STEVE JAMES - THE GREAT ASIAN MALL CASE
He was not an employee, but had an office in the headquarters of three major insurance companies. The doors simply read STEVE JAMES and gave no title. He didn’t need one. His reputation for solving insurance fraud cases spoke for itself.
A new case brought James to Southland Insurance in Atlanta. No one gave notice to the thin gray haired man wearing cackles and a white shirt who walked in and disappeared into his office. The lack of notice gave Steve the time he needed to sort the claims and read details.
He found his office full of banker boxes stacked four and five high. The summary sheet read: 125 cases of auto injury claims, 51 unclosed. Location Charlotte. Assignment get open claims closed, investigate potential fraud.
Classic claims fraud cried out from every box and file he reviewed. James thought to himself, the age old auto rear end and side accident (cappers).
All the claims involved minority claimants (all Asian), the same two or three doctors and one attorney firm involved in every one. James knew such schemes success depends on many random insurance companies involved. Fate though entered the picture on this one. Southland Insurance happened to be the largest insurer of autos in Charlotte, the majority of claims were theirs.
James began to think there was more to these claims than insurance fraud. The police had involved themselves in a number of the accidents. Not unusual in staged rear end collisions. In each claim, the injured parties always included the driver and passengers in the other car. The driver had documentation, but the passenger’s addresses made no sense. Southland had tried to track down them down to get final releases to no avail. The possibility of human trafficking glowed from the paperwork, like a dark alley light. There were reasons claimants couldn’t be found and he knew why.
James had seen the pattern before. The perpetuators would put innocent immigrants into the passenger seats of cars. The more injured parties, the larger the settlements. The immigrants took all the risk and pain, only getting a small sum from the bad guys for participating. The bad guys got the big settlements. The immigrants fading back into the depths of the city, fearful of what might happen to them or their relatives.
Since he thought there might be human trafficking involved, James contacted the Charlotte police. Little was gained from that effort. Other bigger crime problems ruled their attention. They suggested James contact the immigration office in Charlotte.
He made contact with them by phone and found a willing audience in Paul Todd, one of three agents in the office. James could tell from talking with Todd that he was a career agent, a matter of fact type of guy.
James also sought the help of an operative named Perry Wong who spoke both Vietnamese and Chinese dialects. Southland knew of him and his private investigator work suggesting him to James. Wong knew his way around the Asian community. James found him to be a quiet middle age man, fond of wearing unassuming clothing. He face wrinkled and showing a long life saga with hardships along the way.
Two weeks after receiving the case, James and Wong were in Charlotte trying to find Lee Realty and Law, the attorney for the claimants. This type of work always led to where the dirt met the street, paved over with corruption, hurt and pain. This case a classic example of this.
They drove across town on Tryon to the attorney’s office, located in suite 181 of the Great Asian Mall. As they drove East the city went from glitz to low income neighborhoods to the old industrial portion of Charlotte. Here Tryon wedged in between the rail yards and freeway. Ribbons of worn out businesses and retail lined each side of the street.
James and Wong spotted the The Great Asian Mall on the south side of Tryon. James said, “This thing looks like a beached dead whale.”
The mall stretched out in a long rectangle. Its faded white sides showing the cement blocks in places and a blunt end worn by time and neglect. A giant parking lot stretched around it. Driving in, you got a sense of the place right away. The pavement cracked. The lot almost empty. A once thriving cultural shopping center, it now only housed an asian market, nail training school, small asian restaurant and a few wholesale businesses. The hallways dim, uncared for were a path through failure. Shop after shop closed, paper over windows hiding the shame. The hallways adorned by the remains of unattended lighting overhead. Down one hallway was a sign marked office, suite 181. A dim light showed through the office window curtain. The sign read, LEE REALTY AND LAW.
Southland had enough evidence to make a case for fraud, but needed the remaining 51 claims marked closed before they moved. Besides, the open status always raised the potential for more demand for money.
They could smell cigarette smoke as soon as they entered the office. The thin Asian receptionist told them Mr. Lee was expecting them, “one moment.”
She turned going into the rear office. Quickly returning, she held the door open and said Mr. Lee will see you now. His office had cheap metal frame furniture. Crushed cigarettes filled an ash tray on the desk. Lee did not get up when James and Wong entered but reached across with his hand to shake theirs.
He leaned back in his chair, “We have business?” Lee asked with a smug look on his face.
James said, “We represent Southland Insurance here to get closure on 51 claims he had represented. All with personal injuries involved. The company is concerned about these. We can’t close the files until we get full releases. We are here to offer a final settlement of $500 each to close them and prepared to order the checks necessary.”
Lee smirked, “checks? Most of my clients don’t even have bank accounts. New arrivals just trying to make it here. They only know cash and $500 won’t even cover my fees.”
James flashed back. “OK, we can arrange cash payments with a separate check to you.”
Lee leaned forward reaching for a cigarette, “All cash. I will sign a release representing them all. $3,000 each case.”
James looked at Lee in the eyes seizing the effect of a pause, “OK, we can have the cash to you by next week.”
“No,” Lee shot back. Quickening his voice he added, “These people all over, some here and some there. I need the cash right away to make this work and track them down. Tomorrow, meet me here after 9pm when the realty office closes. Come to the back entrance to my office behind the mall.”
James nodded OK. They were glad to exit his smoke filled office.
Wong said, “Not good, that much cash, night, this neighborhood.”
James gave a slight laugh, “That’s why you are here my friend.”
After leaving LEE’s office, Wong and James walked down the mall. One of the closed stores read FURNITURE. Stacks of supplies against the window hid the vision of the interior. The sound of assembly work spilled into the hallway. James opened the door and looked in with Wong. Young Asians were busy pulling and assembling furniture from large cartons. Even with all the activity there were many other young Asians just sitting around and against the wall.
