Scammer sentenced to 28 years for stealing $260,000 from autistic man

Scammer sentenced to 28 years for stealing $260,000 from autistic man

A Houston man was sentenced to 28 years in prison and a $10,000 fine this week for scamming $260,000 out of a 68-year-man with autism, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg announced Tuesday.

“This is a career con artist who stole money from a senior citizen with a disability, and the law allows jurors to look at the totality of his scams and sentence him for everything he did,” Ogg said. “We are grateful to the jury for sending him to prison and, according to the law, he will have to serve at least half of his sentence before he is eligible for parole.”

Paul Yonko, 39, was convicted last week of engaging in organized criminal activity following a three-day trial. After hearing testimony about Yonko’s criminal past in the punishment phase, jurors handed down a sentence of 28 years.

Yonko, and members of his extended family who all have criminal records as scammers, spent three months in early 2022 fleecing a retired man who has an advanced degree in mathematics. The 68-year-old who has Asperger’s syndrome, which is on the autism spectrum, is socially awkward and thought he had been befriended by a kind family just down on their luck.

Yonko first approached the victim at a grocery store, along with two female co-defendants, and said he wanted to help by fixing a dent in the victim’s car for $150. The victim had Yonko come to his house in Bellaire and work on it. Yonko, along with a male co-defendant, showed up in a white Cadillac and pretended to make friends with the victim.

Yonko promised to fix the dent without charging for labor, but he said he needed to be reimbursed for parts. After working on the car over several days and never actually fixing it, Yonko said the parts cost $750. As time went on, Yonko told the victim several hard-luck stories, including that his car had been repossessed, and asked for thousands of dollars and more than $20,000 in gift cards. Yonko promised he would repay the victim.

Eventually, the victim tried to help his new “friend” buy a car, but Yonko took the money and did not purchase any vehicle. Meanwhile, Yonko told the victim he was about to receive $1.2 million dollars in life insurance money, as his aunt had died, making the victim believe he was about to get his money back.

Finally, Yonko persuaded the victim to go to a car dealership and buy a GMC Sierra Denali with a loan totaling more than $93,000. Yonko promised he would make the payments, but days later, he was waving a gun around at people in a parking lot. Police arrived and Yonko led them on a chase until he crashed the truck. He was arrested with two pistols, a crack pipe and multiple stolen credit cards.

Jail calls played for the jurors recorded Yonko bragging that he had taken more than $200,000 from the victim and urged his family members to keep collecting money.

After investigators with the Houston Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office started listening to Yonko’s jail calls, they pieced together what was happening and told the victim to stop giving money to the con artists. None of the money was recovered. Cases against the other four people are pending.

“Yonko and extended family are convincing at what they do. We presented evidence they’ve stolen from people as old as 80 and as young as 17, and they do not care who they take advantage of,” said Assistant District Attorney Sheila Hansel, who prosecuted the case with Consumer Fraud Section Chief Valerie Turner. “You can be really smart and still fall for these scams.”

Hansel noted that Yonko and other family members had previously been arrested for their involvement in “wobbly wheel” scams, in which they stop drivers by lying that something is wrong with one of their wheels. The scammers then bilk the innocent driver for hundreds and even thousands of dollars.

“The community needs to be aware that these scammers approach people like they are trying to help, but people need to stay away from them,” Hansel said. “Do not engage with people who claim they are doing car repairs in a parking lot for cash.”