The lawyer who allegedly dug a hole for himself by finding $2.5 million worth of holes for others to fall into made his first appearance in court on the fraud allegations this morning.

A preliminary hearing for H. Allen Litt was continued until March 3 and 4 because of the complex nature of the case and the number of witnesses, 15 to 18 who are expected to be called to testify, according to Assistant District Attorney Charles Gallagher.

Three additional defendants in the case were mistakenly scheduled in a separate courtroom this morning. Gallagher said, outside the courtroom, that he would work to try to combine the cases. Those defendants would also appear with Litt in March.

The District Attorney's office has charged that Litt functioned like a Dickens-like "Fagin" in recruiting "runners" to scope out cracked sidewalks across the city to fake hundreds of trip-and-fall accidents over 25 years.

Litt appeared awkward in the courtroom this morning. He wore a neatly pressed gray suit, white shirt with gray print tie, and black tassled loafers.

As Litt and his attorney Marc Neff left the courtroom, they declined to comment.

Litt faces 31 counts of insurance fraud, 21 counts of theft by deception, 13 counts of attempted theft by deception and numerous other charges for operating a corrupt organization from his law office.

His four accused "runners" and the 10 other co-conspirators face various insurance-fraud charges for their involvements in the alleged decades-long scam.

The scheme - which authorities say earned Litt $2.5 million over the years - involved doctors and ordinary citizens recruited to file false insurance claims. Litt paid them fees of up to $1,000 to help fake the accidents.

Last week, Lynne M. Abraham, Philadelphia's district attorney, compared Litt to the character Fagin in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, who enlisted young thieves to steal for him.

Abraham said Litt, 58, of Bryn Mawr, has a law office at 1515 Market St., and had 14 other people in his operation since 1981. There were a total of 73 charges in the case.

Litt surrendered to authorities last week at the Center City office of his lawyer, officials said.

Also arrested were Joshua Pitts, 63; Baheejah Alwan, 26; Aquilla Alwan, 23; and Rashad Alwan, 30, all of the 1700 block of Francis Street.

Abraham said her office had found evidence of "hundreds upon hundreds of fake accidents" all around the city.

The charges followed a grand-jury investigation. What alleged tripped Litt up, and launched the probe, was an incident in 2004 in which an insurance investigator found a witness in one case who said no accident had taken place.

The runners would engage friends and relatives to stage accidents and claim fake injuries, Abraham said.

In some instances, the people making the claims had existing injuries, such as broken bones, that they alleged to be the result of falls, Abraham said.

Litt would then send them to selected doctors, 10 of whom are under investigation, Abraham said.

"Litt would file lawsuits against the banks, the department stores, and grocery stores" where the fake accidents were staged, Abraham said last week.

A grand jury heard testimony from several alleged runners, Abraham said. She said several of them had pleaded guilty in the case.

Others charged in the case were: James Guinn, 63, of Green Valley, Ariz.; Nate Shaw, 57, of the 900 block of Rittenhouse Street; and Lewis Crump, 65, of the 3000 block of Page Street, all of whom officials alleged were runners.

The others are Brenda Alexander, 43, of the 2500 block of North 12th Street; Shirley Cottman, 38, of the 4500 block of North 15th Street; Carolyn Cottman, 45, of the 1400 block of West Pacific Street; Lucille Hickman, 46, of the 6700 block of North Carlisle Street; Beverly Johnson, 56, of the 2500 block of North 12th Street; Montez Tucker, 47, of the 1900 block of North Patton Street; and John Whitmore, 59, of the 100 block of North 52d Street.

They were all arrested between September 2006 and January 2007, officials said.

Contact staff writer Dwight Ott at 215-854-2797 or dott@phillynews.com