11 charged in alleged Philly car-insurance fraud

Officer Gary Cottrell: Arrested
Officer Gary Cottrell: Arrested
Posted: April 20, 2011

Some cars coming into University Collision Centers in Philadelphia needed a special touch for the owner to get the most out of the damaged vehicle.

That's what the forklift was for.

Modified to mount one of three types of car bumpers on its tongues, city prosecutors say, the forklift enabled University Collision workers to create a variety of scrapes, dents, and tears to inflate insurance claims.

On Tuesday, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams announced charges against University's owner and manager, seven auto damage appraisers, a Philadelphia police officer, and a personal injury lawyer, saying they collaborated to cheat insurers out of millions of dollars over the last four years.

"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 probe were:

  • Edward Hildebrandt, 41, of Philadelphia, owner of University Collision.
  • David Coleman, 41, of Chadds Ford, Delaware County, the company's manager.
  • Michael B. Wolf, 52, of Phoenixville, Chester County, a lawyer with a regional practice. Wolf allegedly advised Hildebrandt in the fraud and also filed several phony personal injury claims with his help.
  • 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, often in uniform, to direct accident victims to University Collision.
  • The seven appraisers included four from Philadelphia: Arthur Juliano, 35; Addaie Amankwaaw, 30; Cheryl Stanton, 55; and Steve Wilkinson, 52. The others were from South Jersey: Dave Robertson, 44, and John Howell, 65, both of Cherry Hill, and Richard Reilly, 38, of Mullica Hill.

Assistant District Attorney Vicki Markovitz said the appraisers were independent and reviewed damage claims for most major insurers.

Assistant District Attorney David Augenbraun of the insurance fraud unit said other arrests were likely, including of customers who knowingly allowed false claims to be filed.

"The customers may not feel like victims," Augenbraun said, "but if they are caught, they will be in very substantial trouble."

An undercover detective posing as a customer agreed to an inflated repair bill of $4,600, according to Augenbraun. University allegedly kicked back $200 to the customer, calling it a refund.

Cottrell, the officer, allegedly pocketed 20 percent cash kickbacks for each customer he referred to University and also filed false damage claims for some of his own cars, Augenbraun said.

Augenbraun said Cottrell was arrested Tuesday morning at his home. A police spokeswoman said Cottrell had been suspended for 30 days with intent to dismiss.

Deputy Police Commissioner Richard Ross, who joined Williams, said corrupt officers are a minority of the 6,000-member department: "It's very sad that all the other men and women on the force have to deal with this."

The other 10 charged are expected to surrender or be arrested over the next week, Augenbraun said.

Wolf could not be reached for comment. A lawyer licensed in Pennsylvania since 1988, Wolf is a partner in the firm of Kotsopoulos & Wolf P.C., with offices in King of Prussia and Cherry Hill.

Hildebrandt could not be reached at University, which operates from shops at 1103 S. 31st St. in Grays Ferry and 230 Leverington Ave. in Manayunk.

The company remained open Tuesday, and Augenbraun said it would likely continue in business during prosecution and trial to maintain some assets for victim restitution. The forklift and other devices were seized by police and the company is being monitored, he said.

Each defendant was charged with corrupt organization, dealing with unlawful proceeds, insurance fraud, theft, and conspiracy. All except Wolf and Coleman were also charged with bribery.

Williams said his office was contacted in February 2010 by State Farm Insurance Co. about University's operations.

The insurance fraud unit launched an undercover investigation that included audio and video surveillance, a decoy car made available by Nationwide Insurance Co. through the National Insurance Crime Bureau, and a decoy insurance policy through Geico.

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

Markovitz said thousands of false insurance claims were filed during the scheme.

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


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