Houston scammer sentenced to 28 years in prison after stealing $260,000 from man with autism

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Monday, January 30, 2023
4 of 6 suspects charged in wobbly wheel scam still on the run
PREVIOUS VIDEO: Back in 2021, Paul Yonko waved a man down, telling him he had a damaged car part. He ultimately scammed the man into paying Tonko hundreds of dollars for allegedly fixing the car.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- A Houston con artist was sentenced to 28 years in prison for scamming hundreds of thousands of dollars from a 68-year-old man with autism, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg announced.

The video above is from a previous related story on a separate "wobbly wheel" scam.

Paul Yonko, 39, was convicted of engaging in organized criminal activity following a three-day trial. After hearing testimony about his criminal past in the punishment phase, jurors gave him a sentence of 28 years, officials said.

"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."

ORIGINAL REPORT: Man wanted for stealing hundreds of dollars from man in fake car repair in Harris County

The DA's office said Yonko and some of his extended family members, who have criminal records as scammers, spent three months in early 2022 swindling the 68-year-old victim, a retired man with an advanced degree in mathematics. The victim, who is diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, which is on the autism spectrum, is described as socially awkward and reportedly thought the family had befriended him, according to Ogg.

Yonko and two women reportedly first approached the victim at a grocery store and said he wanted to help by fixing a dent in the victim's car for $150.

Authorities said after the victim agreed to have him come to his house in Bellaire and work on it, Yonko and another man showed up in a white Cadillac and pretended to make friends with the victim.

Yonko allegedly promised to fix the dent without charging for labor but said he needed to be reimbursed for parts. After working on the car for several days and never fixing it, Yonko said the parts cost $750.

As time passed, he allegedly 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, saying he would pay him back.

Eventually, officials said 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 in life insurance money, as his aunt had died, making the victim believe he was about to get his money back.

Yonko finally 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, officials said.

When police arrived, Yonko reportedly led them on a chase until he crashed the truck. He was arrested with two pistols, a crack pipe, and multiple stolen credit cards.

According to the DA's office, jail call recordings were played for the jurors and revealed Yonko bragging that he had taken more than $200,000 from the victim and urged his family members to keep collecting money.

After investigators heard the recorded calls, they pieced together what was happening and told the victim to stop giving the con artists money.

Officials said none of the money was recorded, and the cases against the four other people involved 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," Assistant District Attorney Sheila Hansel said.

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 and defraud them of hundreds and even thousands of dollars.

RELATED: Wobbly wheel scam hits 50 victims in SW Houston: Police

"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."