Friday, 31 March 2006 09:00

CA shop owner found innocent of fraud charges

Yohannes "John" Mesfine feels like he has been through hell and back - compliments of the California Department of Insurance (DOI) and the San Mateo County DA's office. Mesfine, owner of Mesfine Auto Body & Paint in Redwood City, California, was arrested in February 2005 and charged with insurance fraud in a sting operation run by the Department of Insurance. 

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Yohannes "John" Mesfine spent a year clearing his name after being entrapped in sting operation.
Taken from his shop in handcuffs as his employees watched, Mesfine spent a year of sleepless nights watching his business decline as insurers and rental car companies pulled work from his 10-year-old, six-employee shop while at the same time he spent $20,000 on legal fees.

It all ended on March 3 as a San Mateo County jury said "not guilty" on all counts and Mesfine walked out of the courtroom with what he wanted most - his name cleared. "The whole thing brought me closer to God. He gave me the strength to get through this," said Mesfine.

What happened, according to Mesfine

The long journey started in late 2004 when an undercover agent posing as a prospective customer brought in a car for an estimate. There was obvious

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Mesfine Auto Body & Paint saw its insurance and fleet business decline after the sting operation

damage to both the front fender and the rear door, quarter panel and bumper. "It was pretty clear that the front end was unrelated prior damage, and I could see that both ends would need parts," says Mesfine. "This guy tells me, like a lot of customers do, that if he brings the car to me, he wants me to fix all the damage for whatever the insurance company pays him."

Mesfine acknowledges that a lot of customers ask for that and, if it's little stuff, he tries to accommodate them to win their business. "But this wasn't little stuff. It needed parts, and I told him he'd have to pay out of his pocket."

Mesfine and the customer stood outside on the noisy lot talking, and the customer asked repeatedly for an estimate for insurance. The "customer" of course was wired, although Mesfine says it was a "very noisy environment" on a busy street, making it difficult to understand much of the long conversation on the tape when it was later replayed.

"I tried to explain to him that insurance doesn't work this way anymore - by going around and getting estimates," said Mesfine. "You have to send an electronic estimate and a digital picture. But he just kept saying he wanted a written estimate today." The customer told Mesfine that he would get an insurance check and then bring the car to him for repair.

Mesfine says he explained several times that he couldn't give an accurate estimate without tearing the car down. Mesfine returned to his office without writing a sheet. Then the customer's wife came into the office. "It was quiet in there," says Mesfine, "but she didn't keep asking me for the estimate the way he did outside." After giving Mesfine their phone number, a claim number and the name of an adjuster, the customers left.

Mesfine later called the customer to ask when they would bring the car back in so he could inspect it and write an estimate. Again, the customer said they just needed a ballpark estimate for insurance and they gave him the VIN on the car. Mesfine then called the adjuster and asked about getting the car in for a tear down, but didn't receive authorization. He told the adjuster that he could send over an estimate, "but it wouldn't be very accurate." The adjuster encouraged him to send it over. The adjuster later admitted in court that Mesfine told him it wasn't an accurate estimate.

"Then I made my big mistake," says Mesfine. "I put in the claim number and the VIN number that the customer gave me on the phone, made up an address and sent an estimate for $2,300 to the adjuster for the quarter panel and the fender. I didn't even have any notes on the damage, so I was working from memory. I didn't even put the rear door or the bumper on the estimate."

Interestingly, Mesfine later learned that the DOI had estimated the true cost of repair for both the front and rear of the car at $4,031. If Mesfine were trying to cheat the insurance company as alleged, he actually would have cheated himself by $1,700.



Two months go by and Mesfine doesn't hear from the customer. Then, in February 2005, he gets a message in his voice mail from the "customer" saying he has an insurance check and would bring in the car the next morning at 9 a.m, to get the work done. "I listened to the message, and didn't remember the guy. I looked in my system and found the estimate." Mesfine recalls thinking that it could be a problem because he had only given a rough estimate without a careful inspection and now the customer had a check and would want the car fixed.

The next morning, at 9 a.m., the customer never showed up - but the police did. "The officers come from the front and back of my shop and arrest me. They put me in handcuffs and walked me out front. Then they made me stand out front where all my neighbors could see, in handcuffs, for fifteen minutes while they talked to me. They did everything they could to humiliate me."

Mesfine hired an attorney, Joel Karesh of Stockton, and pled not guilty. "They didn't want me to go to trial. They offered to reduce the charge to a misdemeanor with no jail time if I would say I am guilty. But I wouldn't say it. I could have gotten this over with quickly. That's what the insurance companies and the DA wanted. They want to say, "Look at these body shops. They're all crooks. But I have a wife and children (a daughter in college and a 9-year-old son) and I wanted to clear my name."

Mesfine's defense attorney told jurors that Mesfine was entrapped by the investigators; set up and urged repeatedly to write an estimate that he clearly didn't want to write. Furthermore, he never took any money. Mesfine says his own testimony on the stand was quite emotional. And the jury believed him.

"The jurors told me it was a unanimous 'not guilty' verdict. One apologized and said what was done to me was wrong," says Mesfine, who added that four jurors actually asked for his business card, right in front of the DA.

Mesfine says that the sting operation that wronged him was funded by a grant to the DA from insurance companies which then pressure the authorities to get results. "They would like to put us all out of business so they (insurers) can own the shops themselves."