Wong looked at James, “This is it. The place where they fence in the human traffic, a phony wholesale furniture firm. Easy to fit the Asians into cargo containers, unload them with the furniture. Some kept here to look like they are assembling, most going out to sweat shops, the women into the sex trade and massage parlors.
James nodded as he looked around. Just then three tough looking Asian guys with furniture sticks in their hands approached them.
One of them shouted, “Get out, this private, not suppose to be in here. No Trespass!” They continued to get closer bent on driving home their point with the sticks.
Wong opened his jacket revealing a Glock pistol in his waistband, handle wrapped with a distinctive red cover. The tough guys backed off allowing Wong and James to leave.
Outside, James turned toward Wong, “Whats with the Glock.”
“Just regular business tool in this part of town,” Wong replied in a calm voice.
James commented, “Glad you brought it, not sure it was in contract though and what about that handle cover?”
“Just a pistol skin to remind me.” Wong said. “The red lets people know it means business and me that it can kill.”
As they left, James spotted a wall of small photos with names and phone number under them, all in Asian dialects. “What are all these.”
Wong looked at them, “Relatives seeking missing family members. Human trafficked ones that were once promised to arrive in safe arms of relatives, but never did.”
There were more of the small notes than James could count.
James turned toward Wong, “Will any of them be found.”
Wong’s face showed his sadness, “No, these just last cry’s for help.”
James shook his head, “What type of world is this.”
The next morning, James met with immigration officer Todd. The meeting confirmed Jame’s thoughts that Todd was a journeyman officer.
Todd was not quiet about his the frustration dealing with human trafficking problems, he knew of Lee and his reputation. “Bad animal, low life, living off the misery of others.”
Todd went on, “Unending story, every day, every week, you try to live with it as you do your job. Overlooking the human damage when you can, but you can’t really do that. It creeps into you. And there’s never enough resources to put a cap on it. I’ll go with you to the payout tonight. You might need help. I like to look these guys in the eye.”
James shook his head, “OK.”
By night a steady rain was falling, Wong drove James to the mall. Lee had told them to enter the door in the back with 185 on it. Trash, broken machinery, empty cargo containers, stained walls marked the back side of the mall. Lighting non existent. Finally they spotted the door marked 185.
“This looks like the worst dream of what could go wrong,” James said.
Wong shrugged, “All in a nights work.”
Just then the could see the lights of Todd’s plain marked car pull in. He parked beside them and they all walked in through door 185.
Lee sat alone in his office, only a dim lamp illuminated the place. “Did you bring the money for my clients and who’s the third guy?”
James said, "It’s a lot of money and we needed more company. I just brought him along for extra protection."
James went on, “Here are the claim release documents. You sign and I will give you the money to distribute.”
Lee, holding a cigarette in one hand briefly reviewed the document and signed.
James without mincing words put the satchel carrying the cash on Lee’s desk. “Count it if you want.”
Lee looked in. “Excellent. No need to count.”
Lee’s mood changed, “Maybe it’s time for a celebration. After all we all friends now.”
James, Wong and Todd looked at each other, puzzled.
Just then, one of the tough guys they saw at the furniture assembly area brought out three young Asian women from a room behind Lee, they looked demure and frightened enough to do anything.
Wong looked at them, focusing his eyes on one. Something snapped and he pulled the Glock pistol from his waist band and leaped over the desk striking the barrel against Lee’s face. Lee fell to the ground. Wong began kicking him while he pointed the pistol at the tough guy with the girls, keeping him at bay.
“You are just another low pig like the ones who took my sister from me. She just like them. You deserve to die in this shit hole.” Wong pointed his gun at Lee.
James and Todd quickly leaped forward to pull Wong off Lee. They all moved back. The immigration officer led the girls out the door, maybe he had ones that would finally talk, help him put a stop to this scheme. He put the girls in his car and drove down to where the mall ended.
James and Wong moved toward the door, James taking back the money satchel. Just as they sped off in the car, Lee and his tough guy emerged from the office. The tough guy sending a shot after the car as they started to leave.
Wong swirled the car around back toward the office.
James shouted, “What are you doing?”
Wong pulled out his pistol pointing it out the window and fired, bang bang bang! The car swerved by the office door. James could see one of the two fall to the ground maybe hit. Wong turned the car again and spun off leaving marks on the pavement.
The car stopped, pulling besides Todd’s car with the three girls in the back. Todd stared through the window at James. He had heard the shots. Silence fell over the scene for a moment. The Glock still resting on the seat between Wong and James.
Todd and James rolled down their windows. “It looked like one of took a shot,” Todd said.
Both Todd and James looked at Wong.
Then Todd said, “lots of drive by shooting in this area, not safe, we should leave.” The cars spun away.
Wong dropped James off in front of his hotel. James grabbed the money satchel, but hesitated. He pushed it across the seat toward Wong. Take this, give it to your people, maybe it will help find the lost ones.
Wong nodded and drove off. Charlotte papers a few weeks later reported the breaking up of a human trafficking ring.
The auto fraud claims stoped, James filed his usual report at the end: “With the help of local law enforcement and facilitated by the payment attempt to victims, parties involved are being prosecuted. Supporting cast of players identified, including doctors and auto rental companies, being investigated with litigation to follow. All 51 open cases closed, documented by Attorney Lee’s signature on release paper.”
James paused for a moment then then wrote…”Our payment money unrecoverable. The result of a drive by shooting and robbery at attorney Lee’s office. Future fraudulent auto claims doubtful. Claims Investigation marked CLOSED.”