False Lightning Strike Claim Results in Fraud Conviction
See the full video at https://rumble.com/v3pwc0t-after-avoiding-prison-fraudster-appeals-unsuccessfully.html and at https://youtu.be/GJkFBuv4I1k
Sara Weisbeck appealed her convictions for insurance fraud: false material information and identity theft over $1500 and under $10,000, both class “D” felonies. In State Of Iowa v. Sara Jo Weisbeck, No. 22-1068, Court of Appeals of Iowa (October 11, 2023) considered her pleas for mercy.
In spring 2019, Weisbeck was renting a house from Lisa Smith in LeClaire. The house did not come with appliances, so Weisbeck provided her own refrigerator, stove, microwave, washer, and dryer. The night of June 30, there was a severe storm in the area. The following morning, Weisbeck sent Smith this text message:
I don’t want to sound sketchy, but the house totally got struck [b]y lightening [sic] last night, and there are trees like splitting down the middle …. I don’t know if you want to call your insurance and report it as part of the damage or not, but it would be good timing to do so if you did!
That evening, Smith and her son went over to the house. Weisbeck was in the back yard and showed Smith the splitting tree at the back of the large lot. But Smith did not see or smell any scorching. Weisbeck then told Smith that lightning had struck the roof of the house and knocked a window out of its frame. Smith saw a window frame lying on the ground with one pane missing, but no shattered glass was around it. Weisbeck also said, because of the lightning strike, all of her appliances got “fried.” Weisbeck would not, however, let Smith into the house to inspect the damage to the window. She only allowed Smith in several days later. Smith ultimately did not file any claim with State Farm, her property insurer.
Weisbeck reported to her insurer, Nationwide Insurance, that lightning struck a tree on her lawn, and the electricity traveled into her house, damaging her appliances. She gave a list of the damaged items. She was also asked for and provided photographs of the items. The claims adjuster reported advising Weisbeck to keep her damaged property for inspection.
Weisbeck’s claim was referred to Nationwide’s Special Investigations Unit for raising several “red flags.” Joe Martinez, a special investigator with Nationwide, took over the case and asked to inspect the interior of the home, Weisbeck would not let him in. He explained that they needed to inspect the home and conduct an interview to collect additional information on the claim. Martinez photographed the tree and the house exterior, noting that the electrical meter was still functioning and there appeared to be no electrical or fire damage to the house.
At that point, Weisbeck came out again and told Martinez to leave. Weisbeck was deemed to have refused to cooperate with the investigation, and Nationwide ultimately denied her loss claim.
LeClaire police forwarded the complaint to the Iowa Insurance Division Fraud Bureau. The State ultimately charged Weisbeck with two criminal counts: insurance fraud: false material information a class “D” felony; and identity theft over $1500 and under $10,000 also a class “D” felony. A jury convicted Weisbeck as charged. The court sentenced her to indeterminate terms of five years for each conviction but suspended the terms and imposed two years of probation. She appealed her convictions and sentence.
Weisbeck argued there was insufficient evidence to prove she intended to defraud Nationwide or that she provided materially false information. The Court of Appeals agreed with the State that there was ample evidence to support both jury findings. The state established that several of the appliances, including the PlayStation and the Samsung Blu-ray player, appeared to have functioning lights, suggesting those electronics did not get “fried” as Weisbeck claimed. Another photograph depicted a monitor and printer with functioning blue lights next to the HP computer claimed as damaged.
The court of appeals concluded that the jury reasonably believed that Weisbeck invented a fake email address to stand in as her landlord and falsely represent that her claim was valid. The evidence was enough to convince the jury that Weisbeck did so with the specific intent to defraud Nationwide.
The jury was entitled to reject this defense and to disbelieve Weisbeck’s story about the shifting appliances, and did so. There was substantial evidence to support its conclusion and a jury could conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Weisbeck engaged in a pattern of deceptive behavior intended to get her claim approved, depriving Nationwide of those funds through deceit.
Finally, Weisbeck contested her sentence to two five-year prison terms, suspended, instead of the deferred judgment she requested. At sentencing, Weisbeck argued that a felony conviction on her record would preclude her from jobs in her field as an elementary school resource teacher. The court of appeals noted that protection of the community from further offenses is an important and relevant sentencing factor and agreed with the trial court that found the criminal thinking involved warranted future employers being warned as to the defendant’s past conduct. Therefore, there was no abuse of discretion in the trial court considering this as a relevant factor in sentencing.
Ms. Weisbeck was convicted for committing multiple crimes in an attempt to profit from an insurance claim. Instead of accepting the kind trial judge’s sentence of only probation she appealed her convictions with little chance of success. She was lucky the court did not sanction her activities or find that the appeal breached the grounds for probation and sentenced her, as it should have, to spend the five years in jail.
(c) 2023 Barry Zalma & ClaimSchool, Inc.
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