Clarence Lee Williams said he watched in agony as the Cypress Street Viaduct collapsed "like dominoes" around him as he sat in his 1986 Nissan pickup when the Loma Prieta, Calif. earthquake hit.
In a panic, he backed up to escape and smacked into "a falling piece of rubbish," he later wrote to state officials. He switched gears but plowed straight into another "boulder-size" chunk of concrete.To make matters worse, his paraplegic brother, Quincy, was in a 1970 Mercedes-Benz a few hundred feet away with concrete blocks falling about him. Pretty dramatic stuff. But according to state officials who investigated the Williams' $9,263 in claims, the brothers weren't anywhere near the Cypress structure when the earthquake hit on Oct. 17 and were just looking for a way to repair unrelated damage to their vehicles on the state's tab.
"They saw the state as if it's going to give away money," and figured why not "just get in line," said California Highway Patrol officer Sally Mitchell, who arrested the Williams brothers last month on suspicion of filing false claims against the state.
The Williams' claims are two of 24 dubbed "suspicious" by the CHP and the state's claims adjusters, who are charged with examining nearly 400 separate filings made in connection with the Cypress and Bay Bridge collapses during the 1989 earthquake.
California has set up a special fund to pay legitimate claims of survivors of the 43 people who died and of the scores of others who were injured or whose property was damaged.
To date, three arrests for suspected false claims have been made, and a warrant has been issued in a fourth case.
About two-thirds of the "suspicious" cases are more difficult to investigate because the claimants said they suffered only emotional damage after being in the vicinity of Cypress Street or the bridge and didn't claim any physical injury or damage to their vehicles.
According to court documents filed in connection with the Williams case, Quincy Williams, 23, admitted in May that his brother's story was fraudulent after state officials rejected their claims. But Quincy maintained his own damages were legitimate. Quincy said his brother's truck was actually damaged in San Pablo in 1988 but never was fixed.
Officer Mitchell said Clarence Williams, 25, claimed after his arrest that he was "railroaded" by his brother into making up the story and admitted he was on an AC Transit bus during the earthquake. Clarence said Quincy - who has no use of his legs because of a gunshot wound to his spine but still drives by depressing the gas and brake pedals with a cane - was at home in San Pablo during the quake.
CHP and adjusters' reports said they focused on the Williams brothers from the outset because the two never had their stories straight, even on such basic issues as whether they were headed north or south. An incredulous Ms. Mitchell stated in her report that she found it "amazing that Clarence was one of the privileged few able to find a working phone line after the quake and get through to his party on two separate calls."
Clarence told investigators he reached his mother and a tow truck driver minutes after 5:04 p.m.
In another case, Adrienne Lynette Thomas, 24, of Richmond, Calif., was arrested this month on suspicion of filing a fraudulent $2,000 claim for repairs to her 1989 Chevrolet Beretta. Ms. Thomas said she was beneath the Cypress viaduct at 12th Street when a broken pillar smashed the rear of her car and flattened her tires.
But the CHP said the Cypress viaduct only fell apart north of 14th Street, and the Vallejo body shop at which Ms. Thomas said her car was fixed denied ever doing the work.