Cop, lawyer, charged in car insurance fraud scheme

Posted: April 19, 2011

A Philadelphia police officer, a personal injury lawyer, seven auto damage appraisers and the owner and the manager of a Philadelphia collision repair shop have been charged in an insurance fraud scheme prosecutors say netted them millions over four years.

The charges were announced this morning by District Attorney Seth Williams and Deputy Police Commissioner Richard Ross at a Center City news conference.

"This is not a victimless crime," Williams said. "All Philadelphia consumers are affected."

Among the 11 charged as a result of the 13-month undercover investigation of University Collision Centers by the DA's Insurance Fraud Unit were:

- Philadelphia police officer Gary Cottrell, 44, a 15-year veteran of the force assigned to the 14th District in Germantown and Chestnut Hill. Cottrell allegedly was a "wreck chaser" who traveled throughout the city in uniform to direct accident victims to Univerity Collision.

- Michael Wolf, 52, of Phoenixville, Chester County, a lawyer with a Philadelphia practice. Wolf allegedly advised University Collision's owner in the fraud and also filed several phony personal injury claims with them.

- Edward Hildebrandt, 41, of Philadelphia, owner of University Collision, with operations in Gray's Ferry and Manayunk.

- David Coleman, 41, of Chadds Ford, Chester County, identified as manager of University Collision.

The seven vehicle damage appraisers included four from Philadelphia, two from Cherry Hill and one from Mullica Hill in South Jersey.

Williams said his office was contacted in February 2010 by State Farm Insurance Co. about the operations at University Collision Centers.

The undercover investigation showed that the collision centers were "enhancing and creating damage" to vehicles brought to them for repair to justify inflated insurance claims, Williams said.

The University Collision operation worked with the appraisers, who allegedly inflated damage appraisals in exchange for cash kickbacks, Williams said.

Assistant District Attorney David Augenbraun, of the Insurance Fraud Unit, said Cottrell allegedly pocketed 20-percent cash kickbacks for each customer he directed to University Collision and also filed false damage claims for some of his own cars.

Augenbraun said Cottrell was arrested this morning at his home; the other 10 are expected to surrender or be arrested over the next week.

Although investigators are still working to estimate the amount of the operations illegal proceeds, Augenbraun said some of the kickbacks paid were as high as $1,000.


Contact Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985 or jslobodzian@phillynews.com.

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