Jury selection began Wednesday for the federal fraud trial of a Hawthorne man accused of intentionally driving his two severely autistic sons off a pier at the Port of Los Angeles to collect on accidental death policies.

Ali Elmezayen faces nearly two dozen counts, including mail and wire fraud, aggravated identity theft and money laundering, in connection with the alleged scheme to defraud insurance companies.

More than 200 perspective jurors arrived at the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles Wednesday morning to begin the selection process, which is expected to last for two days or longer.

Elmezayen, 44, allegedly drove a car with his domestic partner and two youngest children off a wharf at the Port of Los Angeles on April 9, 2015, and escaped by swimming out the open driver’s side window. His partner, who did not know how to swim, survived when a nearby fisherman threw her a flotation device, but the two children were unable to escape the car and drowned.

The defendant has been charged by Los Angeles County prosecutors with the deaths of his 13-year-old son, Elhassan, and his 8-year-old son, Abdelkrim, along with the attempted murder of his partner, but the federal case will proceed first.

The defense is expected to argue that what happened was the result of “pedal error” — when a driver, intending to step on the brakes, accidentally hits the accelerator instead. Distractions, both inside and outside Elmezayen’s 1998 Honda Civic, complicated the situation, the defense contends.

Federal prosecutors allege that Elmezayen — a native of Egypt with no legal status in the United States — purchased several accidental death insurance policies providing more than $6 million in coverage on himself, his domestic partner and his three children in 2012 and 2013.

He allegedly paid nearly $6,000 a year for the policies — even though he was earning less than $30,000 a year — and he purportedly called at least two of the insurance companies to confirm they would not investigate claims made two years after the policies were purchased. Recordings of the calls are expected to be played for the jury by prosecutors.

Defense attorneys are expected to call on expert witnesses to testify that Elmezayen suffers from anxiety and attention-deficit disorders, which explain his “perceived need to buy copious amounts of life insurance on himself and his family,” documents show.

Elmezayen collected more than $260,000 in insurance proceeds from American General Life Insurance and Mutual of Omaha Life Insurance on the accidental death insurance policies he had taken out on the children’s lives, according to federal prosecutors.

“This case alleges a calculated and cold-hearted scheme to profit off the deaths of two helpless children,” U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna said after Elmezayen was initially charged.

The murder allegations against Elmezayen did not fall under federal jurisdiction.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office initially declined to file a case against him in December 2017, citing a lack of evidence proving he intentionally drove off the dock.

A Los Angeles police mechanic told prosecutors that the brakes on the car appeared to be malfunctioning after it was pulled from the water. It wasn’t evident whether the problem occurred before the crash or was a result of salt water damage, according to the charge evaluation worksheet from the District Attorney’s Office.

But further investigation by the Los Angeles Police Department’s Harbor and Robbery-Homicide divisions and the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office resulted in the filing of state murder charges in July, according to the District Attorney’s Office.

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