A relatively easy internet purchase of fake gold bars supplied a local high school teen with the means to con a handful of adults in Oregon and Washington through a scheme that brought him about $60,000 in cash and assets.
Robert Yelas Jr., 17, was arrested March 21 after the Bend Police Department caught on to the gold bar scam he had allegedly been running since the summer of 2016 with the help of a 17-year-old friend, Caleb Knight, who was also arrested. Court documents detail the intricacies of the scam and how Yelas — the alleged teenage brains behind the operation — tried to cover his trail.
The two Mountain View High School students were initially arrested on suspicion of aggravated first-degree theft by deception, first-degree theft by deception, felony computer crime, felony criminal conspiracy and money laundering. They were charged as juveniles, but Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel said he is considering adult charges and expects to make a decision soon.
According to interviews Yelas gave to Bend Police detective Josh Spano that were detailed in court documents, Yelas purchased counterfeit Royal Canadian Mint and Perth Mint 1-ounce gold bars from aliexpress.com, an online retailer owned by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. Starting in 2015, a flood of these bars hit the internet. The bars came stamped and packaged to make them look authentic and included a fake receipt from a metals dealer on the East Coast. Yelas said he paid $8 for each bar.
Yelas confessed to selling the bars through craigslist.org.
The alleged scam was successful, according to the documents, with Yelas netting as much as $22,000 in one sale. Through the help of friends, he was able to conceal his identity for months. However, once police caught on, his undoing was swift.
One victim ran a coin business, and after purchasing more than $20,000 in fake gold bars noticed their dimensions were off. He ran a test with acid that showed the bars were gold — at least on the outside. The victim filed down the bar and ran the same test, which exposed the fraud. The man told police he suspected the heart of the bars was made from nickel or copper.
He concluded each bar contained about $1 in gold.
Yelas would arrange the sales via email and text message and usually sent Knight to complete the sale, documents show. In correspondence with victims, Yelas reportedly went by “Collin” or “Connor.” However two victims reported the sender line on his emails showed up as “Robert Yelas.” The name had come up early in the investigation after another teen, known by authorities to be a counterfeiter, suggested they look into Yelas.
Police then found Yelas’ social media accounts, and learned he used the screen name “fruitgods” on Facebook. Spano found the handle used on reddit.com as well, where Yelas allegedly posted things such as “How would you launder/structure an illegal amount of money?” and “Where is the best location to hide $50,000 in your house from cops/people etc?” The posts have since been removed from the account.
Spano and another officer confronted Yelas at his house, according to documents, and Yelas at first denied being involved. When confronted with the Reddit posts, he acknowledged the scam, but said Knight was the mastermind. Spano told him he doubted that, and eventually Yelas explained what happened.
According to documents detailing the investigation, Yelas said he had the fake gold shipped to Knight’s house. He then set up deals and had Knight handle them. He said he used Knight so that he would not get caught. Yelas said he was hoping to get into a good college and thought an arrest might hurt his chances.
Knight told Spano that Yelas would pay him between $100 and $500 for each sale he completed.
By the March arrest, much of the money was gone. Yelas showed Spano a linen closet where he hid the gold and the spoils of his scam. Yelas removed some blankets and pulled out two plastic bags, one containing 22 fake gold bars and the other $7,800 in cash. He had $7,327 in his bank account at the time of his arrest, and had earlier in the day transferred $5,000 to kraken.com, a website used to exchange digital currency such as Bitcoin, documents show.
The rest of the money appears to have been used to buy vehicles. Yelas purchased a 2006 Mercedes-Benz SLK sedan from his mother for $8,000. He also bought a 2005 Ford F250 for $8,000, and then also bought and sold a Volkswagen Jetta and a Mazda truck, documents show.
The cases against Yelas and Knight are in juvenile court, and therefore prosecutors are unable to speak about them. However, significant restitution orders loom, at least for Yelas.
That can be tricky for a juvenile with limited means. Sonya Littledeer-Evans, deputy director for Deschutes County’s Juvenile Community Justice department, said the department does see juveniles facing restitution as high as $50,000 or $60,000, but it’s rare. She said the judge is required to order rational restitution orders, and often younger offenders clearly will not be able to pay back large amounts of money. However, what is and isn’t reasonable is not spelled out in any guidelines.
“It’s up to each judge’s interpretation, which could be somewhat problematic as far as equity is concerned,” she said.
Littledeer-Evans said the offender is solely liable for ordered restitution, not the parents. However, if victims are concerned about a juvenile offender’s ability to pay, they can file a lawsuit against the parents for negligence in civil court in an attempt to recoup the loss.
The Bulletin attempted to contact several victims in the case, as well as Yelas and his parents, but did not receive a response from any of them. However, one victim living in Washougal, Washington, who traded diamond rings with Yelas, posted about it on craigslist.
Bend Police Lt. Clint Burleigh said the offense was serious, and something that is rarely even seen by adult offenders. Yelas potentially wiped out life savings from victims, he said.
Restitution orders, if any, would stay with Yelas even after he turns 25 and leaves the juvenile department’s jurisdiction.
“It’s a debt that shows up for them for the rest of their life,” Littledeer-Evans said.
— Reporter: 541-383-0376, email@example.com