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Financial Crimes

Former fire captain pleads guilty to running illegal bookmaking scheme

SANTA ANA, Calif. — A recently retired captain for the Los Angeles County Fire Department pleaded guilty in federal court Monday, admitting he ran an illegal gambling business for more than a decade that facilitated bets on sporting events through an off-shore bookmaking organization.

Tod Hipsher, 51, of Irvine, pleaded guilty to a one-count criminal information charging him with conducting an illegal gambling business. The charge stems from a lengthy undercover probe by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the Investigative Bureau of the Orange County District Attorney's Office.

Hipsher, a 30-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, formally retired at the end of 2013. According to the plea agreement filed in federal court in Orange County, prior to March 2013, Hipsher's bookmaking business operated in Los Angeles and Orange counties for at least 12 years. The plea agreement describes how Hipsher solicited and accepted customers for a Costa Rica-based bookmaking organization known as Tradewinds. When he identified new customers, Hipsher called Tradewinds and arranged for accounts to be set up in their names.

Over the course of the last 12 years, investigators estimate Hipsher accepted thousands of bets totaling several million dollars. Ledgers seized as part of the case show that in one four-month period, from December 2012 to March 2013, the former fire captain made approximately $168,000 as a result of the scheme. When HSI special agents executed search warrants at Hipsher's Irvine residence and on several of his vehicles in March 2013, they shut down his business and seized more than $200,000 in cash.

"During the course of this probe, HSI special agents encountered a number of bettors who'd been left virtually destitute by gambling debts they suffered at the hands of this organization, including one individual who lost nearly $900,000," said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge for HSI Los Angeles. "These offshore bookmaking operations prey on the financially vulnerable and generate billions of dollars a year in proceeds."

As part of the probe, undercover investigators from HSI and the Orange County District Attorney's Office posed as debt collectors for Hipsher's gambling business. On two occasions, Hipsher met with undercover investigators at his assigned fire station in Bell while wearing his uniform.

Hipsher, who is scheduled to be sentenced June 2, faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

A second Orange County man previously pleaded guilty to one count of conducting an illegal gambling business for his role in the scheme. Pat Fondarella, 55, of Laguna Niguel, is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 4.