Hundreds of buildings - from houses to strip malls - could face the wrecking ball after California authorities unraveled a decade-long scam involving a pair of phony building engineers who used stolen software to craft bogus blueprints, officials told FoxNews.com.
Wilfrido Rodriguez and Ruben Gutierrez, allegedly posing as licensed professionals and using stolen software, drew up engineering and architectural plans for homes, apartments, commercial properties and strip malls in at least 56 Southern California cities beginning in 2003, according to police. Neither had the training, expertise or credentials to vouch for the safety of the building plans, and authorities are only now grasping the scope of the problem.
“There has never been a case involving alleged engineering fraud of this magnitude, ” Detective Rod Barton, of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Fraud and Cyber Crimes Bureau, told FoxNews.com. “Because this involves fraud related to structural engineering, we just don’t know if the houses are safe, unsafe or suitable for habitation.”
“There has never been a case involving alleged engineering fraud of this magnitude.”
- Det. Rod Barton, of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department
The pair duped architects, builders and homeowners into believing they knew what they were doing, Barton said. Now, authorities are tasked with reviewing every building the pair worked on and determining if they are structurally sound, an issue made all the more urgent given the frequency of earthquakes in California.
“A significant concern is foundations, ” said Panos Prevedouros, a professor and chair of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. “Experienced drafters can work out safe designs for small masonry structures, but proper foundation design and specialized structural components required detailed engineering analysis.”
Before embarking on their alleged scam, the pair worked for the Rolling Hills Estates-based Palos Verdes Engineering Company. The company, which declined to comment for this story, told authorities it uncovered the alleged engineering fraud after a customer complained about an offer made by the men in April 2014.
Since that time, Barton and his bureau have been tracking down projects that involved the pair, and have been stunned and horrified at the number of buildings involved.
“Up until then, nobody had any knowledge that this fraud was occurring, ” Barton told FoxNews.com. “We visited 56 cities from San Bernardino and Riverside to Ventura County. Our nexus were the initial files Palos Verdes Engineering identified, and then we segued into other projects. It was a lot of groundwork.”
Law enforcement authorities are working the Board of Professional Engineers, Land Surveyors and Geologists to determine the scope and risk posed by the alleged fraud.
“Evidence thus far uncovered leads us to believe there were hundreds of projects built on their fraudulent structural engineering, ” said Tiffany Criswell, the board’s enforcement manager. “Evidence leads us to believe there are additional properties we have yet to identify.”
One challenge for law enforcement is that many local governments only keep design and engineering plans on file for six months.