Crashes called part of their plan

Boxer Frank Houghtaling, five relatives accused of staging auto accidents, collecting insurance

BRENDAN LYONS and MICHELE MORGAN BOLTON Staff Writers
Section: Main,  Page: A1

Date: Thursday, March 16, 2006

ALBANY - A well-known area prizefighter and five of his relatives were described Wednesday as a suburban organized crime family who staged hundreds of fake automobile crashes over 15 years that authorities said yielded as much as $750,000 in phony insurance payouts.


Frank Houghtaling, his wife, sister, brother, sister-in-law and father were arrested and charged in a 37-count sealed indictment on charges that included enterprise corruption, insurance fraud, falsifying business records, grand larceny and conspiracy. The family members were rounded up at their homes early Wednesday by members of an auto fraud task force that began investigating them two years ago. More arrests are expected, authorities said.


The group allegedly thrived for years by collecting relatively small insurance payments for crashes they had caused. They would pick out victims, including elderly and drunken drivers, at mall parking lots and other locations and then initiate a crash in which the other person would be blamed, authorities said.


The probe started in early 2004, when Albany detectives were tipped by a downstate insurance company about a series of suspicious claims from accidents involving rented U-Haul trucks. Albany Police Officer Pat Fox, a member of the task force, headed that investigation, and it led to a small group of individuals who had been staging crashes.


"We started taking a look at all the people involved," said Assistant Albany Police Chief Steve Krokoff, who oversees the city's detective division. "They were a little group unto themselves ... but they learned their method of operation from the Houghtalings."


Houghtaling, 32, of 337 Sand Creek Road in Colonie, is a welterweight champion who is scheduled to headline a fight card at the Washington Avenue Armory on Friday night.


He is also a New York State Thruway employee, a member of the Air National Guard and an Army veteran.


Lisa Elovich, the event's promoter, said Houghtaling's arrest should not derail his fight against a former Canadian champion, Hercules Kyvelos.


"The fight will go on," Elovich said. "I know Frank wants to fight."


Tim Donovan, a spokesman for the New York State Athletic Commission, said late Wednesday that no decision has been made on Houghtaling's fight status.


The family members were arraigned simultaneously before Albany County Judge Stephen W. Herrick.


Attorney John J. Kelleher represented all six defendants at their arraignments. He urged Herrick to allow Frank Houghtaling to get out on bail: "He is on a card where scores of people have invested considerable amounts of money. Many people are depending on him."


Houghtaling was released on $20,000 bail. The others were released on bail amounts ranging from $5,000 to $30,000.


"The entire Houghtaling family is looking forward to their day in court," Kelleher said.


Wednesday's indictment was based on nine incidents involving fraudulent payouts of about $150,000. But prosecutors said the family collected nearly five times that amount over a decade and a half based on hundreds of staged incidents.


Also charged on Wednesday were Joseph Houghtaling, 36, and his wife, Renee Houghtaling, 34, of 26 Reynolds St., Colonie. The couple, who have three young children, are co-owners of Joe's Maintenance Service, which has contracts to plow and landscape KFC franchises.


Renee Houghtaling, the bookkeeper for the business, is the twin sister of Frank Houghtaling's wife, Rhonda, the mother of two children.


Brenda Warner, 38, a nine-year Albany County Sheriff's Department paramedic, is the Houghtalings' sister. She was charged with four counts of insurance fraud, conspiracy, grand larceny and falsifying business records. Sheriff's officials immediately suspended her from her job pending an internal review.


Warner, who lives with Joseph Houghtaling and his family in Colonie, is a former acquaintance of Bethlehem Police Chief Louis Corsi, whose agency took part in the investigation, authorities said.


"We had dinner a couple times. It's nothing serious," Corsi said. "I'm just as surprised about this as anybody else. I haven't had any contact with her and I don't intend to while the matter is before the court."


Sources close to the investigation said Corsi had no idea Warner was a target in the investigation and that she had kept her alleged role a secret.


Also charged was their father, Alfred Houghtaling, 59, of 12 Locust Road, Selkirk, a 20-year truck driver for Baker Commodities.


Albany County District Attorney David Soares said numerous police agencies took part in the investigation. "Cases like these ... drive the (consumer) rates up for all of us," he said.


Assistant District Attorney Brad Sherman and Charlie Arsenault, a district attorney's in vestigator, traveled to South Carolina, Kentucky, Vermont and across New York to examine claims the Houghtaling family had submitted, Soares said.


Sherman played a June 14, 2005, surveillance videotape from the Washington Avenue Extension Wal-Mart in Albany that showed Joseph Houghtaling allegedly lying in wait for an elderly shopper.


As the woman pulled out of her parking space, the video shows Houghtaling apparently gunning the gas of his Chevrolet pickup truck and plowing into her car.


Frank Houghtaling reported the accident, Sherman said.


The defendants perfected the art of insurance fraud, Sherman said. Each had their roles, whether as driver, passenger, owner, insurance holder or the one who submitted false claims. They also solicited the help of others who were paid to register vehicles in their names so that, on paper, the crashes would not appear to involve members of the Houghtaling family, authorities said.


"They stayed under the radar," Sherman said. "They'd get a pricey estimate from a high-end dealership, and instead of asking for $2,000, they'd go for $1,500. Insurance companies were more than willing to close out a case."








Brendan Lyons can be reached at 454-5547 or by e-mail at blyons@timesunion.com.