when a judge sentences someone to prison, a judge hopes it has a deterrent effect. That didn't happen here." In sentencing Burris again, Young said he has no confidence that Burris would not offend again after release.
This indictment was partly a family affair, as Burris wasn’t the only member of his family to be indicted for participating in the scheme. Burris’ wife, Linda K. Burris, along with three of their sons, Michael W. Burris, Jr., Justin A. Burris and David B. Smitha, were also indicted.
Officials said the family recruited people to crash vehicles in a remote area — into a tree or other fixed object — causing significant damage. After the crash, the driver would then leave the scene while other recruited participants waiting nearby entered the vehicle and waited for emergency personnel to respond.
The Vehicles were often loaded with three or four people after the “crash” so they could maximize insurance claims.
According the federal prosecutors, some of the allegedly involved crashes took place in Vanderburgh County, Warrick County and Henderson County, Kentucky.
Staged AccidentsFraudulent Claims
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