Just before 6:15 p.m. on a Thursday in October 2015, a midsize sedan collided with a charter bus on Interstate 10 outside New Orleans, according to court documents.
The wreck yielded several personal injury lawsuits and a $677,500 settlement for the four people who were riding in the sedan at the time of the crash, which they blamed on the bus driver for allegedly not paying attention while changing lanes, officials say.
But investigators soon discovered there was a major hiccup: It wasn’t the bus driver’s fault.
The whole accident, in fact, was staged by the driver of the sedan and his passengers in a ruse to defraud the bus company and its insurer, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Orleans said. Now one of the passengers has admitted her role in the alleged scheme.
Chandrika Brown, 30, of New Orleans pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to commit mail fraud in the Eastern District of Louisiana on Wednesday, Nov. 17.
Brown faces up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000 when she’s sentenced Feb. 16.
“Ms. Brown deeply regrets her involvement in the accident claim giving rise to her guilty plea,” her attorney Warren McKenna III told McClatchy News. “Although she was involved in only one accident and received less than 1 percent of the total accident claim, she realizes any false claim that she made is wrong.”
According to federal court filings, the wreck on Oct. 15, 2015, was one of more than 50 accidents staged by Cornelius Garrison, who prosecutors sometimes referred to as the “slammer.”
Garrison was charged alongside Brown and several other alleged co-conspirators in a September 2020 indictment. He is accused of frequently staging wrecks on I-10 between Slidell and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the targets of which were typically commercial vehicles. Prosecutors said he tried to hit the commercial vehicles in their blind spots while they were changing lanes.
According to the indictment, Garrison “preferred to stage the accidents at night so that there were fewer potential witnesses” and told his passengers to call 911. He often exited the car on the passenger side so as not to be seen by the other driver.
Prosecutors said Garrison was paid more than $150,000 to stage the accidents by an unnamed person, who also instructed him to avoid any roadways patrolled by the Louisiana State Police.
The wreck Brown is accused of helping to orchestrate began as a ploy between Garrison and a woman named Doniesha Gibson, according to documents filed with her plea agreement. Gibson’s car was in the shop and she needed money when Garrison approached her about staging an accident, prosecutors said.
Gibson then reportedly recruited Brown and another friend, Ishais Price, to help.
On the day in question, the trio picked up Garrison in Gibson’s 2014 Dodge Avenger, court documents state. Prosecutors said Gibson’s child was in the car, which she reportedly let Garrison drive.
At 6:13 p.m., Garrison spotted a Hotard bus driving east on I-10 near Interstate 510, just east of New Orleans. Prosecutors said Garrison then “intentionally collided” with the charter bus.
Garrison and Gibson swapped seats immediately afterward, according to court documents, and the police were called to report an accident.
Officers with the New Orleans Police Department reportedly arrived on the scene just before 6:30 p.m.
“Shortly thereafter, Gibson falsely reported to the NOPD that she had been the driver of the Dodge Avenger and that the Hotard bus struck her vehicle while it was changing lanes,” the government said.
Garrison instructed the passengers to feign injury, and Gibson and Brown went so far as to seek medical attention “even though neither of them were injured,” prosecutors said.
Soon after the accident, Garrison, Gibson, Brown and Price filed personal injury lawsuits against Hotard, its parent company and their insurer, Lancer Insurance Co. Prosecutors said Brown and Price settled in 2017 for $5,000 and $12,500, respectively, while Gibson received a $10,000 payout in January 2018.
But it was Garrison who received the bulk of the settlement funds — $650,000 — in August 2018, prosecutors said.
It wasn’t immediately clear how investigators caught on to the alleged scheme, though the government said Brown is the 29th person to be convicted. Prosecutors said she made “incriminating statements” in an interview with the FBI last year.
Prosecutors said they also had “video evidence from the Hotard bus showing the Dodge Avenger intentionally strike the bus” and “eye-witness testimony from the occupants of the Hotard bus.”
Gibson previously pleaded guilty and is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 2, court documents show.