An abusive Hawthorne man with money problems carried out a scheme to drive his two severely autistic sons and ex-wife off a pier at the Port of Los Angeles to collect on accidental death policies, a prosecutor told a jury Thursday, but the defense countered that Ali Elmezayen was a doting dad who became distracted and accidentally hit the accelerator, plunging the car into the ocean.

Opening statements in the federal fraud trial of Elmezayen painted contrasting portraits of the Egyptian native and his relationship with ex-wife Rehab Diab, who managed to escape the submerged car and is scheduled to testify against the defendant.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Alex Wyman alleged that Elemezayen purchased accidental death insurance policies providing more than $6 million in coverage on himself, Diab and their three children in 2012 and 2013.

The defendant paid nearly $6,000 a year for the policies — even though he told investigators he was earning less than $30,000 a year — and called at least two of the insurance companies to confirm they would not investigate accidental death claims made two years after the policies were purchased, Wyman maintained.

“That’s why you’re here — a scheme to defraud insurance companies,” Wyman told jurors in downtown Los Angeles.

Elmezayen, 44, escaped the submerged car by swimming out the open driver’s side window. Diab, 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.

A third son was not in the vehicle and is expected to testify about what the prosecutor contends was Elmezayen’s abusive relationship with Diab.

Elmezayen faces nearly two dozen counts, including mail and wire fraud, aggravated identity theft and money laundering in the federal case. He also faces a possible death penalty in a capital murder case brought by Los Angeles County prosecutors, stemming from the drowning deaths of his 13-year-old son, Elhassan, and his 8-year-old son, Abdelkrim, along with the attempted murder of Diab, but the federal case is proceeding first.

“Evidence will show that the defendant engaged in this scheme for over two years to kill his disabled children and his ex-wife to collect on insurance policies,” Wyman said. “The deaths were not an accident. He intentionally killed them.”

Elmezayen’s attorney, Christy O’Connor, told the jury in Los Angeles federal court that there was no plan to commit murder for financial gain. Instead, she alleged, her client loved his family but is a “kook” who suffers from hypochondria and severe anxiety — which explains his purchase of copious amounts of life insurance.

“He is massively neurotic, anxious and worried about everything,” O’Connor said, conceding that buying multiple policies is something “a normal person would not do.”

The defense attorney alleged that far from taking in just $30,000 a year, the Elmezayen family earned income from rental properties, auto sales and a towing business, but did not report the money so Diab could continue receiving $2,500 each month in Social Security benefits for taking care of the two disabled boys.

O’Connor alleged that the multiple policies were not kept secret from Diab, who had her own legal problems as a result of a sham marriage she entered into.

“She might take the stand and say she knew nothing, but she knew about the policies,” the attorney told the jury. “She lied to the FBI and she’s going to lie to you.”

O’Connor also argued that the deaths resulted from “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, she alleged.

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, Wyman told the jury.

Elmezayen, wearing a head covering, listened to an Arabic translator through headphones as attorneys made their opening statements. He briefly appeared to sob when his attorney showed photos of his smiling children.

“It was a mistake,” his attorney told the panel. “It was an accident. He pressed the wrong pedal.”

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 the brakes on the car appeared to be malfunctioning after it was pulled from the water.

It wasn’t evident if 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.

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.

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